Constitutional draft gets thumbs down
Sparse turnout opposes proposal at meetings

by Glenn Taylor
Northern News Services

INUVIK (Mar 14/97) - The draft constitutional proposal for the western NWT was been strongly rejected at public meetings here this week.

Town council and the NWT Chamber of Commerce also opposed the document Tuesday, as the tour to gather public opinion made its way to Inuvik.

The draft is the latest in a series of efforts to replace the NWT Act with a document that would bring aboriginal and public governments closer together. The draft was authored by the 10-member Constitutional Working Group, composed of western MLAs and Aboriginal Summit members.

When it was released last October, the document quickly drew fire for its proposal to guarantee aboriginal political representation. The draft proposes a 22-seat legislature, comprised of 14 public seats and eight seats reserved for claim groups.

Aboriginals would have two votes under the plan -- one for the public seat and one for their claim group. Non-aboriginals would vote only for the public seat.

While meetings in Inuvik were poorly attended, those who did show up lobbed cannonballs of criticism against the two-tiered legislature, among other issues.

"Some people based on race get two votes, while others based on race get one," said David Connelly. "I'm shocked that at the turn of the ... millennia, we're here debating the basic rights that all of us should have," he said. "Someone should have the guts to stand up and say what this really is."

"The idea that we're still struggling to have one-person one-vote is almost incomprehensible," said Alan Fehr. "Down the road, my children will be the ones that will have to deal with the fallout of the divisive nature of this package."

Opposition to the idea was not unanimous, however. Richard Nerysoo, an Aboriginal Summit member and the president of the Gwich'in Tribal Council, defended the two-tiered concept. Nerysoo pointed out many examples in Canadian politics where representation by population -- one vote for each person -- is not upheld.

Nerysoo pointed to smaller provinces such as P.E.I. that enjoy larger political voices than their populations merit. Quebec wields extra powers other provinces don't enjoy because of linguistic and cultural concerns, he said.

Why should guaranteed representation for aboriginals be such a hot issue. Nerysoo asked, when the most important issue should be producing a constitutional document that best serves Northerners?

Dev Sharma also supported the concept, arguing it would protect aboriginal culture when non-aboriginals assume a democratic majority at division in 1999.

Connelly questioned why that should be a concern at all. He pointed out that 10 of the 14 MLAs in the West are aboriginals now, while the last two premiers have also been aboriginals. "The system in place now is working," he said.

Some residents also questioned why none of the 10 committee members had come to Inuvik to hear their concerns, leaving committee co-ordinator Fred Koe to run the session.

Koe said the meeting was being recorded and concerns expressed would be passed on to the committee.

"I don't feel they're treating this document with the respect it deserves," said Connelly. "Not one of the 10 on the committee has seen fit to come here to explain any of this to us."

Some also expressed concern that the process was being rushed. Plans call for a wrap of community consultation by next month, followed by a redrafting by June in time for an October referendum on the matter.

Julian Thomlinson said the constitution should wait until other matters, such as self-government, are settled. It would be foolish to try to develop a document linking self-government and public government together, when the process on the first has barely begun, he said.

The draft constitution seeks to replace the NWT Act, but, said Richard Barnes, "why are we fixing something that isn't broke?" He said the current form of consensus public government works, and should remain.

"It is one vote for one person for one MLA," said Barnes. "That's how it should remain."