Breaching the 60th: OLIP ventures to the North

The OLIP interns had an early morning on Saturday, February 4th, hopping on an airport shuttle to Pearson International at 4 a.m. The destination: Yellowknife. The purpose: A week-long comparative study visit to the Legislative Assembly of the NWT to learn about consensus politics, the history and future of the NWT, and life in Canada’s barren territories north of the 60th parallel.

We arrived in Yellowknife via Edmonton around noon. The sun was shining brightly, not a cloud to be seen on the barren, snow-covered horizon. Armed with our heavy-duty Canada Goose parkas, we braced for a blast of cold air upon disembarking the plane. Little did we know that our parkas would prove to be too warm for a Yellowknife day in early February. The NWT capital was experiencing an unseasonably mild day, with the temperature hovering around -5 degrees Celsius. I’m not sure if we were relieved or disappointed by the “warm” weather, but one thing was for sure: we were in for an amazing week in the Great White North.

After checking into the hotel, we quickly made our way out to explore the city. We headed out to Frame Lake, frozen solid and covered in snow, with locals taking advantage of the warm day to snowmobile, ski and walk their dogs on this picturesque winter transitway. Along the hike, we began to chat with an old man, a long-time resident and retired doctor. He represented everything that is hospitable and friendly about the NWT, inviting us into his home for coffee and a chat. We carried on toward downtown Yellowknife, coming to realize that it had the look and feel of any other Canadian town, more similar to North Bay or Orangeville than the stereotypical images of igloos and dog sleds often associated with the North. We enjoyed dinner at the Black Knight, a popular local pub, staying long enough to see the Leafs handily defeat the Senators in the Battle of Ontario.

The next day, we thought we would take advantage of the free time and again-mild weather to check off one of the activities we were all hoping to try—dogsledding. We headed out to Beck’s Kennels and before we knew it, we were racing across Long Lake on wooden sleds, being pulled two at a time by four energetic sled dogs. The experience was surreal; a year ago, if you had told me that I would be dogsledding across a frozen lake in the NWT while the sun was setting in the background, I would have thought you were crazy. But there I was, enjoying just the beginning of what was to be an incredible week.

On Monday, we began our week of meetings with NWT politicians, public officials, industry leaders, and NGOs. Gail Bennett, Principal Clerk of the Government Operations Committee, was our gracious host. She had organized and scheduled all of our meetings and activities through the Legislative Assembly. Over coffee and morning refreshments, Gail went over the week’s itinerary and began to show us around the beautiful NWT Legislative Assembly. She soon passed off to Jessica Fournier, Public Affairs and Communications Advisor, who gave us an insightful tour of the building, taking time to explain the symbolism of the architecture and the history of the unique Northern art.

To conclude the tour, she led us to the office of Jackie Jacobson, Speaker of the House and MLA for Nunakput, the NWT’s northernmost riding. Mr. Jacobson was friendly, passionate and candid, and immediately demonstrated the tact and fairness needed of a Speaker in a parliamentary democracy. Jackie led us to the main hall for lunch, where he had an opportunity to dine with several other MLAs and Dennis Bevington, the MP for the Western Arctic. It was terrific to have a chance to chat with the MLAs in an informal setting, and it struck me as odd that all of these politicians, who may be fierce opponents in the Legislature, were sitting down and having lunch together. It was a refreshing change from the hyper partisanship and dysfunction that define politics in the “South”. I can’t imagine Ontario’s political rivals doing the same thing in this day and age!

After lunch, we moved along to our afternoon meetings. The first was with George Tuccaro, Commissioner of the NWT. Mr. Tuccaro is the Queen’s representative in the NWT, the equivalent of the provincial lieutenant-governors. George gave us an overview of the Commissioner’s Office, noting that, before 1967, the Commissioner was the unilateral governor of the NWT. Over the next few days, governance was gradually delegated to an elected legislature, and moved from Ottawa to Yellowknife. Mr. Tuccaro also presented us with Buffalo Airways toques and commemorative NWT and Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pins.

Our last meeting of the day was scheduled at City Hall with Gordon Tighem, Mayor of Yellowknife. The fourth-term mayor, and therefore administrator of over half the population of the NWT, gave us a brief history of Yellowknife, and summarized some of the challenges that the city is facing today. Mr. Tighem was a wellspring of knowledge, seemingly able to recite detailed facts and figures on a variety of topics. His knowledge was a worthy conclusion to our first day of meetings in Yellowknife. It seemed as if, the more we learned, the more we wanted to know about this fascinating part of Canada.

The interns would like to thank Gail for arranging such a wonderful visit to the Legislative Assembly of the NWT.

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