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Leaders divided over constitution

Katie May
Northern News Services
Published Saturday, Aug. 8, 2009

NWT - How does a territory representing 43,000 people, 34 communities, 11 official languages and countless cultural, social and political ideals come together to create one official shared vision for governance?

NNSL Photo/Graphic

If the Dene Nation is successful in its recent push to design a constitution, the NWT would be only the second jurisdiction in Canada, after British Columbia, to develop one below the federal level. - NNSL file photo

That's the question facing the NWT's federal, territorial, municipal and aboriginal leaders as they consider the impact of a proposed NWT constitution.

If the Dene Nation is successful in its recent push to design, by 2015, a constitution for the territory that would replace the Northwest Territories Act, the NWT would be only the second jurisdiction in Canada, after British Columbia, to develop a written constitution below the federal level.

"Everyone needs rules," Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus said. "And if you don't have rules then you have chaos. And right now we're probably closer to chaos than anything else, because people in the North have been wanting their own government and we've been told that you can indeed have a government but it needs to be negotiated and it needs to be within the constitution of Canada, and so it's been confined to a framework that some people feel may limit their abilities."

If part of the population isn't behind the idea of a territorial constitution, Erasmus said, "it's not going to work."

"It's an opportunity for all of us to engage in this discussion and determine what our own rules are going to be, rather than someone else," he said.

Setting out an official written record of constitutional rules doesn't appear to be a top priority for the GNWT right now, as the territorial government has yet to engage the feds in any constitutional talks. But, as Premier Floyd Roland said, "the future, well, that's up to the North."

"When it comes to the people and what they want to see developed here, a constitution would require a lot of work and would require all the groups to be onside, and I think the process we've established – the regional leaders' table – is probably the most critical piece at this time," he said.

The regional leaders' table, a gathering of chiefs and political officials the Dene Nation has resolved to join – may look toward developing a constitution in the future.

"We need to recognize where we're all at at this point, recognize the roles and responsibilities we all have … and build our own map, in a sense, of the North from our perspective and then decide what the next main piece is we want to get in place," Roland said.

A constitution that would encompass the territory's unique governance needs isn't a new idea. In the mid-1990s, with the prospect of Nunavut's split looming, the time seemed right for a fresh NWT constitution.

Dennis Bevington, now the MP for Western Arctic, was then the co-chair of the NWT's constitutional development steering committee. The committee's work culminated in a January 1996 conference bringing together leaders – aboriginal and non-aboriginal – from across the territory.

"Everybody agreed that we wanted to create a territory where we all had a place in it. But we also agreed that land claims needed to move ahead, we needed to have progress on aboriginal self-government; it had to catch up somewhat to public government, since those were the two components that really were going to drive the development of the constitution," Bevington said. "Any further funding for that process was sort of abruptly taken away at the time and any more work really languished. There were some efforts later on after division through the leadership process to look at the constitution but I don't think very much came from it at that time."

Thirteen years later, more land claims are settled, the federal government is taking a greater interest in the North, and Bevington thinks now is the time to go after a constitution once again.

"Having a constitution might better lay out how land claims will work in the Northwest Territories," he said.

"What strikes me in Ottawa is that if we were very united on our approach in the North, we would be much stronger in dealing with Ottawa, in dealing with southern interests," he said. "So I see it as a very useful exercise right now to start working on a constitution, start bringing ourselves together as a territory. And without that, I think we'll continually see the push and pull of other influences on us… the federal government calling the tune on a whole bunch of things that are part of our future."

A constitution might be necessary for the territory in the future – after all the outstanding land claims are settled, according to the leader of one of the territory's only self-governing regions.

Tlicho Grand Chief George Mackenzie said discussing the particulars of a possible constitution this early in the game would be unfair to regions that haven't settled their land claims yet.

"When everybody has settled their land claims, then it's a good time to talk about the NWT constitution," Mackenzie said.

"When it comes to talking about the constitution, I would have to be very clear and careful – what kind of power are we giving away, or what kind of power are we transferring? Because the aboriginal world (was) here first and they have to be recognized with their constitution if they develop one for their own, like Tlicho government has done. Until that happens, we cannot talk about the constitution, because who were the landowners first? I think they have to be considered first."

Regardless of whether constitutional discussions come before or after land claim settlements, there are plenty of things the territory needs before it needs a constitution, the founding chief of the Inuvik Dene band said.

Cece Hodgson-McCauley predicts people of the NWT "won't pay any attention" to leaders' constitutional conversations.

"We're trying to get a highway, we're trying to develop the North so we can be part of the world, and they're wasting their time," she said.

"If they want to have self-government and a new constitution, what they should have done is educate themselves and take over territorial government jobs and infiltrate the territorial government; then they'd have self-government. That's our government. Just get in there and take some of the jobs."