Northern Elections


Today is Election Day in the Northwest Territories. Given my long association with the North, it is not surprising that I know many – though certainly not all – of the candidates that are seeking office today. Some of these friendships go back decades. Paul Andrew, for example, had a lead role in the first play I ever had staged, Hemingway Crosses the Mackenzie, while Ben Nind was my ‘brother’ when we acted together in Melville Boys. Meanwhile, Randall Sibbeston is the son of my boss, Senator Nick Sibbeston. I’ve known him since he was a teenager.

Many of the other candidates I’ve worked with or consulted with over the last fifteen years. Many of course were part of the last or previous governments. One of those, Glen Abernathy, is the son of a man I worked with in the mid-80s. Man, sometimes these blogs make me feel old.

For those who don’t know – the NWT doesn’t have political parties. Every MLA is elected as an independent. Subsequently, the elected members meet to choose a premier and Cabinet from among themselves. The Cabinet becomes the government but is in a permanent minority situation, requiring the support of some of the ‘ordinary’ members to get measures passed the Assembly. Often, though certainly not always, that support is unanimous, as the Ministers and the members work together in committee to craft legislation and budgets that are acceptable to all.

This system is called consensus government and has operated, more or less effectively (depending on who you ask) ever since the 1970s when fully responsible government began to be developed in the NWT. The government of Nunavut uses the same system. Yukon, on the other hand, uses the more familiar (to southern eyes) party system.

There is a lot to be learned from the consensus style of government. For example, the process of pre-budget consultations that used to be very secretive and limited has now become commonplace in Canada. But it was pioneered in the NWT where it was a necessity to keep the wheels turning. Did it always work? Not at all. There were certainly stumbles along the way – I still recall a Minister losing his job for passing a note threatening a project in a Member’s riding if he didn’t cooperate.

Still, the system has lasted despite numerous failed attempts to introduce party politics into the mix. In fact, several times when candidates have run as a slate in a proto-party fashion, every single one of the candidates was defeated. It may be that they were lousy candidates or it may be that the people really don’t want a change – despite the frequent grumbling of some people in the media. I think they miss the rough and tumble of partisan politics.

In any case, it will all be decided today – or at least the first part will. In a couple of weeks the government will be formed and I’ll either be working with the same old crowd or with a whole bunch of new faces – even if some of those faces I’ve known for decades.

Good luck to all the candidates.

And that’s ten minutes.


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