Act shuts out newcomers
Restricting the Northern franchise

Arthur Milnes
Northern News Services

NNSL (Sep 21/98) - So, you've moved yourself and family from the south to begin a new life in the North. You begin to pay taxes, take part in life North of 60 and so on.

Then, a historic plebescite concerning the future of the western NWT is announced. Civic-minded, you read all you can and take part in discussions about the issue with friends and family.

On voting day, you arrive at your polling to mark a ballot. Though you voted in a territorial election only a year ago, something shocking happens this hypothetical plebescite day.

You're denied the right to vote. The reason?

You haven't lived in the NWT three years.

"The legislature at the time (the Plebescite Act was drafted) felt it was important that people be residents of the territory and have a significant stake and commitment to the territories," the NWT's chief electoral officer, David Hamilton, says when asked why politicians placed the restrictive provision in the act. "We should have an expression of people committed to the territories."

Hamilton says the act came into being in the early 1980s. Plebiscites were held in the NWT in the 1982 -- about division -- and in 1992, concerning the borders of Nunavut.

So far, Hamilton says, the NWT has not faced a Charter of Rights challenge over the residency requirement. It is the most stringent in Canada.

"There was some discussion (of a challenge) when we had the 1992 plebescite," Hamilton says. "Whether somebody wants to do that, that would be up to them."

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association would not comment on the issue as of press time.

At the Constitutional Working Group (CWG) offices in Yellowknife, executive director Patrick Scott says it has always been the intent to hold a plebescite once the group has formulated a recommendation for the constitutional future of the post-division NWT.

"At the moment we have no idea when that will be," he says. "The idea of a plebescite has been there since the beginning."

Yellowknife North MLA, Roy Erasmus, who has been involved in the CWG since the beginning, says anyone who has opinions on this issue should simply let the group know. An upcoming constitutional conference, slated for Febuary, might be a good time, he added.

In the last issue of the CWG's publication Common Ground, it was suggested the residency rule could even be increased.

"If public input is strong enough, even this could be changed to require a longer residency requirement," the document says.

So, unless things change, forget voting on the future of the NWT if, that is, you don't have the required history.