Commentary on Bill 15 by Garth Wallbridge. July 20, 1999.
Aired on CBC Radio.
Today the Government Operations Committee will submit its report on the Bill 15 hearings it has held throughout the NWT over the last two months. I, like many others, made a conscious decision to not attend any of the public sessions because 1 thought everything that needed to be said on electoral boundaries had been said. In the end I felt that there was something I needed to say to the Committee and so I submitted to them a letter addressing the following three points.
My first concern is that a great many of the proponents of the “do nothing approach”, or the “four seats for Yellowknife are enough and maybe more than enough approach”, are fellow aboriginal people who unfortunately do not acknowledge that there are almost 4,000 aboriginal people in Yellowknife who are grossly underrepresented in an Assembly with only four MLA’s for Yellowknife. There are in fact more aboriginal people in Yellowknife than in any other community in the entire N.W.T..
That Mr. Erasmus, the Chair of the Committee, an aboriginal person, is an MLA for Yellowknife is a good sign that the system in place in the N.W.T. for representation of all people is working. We have the same system of government in the N.W.T. in so far as representation, one person, one vote, as is the case throughout Canada. It works. Mr. Erasmus effectively represents 25% of the four Yellowknfie MLA’s and this is a marginally higher percentage than the total aboriginal to white population of Yellowknife.
I happen to believe that when Bill 15 is passed, in its present form or with slight modifications, and there are seven MLA’s for Yellowknife in the next Assembly, that the percentage of aboriginal MLA’s for Yellowknife will be even greater than it is now. I further believe that on many issues, certainly on issues of importance to aboriginal people, the Yellowknife’s aboriginal MLA’s, people situated in their lives exactly as is Mr. Erasmus, will exercise their vote in a way that promotes an aboriginal position.
My second concern is about the fact that land claims are, in my opinion, the single most important issue facing aboriginal governments today. The Government of the N.W.T. on the other hand has a full slate of concerns. I do not see how it can be expected that the process of effective representation by population for all citizens of the N.W.T, can be halted for a time that almost certainly will be measured in years, perhaps decades, while land claims are settled. That self government will be included in land claims agreements is now a forgone conclusion by virtue of the Dogrib Agreement in Principle. In my mind it would be better to have a government with full legitimacy, by way of adhering to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, at the negotiations table rather than otherwise. Any deal that can then be negotiated can be expected to stand the test of public opinion. There is no sense in negotiating an agreement for a land claim complete with self government that will not be acceptable to the population as a whole. If we can not agree as a collection of diverse peoples then I predict lawsuits, petitions to the federal government and outright defiance of any agreement. No one wins if it takes another generation or two to get a deal just because people cannot be convinced to negotiate in good faith because there is too little good faith to go around. Adhering today to accepted and proven principles of democratic representation can only facilitate the growth of good faith.
Finally in conclusion I have to say that my primary concern is that we as aboriginal people can not expect to have aboriginal rights flourish while trampling basic human rights. One person, one vote is the best system ever devised to govern. This continues to be true in the late 20th century and no doubt this will continue to be the case well into the next century. A people who have been trodden upon for far too long can not expect to hold their collective heads high if, to get the upper hand, they in turn trod on the basic human rights of others. The result would be failure no matter what the outcome.