All our meetings Yellowknife enlightened us to issues or themes present in the territorial level. We were excited to explore municipal governance and to that end, we met with Mayor Heyck, the 14th mayor of Yellowknife.
Mayor Heyck walked us through his journey which led him to run for public office. Completing his studies in McGill University, he developed an interest in politics and sustainability. When he returned to Yellowknife, he ran for city council in order to create positive change for Yellowknife and the sustainability issues the city was facing. His love for municipal politics stems from the ability to create change in a relatively short period of time. We were very surprised to learn that Yellowknife operates using an “at-large” system which means that the people of Yellowknife vote for all the councillors, as opposed to a “ward” system where voters in the ward vote for their respective councillor. Mayor Heyck argued that positive aspect of the large system allows councillors to plan and make decisions for the city as a whole.
Mayor Heyck walked us through some of his accomplishments as Mayor. This includes (but is not limited to): overseeing the adoption of Yellowknife’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, economic development and tourism strategies and advocacy bringing issues forward to the Territorial and federal levels. Mayor Heyck was very proud of how Yellowknife was recently awarded the 2018 Sustainable Communities Award in the energy category from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities — recognizing the wood pellet heating heating system Yellowknife implemented.
After our meeting, we were surprised to learn Mayor Heyck announcing he will not seek re-election. Thank you for meeting with us Mayor Heyck and we wish you the best of luck with what comes next!
Fun Fact: Did you know one of Yellowknife’s sister cities is The Sakha (Yakutia) Republic, a Russian port city in Eastern Sibera?
The Northwest Territories are unique among Canada’s three territories in that it has an almost equal split in its population between Indigenous and settler peoples. The relationship between and within these two groups is complicated by the population distribution: the 32 remote communities are most overwhelmingly indigenous, whereas most Yellowknifers are descended from settlers or moved to the NWT from southern Canada. Furthermore, the NWT is a dynamic and evolving environment for government. As Dene, Inuit, and Métis Nations negotiate and implement comprehensive land claims with the government of Canada, some observers suggest that the governance structure of the NWT increasingly resembles a “federation within a federation.”
As part of our OLIP cohort’s commitment to better understand and contribute to the hard work of Indigenous Reconciliation in Canada, and to hear from diverse First Nations, Métis, and Inuit voices about their own experiences, we were eager to take full advantage of our trip to Yellowknife. Although visiting Yellowknife to learn about the NWT is akin to visiting Toronto to learn all about Ontario, we were fortunate to speak with many people about the challenges (and unique opportunities) for governance in the north.
One of the first meetings we had in Yellowknife was with Shaleen Woodward, Acting Deputy Minister of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Intergovernmental Relations. Ms. Woodward began by noting how it was appropriate that these two portfolios were united in one department. The Government of the NWT recognizes that working with Dene, Métis, and Inuit communities must involve a respectful intergovernmental approach. For example, Ms. Woodward explained the importance of joint resource management boards, including government and indigenous representatives, which understand and are sensitive to indigenous relationships with the land. Consultation must be a proactive and collaborative approach to succeed.
A major problem in the north is the difficulty of capacity in government and policy resources. The NWT has many structural and systemic barriers to building capacity, but also contains a plethora of overlapping regional, local, municipal, and band governments for a very small population. Many positions on boards and councils are all held by the same people in a community. However, self-government is central to the process of reconciliation; many Dene and Inuit people do not see their relationship to be with the GNWT, or even the Canadian Government, but with the Crown. Yet both sides seek to build strong working relationships; in some cases, regional tribal governments prefer to upload some services to the GNWT, making for a complex and ever-evolving legislative system.
At the end of our trip, we were also delighted to be welcomed by Scott McQueen and his family to his cabin in Yellowknife to share a delicious homemade meal and learn about the traditional land economy of the Dene and Métis peoples of the NWT. Mr. McQueen talked at length about his family’s experience with the cultural tourism industry, bringing visitors to the NWT to understand traditional crafts and industries. Most important for the animal-lovers among us, however, we mostly talked about sled-dogs – for hours! Using stories from his father’s storied career in sled-dog racing, and from relatives over the years, Mr. McQueen and his family led us in conversations about how the traditional cultures and economies of the had changed over the past fifty years. One one hand, while sled-dog racing had become a high-profile and established sport, and a major tourism draw, the traditional uses of sled-dog teams for trapping, and the dog-team trap-line itself, has quickly passed away.
Trappers now use snowmobiles and modern outdoor gear; and traditional crafts have been reborn in the tourism and art markets. Frequently, however, the economic benefit from these industries is limited, and uneven from community to community. The renewal and teaching of these traditional industries and crafts, however, have pivotal importance to the cultural, spiritual, and communal identity of Dene, Métis, and Inuit peoples. They have an irreplaceable role in the future of the NWT.
We deeply appreciate the warm welcome we received on the traditional lands of the Yellowknife Dene, and to all of the nations whose languages are written on the walls of the Legislative Assembly to bless and greet visitors from near and far. We hope to bring the passion and dedication for Reconciliation we found in the NWT back to Ontario and into our own lives.
“The Northwest Territories has all the ingredients for strong economic growth, including abundant natural resources, and significant participation and support for economic development from Indigenous-owned businesses and governments, but we can’t capitalize on these advantages without a plan.” – Premier Bob McLeod
We were very eager to meet Premier Bob McLeod.
The Premier joined us for breakfast in the Members Lounge, where we discussed the future of the Northwest Territories.
Fundamentally, the Premier argued that the future of the Northwest Territories is bright, if they can attract and retain young talent. This correlated with current movement to establish a post-secondary institution in Yellowknife. One of the main problems the Northwest Territories faces is that young people have to leave to pursue post-secondary education. When these young people leave, the Premier argued they generally, “do not come back.” With younger people in the North, there will be greater economic development.
The Premier also discussed the prospect of becoming a province, and determined that it is relatively impossible (while for various reasons, generally the lack thereof a tax base). In this sense, it is not practical, or feasible, for the Northwest Territories to become a province.
Premier McLeod also discussed the Red Alert. The Alert was issued in lieu of the federal government imposing a moratorium on arctic offshore oil and gas development. Premier McLeod argued, “Northerners through their democratically elected government, need to have the power to determine their own fates and the practice of decisions being made by bureaucrats and governments in Ottawa must come to an end.”
Thank you for an informative meeting, Premier McLeod!
Late on Friday, Feb. 23, we finished off the week with a deep and exciting discussion with Ontario’s Deputy Minister of Education, Bruce Rodrigues. Our conversation ranged between Deputy Rodrigues’ own career trajectory, which included three years as CEO of Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) prior to becoming Deputy Minister, to his vision for change within the Ministry of Education. One of the most visible changes within the Ministry since Deputy Rodrigues entered his position has been on the walls of its offices, including the boardroom in which we met: drawings, paintings, pictures, projects, and words from students across Ontario. He reminded us that the Ministry had their greatest duty to students, and re-decorating was an important step for all staff to remember that every day.
We talked about the difficulty of educational assessments, and especially new models and or ways of thinking about standardized testing. It is clear that province-wide assessment is very valuable to help identify areas for improvement in the education system. On the other hand, standardized testing does not have to be the only model for these assessments! Indeed, later in the conversation, when discussing how to better educate Ontario’s students about First Nations, Métis, and Inuit heritage, in particular the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Deputy Rodrigues introduced us to the idea of building and assessing the empathy of students. When educating the citizens of tomorrow, it is important to also teach them to feel and see the world from many other points of view.
The most moving moments in the conversation, however, came when we discussed how to build a more inclusive educational system, and where the system let down its students, especially racialized, impoverished, or disabled children. The Deputy, himself a former Math teacher and superintendent, and many interns, shared personal stories about their experiences within the education system. We left the meeting inspired and encouraged by the strength of Ontario’s schools, but aware that there is a lot of work left to do to ensure that every child in Ontario can get a great education and achieve their full potential. Thank you again to Deputy Rodrigues!
The Northwest Territories may be considered remote by Ontario standards, but it is at the cutting edge for election reform.
Nicole Latour, the NWT’s Chief Electoral Officer, explained to us how online voting may soon be a reality in her territory. The option of casting ballots digitally is expected to help boost voter turnout rates and increase accessibility.
For example, there is no degree-granting institution in the NWT; most-postsecondary students need to relocate in order to complete their education. Under the new system, tech-savvy university students living in out-of-territory would be able to choose a digital ballot over a mail-in-ballot.
We also learned that, although the overall voter turnout in the NWT is comparable to national averages, voter turnout is disproportionately low in Yellowknife, perhaps due in part to its relatively transient population. Introducing the option of online voting may invigorate interest in territorial elections, while also enabling residents to cast ballots from the comfort of their own homes. That comfort is not merely rhetorical. The last territorial election occurred in November 2015, and the turnout rate plummeted alongside the arctic temperatures.
There are other ways in which Latour champions innovation. Learning from practices in British Columbia, she has started specifically hiring youth to run polling stations. In addition to being familiar with technology, high school students are energetic, in a position to benefit from the work experience, and have flexible schedules. Another area of innovation is the creation of an online portal that will enable constituents to learn about local candidates, familiarize themselves with the returning officer, and live-stream the number of votes cast on election day. Lastly, territorial ballots in the NWT have a unique appearance. Literacy rates are relatively low in the NWT; consequently, in order to ensure accessibility, photographs of each candidate appear next to their name on the ballot.
We left our meeting with Latour impressed by how much Elections NWT has been able to accomplish, despite being such a new agency. Elections were not held for the territorial government until 1951, and they were historically administered by Elections Canada. The office of the NWT’s Chief Electoral Officer was not created until 1987, though it took until 1999 for the devolution process to be completed and Elections NWT to run its first election. For a young institution, Elections NWT seems to have made an excellent start, seeking innovations in order to serve the unique needs of a unique territory.