Constitutional confusion
Support for change eroding; vote status uncertain

by Chris Meyers Almey
and James Hrynyshyn
Northern News Services

NNSL (Apr 07/97) - Confusion reigns in the Western Arctic over whether there will be a vote on a new constitution this October.

Last month in Inuvik, Fred Koe, executive director of the Constitutional Working Group, said there is no longer enough time to complete public consultations and hold a referendum by then.

But on Friday, Koe said he was merely summarizing what people were saying in public meetings. "I have no authority to say that," Koe told News/North.

"The working group has to decide on any stuff that's in the press," he added.

The issue should be sorted out this weekend in Yellowknife, however, after a meeting of the working group and aboriginal leaders in the Western Arctic. Anticipating that the meeting will last only Friday morning, Koe said the working group plans on holding their own meeting the following afternoon and perhaps the next day, as well.

But other members of the working group have their doubts about whether the constitutional process is organized enough to permit an October vote.

Hay River MLA Jane Groenewegen is one of those skeptical members. She is far from optimistic about the chances for bringing a new constitution into being before the Nunavut deadline.

Even if the constitutional process gets back on track, she said, any demand for a change in the status quo is weak or evaporating.

"From what I have seen so far, people aren't interested in change," Groenewegen said.

Among the biggest problems from Groenewegen's point of view is the sheer volume of information people are being asked to absorb in a relatively short period of time. Making matters worse is the failure of the working group to properly reach out to western NWT residents, she said.

She suggested preliminary group meetings and public "town hall" sessions should have been broadcast on TVNC before asking for public input.

Dene Nation Chief and group member Bill Erasmus noted the constitutional committee hasn't yet had a chance to talk to the band chiefs and councils.

"This has to happen. It's going to happen," Erasmus said, adding that the date for this week's meeting had yet to be finalized.

The constitution must reflect what it means to be an aboriginal person and spell out inherent rights, he said.

There are 1,100 band members of the Yellowknives Dene who have had the city grow up around them on their traditional land so now they are in a partnership situation, he said.

That partnership includes the federal, territorial and municipal governments, he said, which makes it complex.

Throughout the interview, Erasmus repeated that crafting the constitution was a complex matter.

The bottom line is the committee would not be forcing anything on anybody, he said, not if people are telling the working group that they don't like it.

Referring to a comment by territorial Aboriginal Affairs minister Jim Antoine, another member of the working group, last week that there will be an October vote on the constitutional package, Erasmus said Antoine can only make recommendations.

It's desirable to have as much in place in the Western Arctic by 1999, but many Northerners say it's not necessary, Erasmus said.

In the end, the most serious impediment for writing and approving a new constitution could be a lack of support.

"I'm not one for forcing change for the sake of change," said Groenewegen. "I like solid planning and good decision." And that, she added, is a preference that's shared by many Northerners.