Voters in the NWT are already considering legal action against a bill passed by MLAs last week that will see the ridings of Tu Nedhe and Weledeh amalgamated, despite fervent opposition from the two regions’ representatives and residents.
Confident that a challenge to the boundaries “would have a reasonable chance of success,” Yellowknife business leader Bill Aho told The Journal in an email that he is now “looking for ways to begin a public discussion.”
Aho is part of a delegation called “Friends of Democracy” that urged Yellowknife city councillors last fall to lobby the territorial government for an increase in the capital’s share of seats in the legislature to nine from seven.
Based on a February 2013 report by the Electoral Boundaries Commission, MLAs were given the choice of eliminating one riding, keeping the legislature at 19 seats or adding two more MLAs to combat the under-representation experienced right now in Yellowknife.
Last Wednesday, members voted 11-7 in favour of keeping the number of seats at 19 by removing the Yellowknives Dene communities of Dettah and N’dilo from the Weledeh riding and adding them to Tu Nedhe – the same decision made last November with a vote of 10-7.
In an impassioned last-minute plea, Tu Nedhe MLA Tom Beaulieu reiterated the strong opposition to the changes voiced by his communities of Lutsel K’e and Fort Resolution.
Sharing concerns voiced by Tu Nedhe elder Violet Beaulieu during the recent convening of the NWT Elders Parliament, Beaulieu said the difference in language, culture, socioeconomics and geography of the Tu Nedhe and Weledeh communities presents a host of problems for a single person to adequately represent in the legislature.
While people in Lutsel K’e and Fort Resolution speak Chipewyan, residents of Dettah and N’dilo speak Tlicho.
“The residents of Fort Resolution and Lutselk’e speak a different language than the group in YK Dene. By combining the two Aboriginal groups, we will lose a culture and a language of one of the groups,” Beaulieu said.
“We have very different issues from people living in Yellowknife. The rate of employment in Yellowknife is high and very low in the small communities of Fort Resolution and Lutsel K’e. In our small, remote communities, we have social and economic issues, things like lack of good housing, high rates of addictions, low education levels that must be dealt with by our MLA on a regular basis,” he said.
Beaulieu suggested that eliminating the Tu Nedhe riding after 40 years could result in the loss of Chipewyan from the house, and subsequent constitutional challenges.
He said a better option – one that is off the table – is to give an extra MLA to Yellowknife and another to the Tlicho.
More Tlicho representation is needed, stressed Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty, who said his under-represented riding is only growing in population. While separating Dettah and N’dilo from Yellowknife will likely result in another Tlicho speaker in the house, the Education, Culture and Employment minister asked at what cost.
“I certainly don’t want to lose one of the official languages,” Lafferty said.
According to the boundaries commission, no electoral district should be over or under-represented by more than 25 per cent from the mean population. As of last February, 10 out of 19 districts were either over or under-represented.
Those under-represented include Monfwi, Sahtu and most of Yellowknife’s seven seats. While Yellowknife holds 48 per cent of the territory’s population, it has only 36 per cent of the seats.
The disproportionality has only increased since the report’s issuance, said Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley, who also spoke out against the bill. He told The Journal that court action would neither be surprising, nor unwelcome in securing the level of representation required.
“A lot of people are going without proper representation. At 40-some per cent and climbing above average riding numbers, my workload seems significantly larger than others. Court direction would probably be quite objective, and welcome by many,” he said in an email.
“I don’t know whether it would more likely come from the Tlicho communities (Monfwi), or from Yellowknife as it did last time.”
Bromley called it “colonial” and “embarrassing” that MLAs would make decisions based on out of date information – a sentiment echoed by Hay River MLA Jane Groenewegen, who portended future legal challenges similar to one in the past that ended in Yellowknife securing three more MLAs.
“I just want to say let the record show and mark my words today that if we go ahead with what is proposed in this bill, we are going to live to regret it very, very soon,” she said.
According to recent estimates, the cost of creating two new MLA positions in Yellowknife would amount to $2.4 million over a term.
*with files from Jack Danylchuk2 comments