Another voice
Aboriginal leaders voice support for constitutional package

by Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

NNSL (Mar 19/97) - Yellowknife spoke with one voice last October, condemning the draft constitutional package. Last night another voice was heard.

"What we have to do is recognize we can't have one-man-one vote," said constitutional working group member, Bill Erasmus (left), also national chief of the Dene Nation.

"Bullshit!" called out Erasmus's Yellowknife neighbour Terry Jordan.

With one word Jordan accurately summarized the initial reaction of a vast majority of non-aboriginal territorial residents to the package.

The source of that outrage was the altered form of democracy contained in the model of government featured in the package.

The model calls for a two assembly legislature, one aboriginal, one general. In territorial elections aboriginals would cast one vote for each assembly. Non-aboriginals would get just one vote.

Erasmus was not the lone defender of the contentious provision.

"This is the first real piece of work that represents aboriginal peoples' rightful place in government," said Metis Local 64 president Bill Enge after congratulating the constitutional working group on the document.

"We have a golden opportunity to build bridges between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people here, and it shouldn't be looked upon with suspicion, as an attempt to hijack the assembly for aboriginals."

Others, including former MLAs Bob MacQuarrie and Brian Lewis, backed up Jordan's comment.

Speaking on democracy, MacQuarrie said, "if it doesn't always work properly, fix it, don't throw it out. I'm afraid that's what's happened here."

"I find it cuts so deeply into my soul ... that I will fight it too my dying day," said Lewis in response to Erasmus's two vote comment.

Erasmus initially ignored Jordan's interjection, going on to indicate ratification too, would not be held on the basis of conventional democracy.

"I do have the right to say a province will not come into place until our people consent to it," he added.

Erasmus said conventional democracy was not workable because it assumed everyone was treated equally under the law. Clearly, he said, Canadian law recognizes aboriginals as distinct from non-aboriginals.

He then turned to Jordan. "I'd like to ask the individual who said b-s when I was speaking earlier to go to the mike and speak about this."

Jordan took up the challenge, informing the gathering of about 100 people he is descended from a long line of Canadians.

"This is my land," he said. Jordan then challenged Erasmus's claim he was at the meeting to hear public concerns.

"You said you were open to suggestions but rejected them," said Jordan.

"I have a question for the people of Yellowknife," said Erasmus.

"What is it you want? If you want job security and stability this package is designed to provide that. If you want to impose your will on people outside of Yellowknife it's not designed to do that."

The gulf between the opposing views of democracy poses a threat to the prospect of bringing in a new constitution by territorial division in 1999. But by far the greatest threat is time.

As the meeting's facilitator Haig Carthew noted, it is anticipated the federal government will require 18 months to make the western constitution law.

The Western Arctic has less than seven months to craft a final package, get tentative approval from the feds, hold a plebiscite and, if the people approve, prepare the legislation.