Northern Distinctiveness, Representation by Population and the Charter: The Politics of Redistribution in the Northwest Territories

By White, Graham | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Northern Distinctiveness, Representation by Population and the Charter: The Politics of Redistribution in the Northwest Territories


White, Graham, Journal of Canadian Studies


This paper examines the process of the 1989-90 electoral boundary redistribution in the Northwest Territories and the substantive issues it encompassed. Significant elements of the redistribution exhibited distinctively northern features and attention to the social and political concerns of northern natives. However, the redistribution was also shaped by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which emphasizes liberal-democratic values, such as representation by population, incompatible with northern and native conceptions of politics. Not only did charter- based litigation limit the options available to those redrawing riding boundaries, but the very existence of the charter significantly coloured the politics of the redistribution.

Cet article examine le processus de redistribution des frontieres electorales de 1989-90 dans les territoires du Nord-Ouest et les points importants qui en decoulent. Plusieurs elements importants de la redistribution demontrent tres distinctement certaines caracteristiques propres au nord et presentent une prise en compte des inquietudes sociales et politiques des natifs du nord. Cependant, la redistribution des frontieres fut aussi dessinee selon la Charte des Droits et Libertes qui souligne les valeurs liberales-democratiques, comme le principe de la representation proportionnelle, incompatibles avec les conceptions politiques du nord et des natifs. Non seulement les cas de litige causes par des interpretations differentes de la Charte limiterent les options disponibles pour redessiner les frontieres des circonscriptions, mais l'existence meme de la Charte altera de facon significative la politique de redistribution.

Introduction

The governmental institutions of the Northwest Territories are like those of no other province or territory. Though many of the key features of the Westminster cabinet- parliamentary system are present in the NWT, political parties are not. Combined with elements of traditional native decision-making styles, this makes for a unique system of "consensus government" in which, for example, the cabinet is elected by secret ballot of all elected members, all members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) (including ministers) meet weekly in a secret "caucus" to resolve political issues, and draft bills and draft budgets are submitted to legislative committees for detailed review prior to their public release by the government. (f.1)

The basis of representation in the NWT Legislative Assembly, however, is more conventional. MLAs are elected from single-member districts by the standard single-member plurality ("first-past-the-post") system. As elsewhere, periodic redrawing of constituency boundaries is necessary to respond to demographic shifts. This paper seeks to determine whether the unique features of politics in the NWT, such as the partyless parliament and the strong native presence (like the territorial population, the assembly has a native majority), are reflected in the process of redistributing constituencies. Accordingly, the paper examines the extent to which the peculiar structures and processes of NWT politics influenced the most recent territorial redistribution. The vast distances and sparse population which characterize most of the NWT raise in very dramatic fashion the validity of United States Chief Justice Warren's contention that "Legislators represent people, not trees or acres." (f.2) Another central theme of the paper is the effect of the Character of Rights and Freedoms on the political process.

Background to the Redistribution

Although a redistribution had occurred in 1983, the need was evident for new boundaries shortly after the 1987 election. A peculiarly northern phenomenon which resulted in a bizarre, politically untenable situation made a redistribution imperative. In 1986, Cominco announced the closing of its gigantic lead-zinc mine at Pine Point on the south shore of Great Slave Lake. By 1989, what had earlier in the decade been a thriving community of more than 2,000 people no longer existed. …

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