When the government of Canada created the Nunavut Territory in 1999, the Inuit people, the majority of the inhabitants, hoped their new government would be based on their values. Inuit leaders at the time not only wanted their territory to have an Inuit character, they also expected it would not “duplicate Yellowknife,” the capital of the Northwest Territories from which they had just separated. A fascinating journal article by Graham White, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, explores the success of that dream in the workings of the Nunavut legislature.
The author carefully sets the scene. He indicates that the territory has many very significant problems to deal with, such as the lack of infrastructure, low levels of education, a weak private sector, and expectations on the new government to provide remedies to many major issues such as the very high suicide rate, substance abuse, and welfare dependency.
The legislature of the new territory was established as a Westminster-style parliament, with an elected 19-member Legislative Assembly and a cabinet consisting of a premier and seven ministers. They maintain power as long as they retain the confidence of the legislature. The cabinet proposes budgets, controls the bureaucracy, and debates and approves bills—the typical things that legislatures do.
In some very significant ways, however, the assembly is different from others, beginning with the sealskin vests and kamiks (boots) that the members often wear. While the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly is attired in black robes, the Speaker wears the Inuit traditional clothing. In the first House, elected in 1999, 15 out of the 19 members were Inuit. Four years later the Assembly had 17 Inuit members. Instead of sitting on opposing benches as many parliaments do, the MPs sit in a circle.
The debate, not surprisingly, is mostly carried out in Inuktitut, with simultaneous translation for English speakers. Unlike proceedings in some other parliaments, debate is “low-key and civil,” and the representatives listen to the comments of others respectfully and silently. “Heckling and interruptions are uncommon” (p.13).
Differences with the parliamentary norm go beyond matters of style. There are no political parties in Nunavut—all candidates for election run as independents, even though some of the members of the legislature do affiliate with the Canadian national parties. Legislators regularly hold private caucus meetings that include all members. They discuss, but do not necessarily resolve, the contentious issues facing them, since they know that the cabinet has the real power to make decisions.
The most significant issue explored by the article is the extent to which the legislature has adopted traditional Inuit values. White discusses the value the Inuit place on promoting harmony and avoiding confrontation. Their values have led to a rejection of voting, for the most part, in favor of consensus decision making. Consensus, in the Inuit context, means a participatory process involving a lot of talk and prolonged deliberations to reach decisions in a harmonious fashion.
The legislators, like the Nunavut bureaucracy, focus on incorporating traditional knowledge, or Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, IQ, into their operations. White contends that the framers of the government presumed that the legislators would predominantly be Inuit, so the problem of incorporating IQ into the legislative operations would take care of itself. The fact that the legislators discuss issues in Inuktitut is essential, the author argues, but that may not be enough.
The real issue is that Inuit values and the Westminster parliamentary system conflict in a number of basic ways. Decision-making in a parliamentary system is centralized, confrontational, and adversarial, while the Inuit tradition is non-confrontational and consensual. In the Inuit tradition, concentrating power is discouraged. The parliamentary system is based on the votes of individuals, while the Inuit society is based on the needs of the group predominating over the needs of one person. Delegating power to representatives is not comfortable for the Inuit, any more than voting is.
White devotes the second half of his article to the results of interviews he conducted with members of the first legislature. While they recognized the shortcomings of their new system, they expressed no desire to replace it. They could not precisely define their consensus style of operating, but they valued their cooperative, team-work approach to resolving issues, even though they recognized that some of their members had focused on narrow, local perceptions rather than broader concerns. They tended to believe that “consensus government is superior to party politics because under party politics the members attack one another and that’s not the Inuit way” (p.21).
The legislators did not suggest that their consensus style of operation is necessarily a direct result of their Inuit culture, however. They recognized that there is a gap between traditional Inuit values and the daily operations of the Nunavut legislature, and they were divided in their opinions of the value of the caucus system. While the caucus might seem to emulate traditional Inuit approaches to group discussion and resolution of issues, opinions varied as to whether or not the actual caucuses resulted in the government really listening and heeding advice. Some felt they were a waste of time, but everyone felt there was a strong sense of equality during the caucus meetings.
Although none of the legislators whom White interviewed felt that IQ had been effectively integrated into the operations of the Assembly, some were positive and hopeful that it would be. Others felt that little real progress had been made in integrating IQ into the legislature. But, as one person explained, IQ has different meanings for everyone, and it is a very difficult issue to resolve.
White concludes that the Nunavut legislature, in essence, is still a Westminster-style parliament, with elected representatives, concentrated power, ministers holding the greatest amount of influence, cabinet solidarity, and a government that must retain the confidence of the assembly. But it has been strongly influenced and modified by unique Inuit approaches. It is less confrontational than other parliaments, and it exhibits more teamwork, more sharing, more respect, and more reliance on caucus rather than divisive political parties. But it is too early to predict how the legislature will evolve in coming years.
White, Graham. 2006. “Traditional Aboriginal Values in a Westminster Parliament: The Legislative Assembly of Nunavut.” The Journal of Legislative Studies 12(1): 8-31