Constitutional confab to be extended
Antoine says satisfied with hearings in spite of criticism

by Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

Communities express their opinions

NNSL (Mar 24/97) - After mounting criticism about the way the western constitutional hearings have been going, a decision has been made to extend the process.

"I don't think one meeting in each community is going to do it," said working group co-chair Jim Antoine (left) Thursday.

"We want to do it right. If people want further discussion on it, we have to go back."

There have been complaints from several communities about hastily scheduled and poorly advertised meetings which have left people feeling robbed of an opportunity to comment on the draft package the Constitutional Working Group (CWG) released in October.

Criticism has even come from within the CWG.

Last week Bob Simpson, the group member representing Inuvialuit and Gwich'in interests, said he was informed of the time and date of a hearing in Inuvik only three days before it happened. Because of another meeting he had scheduled, he could not make it.

"There's too big of a rush...we wanted major feedback," said Simpson.

Attendance at meetings held in the communities has been sparse.

In Nahanni Butte no one showed. Meetings in Paulatuk and Sachs Harbour attracted eight and nine people respectively.

"If I missed it, how many other people missed it?" asked Fort McPherson Mayor Phillip Blake. At the last minute he heard the date originally announced had been changed. By the time he arrived the meeting was over.

"The meeting was terribly advertised," said Fort Simpson Mayor Norm Prevost. "With such short notice, people couldn't make it."

But working group executive director Fred Koe said reports that meetings in McPherson and Tsiigehtchic were rescheduled are wrong.

"There was no rescheduling done," said Koe on Friday.

"The (Fort McPherson) band chief was at the meeting, and he said that was the day he was told the meeting was - obviously, there's miscommunication in the community.

"I went in on the day the meeting was scheduled, same as in Tsiighetchic," said Koe. "There was no rescheduling done."

"I know the miscommunication happened on the radio, so whose fault is it?

"The radio screwed up and the paper screwed up."

Of his meeting in Tsiighetchic, Koe said, "all afternoon there were people waiting at the community for the chiefs and council to finish their meeting. It was just common courtesy."

Koe added he does take the criticism seriously.

"People are saying they're not satisfied, so obviously we haven't done a good job."

But Antoine says he is satisfied.

"The turnouts are average in the communities, I'm not disappointed," he said.

"In all the small communities, everybody's very busy. People aren't sitting around waiting for constitutional meetings to happen. Everybody's got their own lives."

Premier Don Morin refused News/North requests to comment on the public hearing process.

"It's more under the management of Jim Antoine at this stage," said Morin's press secretary, Val Mellesmoen.

"The government has a stake in this, however, he as the leader of this current government has to walk a fine line on the constitutional processes, because that's two future governments."

Koe is responsible for organizing the hearings. A private Yellowknife company, Prestige, has been recruited to book the meetings and flights.

The CWG's originally planned only one round of hearings and had hoped to visit each of the 34 communities in the Western Arctic by the end of March.

Dates have yet to be set for all communities, according to Prestige's Darlene Mandeville. Meetings are now being scheduled for May, she said.

That, and Antoine's commitment to hold follow-up hearings, poses a serious threat to bringing in the new constitution in time for division.

Antoine said the federal government will require 18 months to make the constitution law, "if everything goes right." Up until recently, the CWG maintained that process will take two years.

To allow for the 18 months, the territorial share of the work needs to be completed in the next seven months.

That share includes holding public hearings, reviewing the comments, redrafting the constitution, holding follow-up meetings, getting tentative approval from the federal government, holding a public vote and writing the legislation.

Antoine said he is still optimistic about meeting the deadline for division, but said a new constitution does not hinge on it.

"I think there's a perception out there that if we don't have anything in place by April 1, 1999, that this whole process dies."

"We will continue the process until it's run its course, even if it goes beyond April 1, 1999. That's one of the scenarios we have to look at."