Discussion on gender parity fuels debate
by Richard Gleeson
NNSL (Feb 24/97) - "There is no room for turf wars in the run-up to Nunavut," according to Nunavut Implementation Commission leader John Amagoalik in his opening statement at the sixth Nunavut leaders summit.
Before the Feb. 16-17 meeting in Cambridge Bay was over, Amagoalik found himself at the centre of the most public Nunavut turf war to date.
Discussion of gender parity, an NIC recommendation that each Nunavut riding be represented by both a man and a women, was contentious enough on its own.
But debate on the issue raised fundamental questions about the role NIC has in the shaping of the new territory.
Tensions reached a peak Monday, following the noon departure of Minister of Indian Affairs Ron Irwin. The strongest proponents of gender equity at the meeting, the NIC, said it was being denied a chance to speak.
"I've never experienced anything like this in my 23 years in politics," said chief commissioner Amagoalik in an interview during a break.
"(Summit chair Kelvin Ng) saw us putting up our hands and he shook his head. But it's not just the chairman. He's getting his signals from someone else."
Amagoalik would not say who he believed was prompting Ng, but added gender equity was the key issue for the commission.
"It was the one item we really wanted to move forward on. When it stalled, it created a cloud, and that cloud is still over us."
In opposing implementing gender parity, the GNWT's Nunavut caucus found a valuable ally in Nunatsiaq MP Jack Anawak.
Anawak later said that in promoting gender parity, the NIC overstepped its bounds.
"Their role is to be on the sidelines, watching and advising the three groups," said Anawak.
"That's precisely why they were established, not to determine whether there will be gender parity, not to determine who the interim commissioner might be. Their role is to be advisers and, really, nothing more."
At a press conference after the meeting, NTI president Jose Kusugak sided with the NIC, saying it never claimed to stand on the same footing as the three signatories to the Nunavut Agreement.
"But if I have staff and ask them to give me advice, and then I don't take it, I talk to them. I at least give them that courtesy."
Consensus on gender parity appeared close at hand early in the debate, when Kusugak and Irwin reached a compromise.
The minister had said he believed the measure would be constitutional only if it included a sunset clause -- provision for the termination of gender parity after a specified period of time.
Kusugak said NTI believes three terms would be sufficient, then later reduced it to two.
"I could be in trouble south of 60 for supporting this," said Irwin, speaking to Kusugak. "You're saying two terms, I say one -- I'll go two terms with the sunset clause."
"I hope we're not still worrying about what people down south are thinking," responded NIC commissioner Bill Lyall, delivering a message he repeated several times during the summit.
"We've been dictated to by the South for a long time, and now we're taking the reins. We'll back you up if you get in trouble down there."
That is as close to agreement as the gathering got the first day.
Kusugak, like Amagoalik, took exception to the GNWT's refusal to take sides on the issue.
The territorial government, led by Aivilik MLA Manitok Thompson, insisted gender equity was too fundamental a change to make without consulting the people.
"They say the issue is not whether or not they support the proposal," said Kusugak. "That's exactly the issue.
"I would say we do have, more or less, consensus on this issue, because the territorial government doesn't say they do not support gender parity."
Thompson, one of three women at the table, said Kusugak had missed the point.
"I would love to run against you and I would love to run against Peter Ernerk. If you implement gender parity you violate my rights as a woman."
Turning to the minister, Thompson said the GNWT's position on the issue was not negotiable.
"Mr. Irwin, if we are to deal with this issue, you must put it to a public vote. Otherwise, you do not have our consent."
Near the end of the final day, it appeared the issue of gender parity would remain unresolved.
Natilikmiot MLA John Ningark, taking Ng's place as chairman, called for a summary of progress, saying "We haven't accomplished as much as we anticipated, but at least we're still talking."
Amagoalik noted that Ng had said the issue would be revisited before the meeting concluded.
He also accused the GNWT of being "underhanded" for circulating a press release outlining their position on the issue during the meeting.
The gathering agreed to take another shot at achieving a consensus and, to the surprise of some, NTI agreed to a plebiscite.
The agreement is conditional on getting the resources to educate people on both sides of the issue, full consultation on the wording of the question, and holding the plebiscite before the end of May.
"We can talk about it and talk about it and agree to disagree," concluded Kusugak. "But when it comes to a plebiscite, gender parity will be a real thing."
Amagoalik's commitment to gender parity remained firm to the end.
"I predict 11 men and 11 women will be elected to the Nunavut legislature on Valentine's Day, 1999," he said.