In North America's newest parliament, many members wear atiqi -
cloth tunics whose design imitates caribou skins. The chamber's
upholstery is sealskin. A traditional qulliq, or seal-oil lamp,
rests beside the Speaker's chair.
Welcome to the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut, a one-year-old
Canadian territory. Here the people of the icebound eastern Arctic
are struggling to combine Inuit decisionmaking by consensus with
Robert's Rules of Order.
The biggest tipoff that this isn't politics as usual is that the
19 members' seats are in a circle. No aisle divides them right and
left: There are no parties here.
As such, Nunavut's legislature is a unique laboratory for the
perennial question: Would government be better without partisanship?
It is off the assembly floor, however, that the differences
between Western and Inuit modes become apparent.
For example, under a Westminster system, the finance minister
typically at least pretends that the budget is secret until it is
officially presented. But in Iqaluit, says Premier Paul Okalik, "all
the members had a copy" of the budget before it was brought down in
late March. "Before any law is brought up," he adds, "there's a
committee review - before it's even tabled [introduced]."
Nunavut is a bold experiment of indigenous people and a Western
government coming to terms. This land of 30,000 people, three times
the size of Texas, is 85 percent Inuit, and is partly the product of
the largest land-claims settlement in Canadian history.
"The one thing that reflects the Inuit culture the most is the
consensus system of government," explains John Amagoalik, who
chaired the Nunavut Implementation Commission. The premier has to
consult with all the members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), not
just the Cabinet, he explains. The MLAs elect the Cabinet, and then
the premier assigns portfolios.
Speaking through silence
But some feel that native traditions of inclusiveness, and of
waiting in silence for answers, have gotten short shrift. "We were
far too conservative in our approach.... We've been far too
prescribing of processes of decision-making," says Ken MacRury, who
came here as a schoolteacher in 1971 and now serves as deputy
minister for intergovernmental relations.
To build a Nunavut that truly reflects the Inuit culture, "you
want to hit both ends," he adds, developing both a representative
civil service and an appropriate set of procedures.
Peter Kulchyski, professor of native studies at Trent University
in Peterborough, Ontario, has observed the MLAs in action and found
that "Robert's Rules of Order seem to be constraining them,"
particularly the older members.
Inuit culture tends to have what Mr. Kulchyski calls "more
advanced speech ethics," in which discourse is more inclusive, in
contrast to more-traditional Western models of what might be called
adversarial discourse. He says Westerners "aren't trained to listen
to one another."
By contrast, Inuit tend to be "very respectful of nuances," he
says: Their best orators sense the nascent consensus emerging from
the silences and the not-quite-complete utterances of those around
them, and then articulate that consensus for the group. …