When Caribou Culture Meets Westminster

By Ruth Walker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 28, 2000 | Go to article overview

When Caribou Culture Meets Westminster


Ruth Walker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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