When caribou culture meets Westminster

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In North America's newest parliament, many members wear atiqi - cloth tunics whose design imitates caribou skins. The chamber's upholstery is sealskin. A traditional qulliq, or seal-oil lamp, rests beside the Speaker's chair.

Welcome to the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut, a one-year-old Canadian territory. Here the people of the icebound eastern Arctic are struggling to combine Inuit decisionmaking by consensus with Robert's Rules of Order.

The biggest tipoff that this isn't politics as usual is that the 19 members' seats are in a circle. No aisle divides them right and left: There are no parties here.

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As such, Nunavut's legislature is a unique laboratory for the perennial question: Would government be better without partisanship?

It is off the assembly floor, however, that the differences between Western and Inuit modes become apparent.

For example, under a Westminster system, the finance minister typically at least pretends that the budget is secret until it is officially presented. But in Iqaluit, says Premier Paul Okalik, "all the members had a copy" of the budget before it was brought down in late March. "Before any law is brought up," he adds, "there's a committee review - before it's even tabled [introduced]."

Nunavut is a bold experiment of indigenous people and a Western government coming to terms. This land of 30,000 people, three times the size of Texas, is 85 percent Inuit, and is partly the product of the largest land-claims settlement in Canadian history.

"The one thing that reflects the Inuit culture the most is the consensus system of government," explains John Amagoalik, who chaired the Nunavut Implementation Commission. The premier has to consult with all the members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), not just the Cabinet, he explains. The MLAs elect the Cabinet, and then the premier assigns portfolios.

Speaking through silence

But some feel that native traditions of inclusiveness, and of waiting in silence for answers, have gotten short shrift. "We were far too conservative in our approach.... We've been far too prescribing of processes of decision-making," says Ken MacRury, who came here as a schoolteacher in 1971 and now serves as deputy minister for intergovernmental relations.

To build a Nunavut that truly reflects the Inuit culture, "you want to hit both ends," he adds, developing both a representative civil service and an appropriate set of procedures.

Peter Kulchyski, professor of native studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, has observed the MLAs in action and found that "Robert's Rules of Order seem to be constraining them," particularly the older members.

Inuit culture tends to have what Mr. Kulchyski calls "more advanced speech ethics," in which discourse is more inclusive, in contrast to more-traditional Western models of what might be called adversarial discourse. He says Westerners "aren't trained to listen to one another."

By contrast, Inuit tend to be "very respectful of nuances," he says: Their best orators sense the nascent consensus emerging from the silences and the not-quite-complete utterances of those around them, and then articulate that consensus for the group.

Mr. Amagoalik says, "Silence is not always assent among the Inuit," and that with so much to do to establish the new government fully, the legislators face tight time lines for decisionmaking. "Perhaps some would like to sleep on a decision." Still, he says, "The MLAs recognize that there has to be a structure to the discussion."

In their first year of self-government, the legislators have become much more comfortable with Westminster traditions - addressing all comments to the Speaker, for instance. "The first few weeks, they were very cautious, very nervous," Amagoalik says. "Everything had to be scripted. Now they're much more confident."

Emphasis on native culture

In order to build a Nunavut that truly reflects the Inuit culture, "you want to hit both ends," says Mr. MacRury, developing both a representative civil service and an appropriate set of procedures.

The people of Nunavut were familiar with nonpartisan, consensus-style government as part of the Northwest Territories, which they were until April 1, 1999. But it's too soon to tell whether translating Inuit culture into the legislature per se makes for better government.

Many Inuit leaders seem to see the current setup as a work in progress. "Rules can be changed," says Peter Irniq, commissioner of the new territory. He remembers the bad old days when missionary schoolteachers slapped the hands of Inuit children for speaking Inuktitut.

Some critics have suggested that, without parties and a "loyal opposition," there is no mechanism for accountability: Deals will be put together by something-for-everyone pork-barreling.

Jim Bell, editor of the Nunatsiaq News in Iqaluit, notes that without parties, "there's no way for voters to send a message to the government."

And Kulchyski concedes that, in the absence of party structures, "there is more of a tendency to horse-trade local favors." But the nonpartisan system allows "the most talented people to form the government," he says. In a party system, the best and brightest of the losing party are by definition out of power.

This, inclusive consensus approach makes everyone accomplices before the fact, however. And it's obviously been sobering for MLAs to see just how little room they have to maneuver.

During an interview, Mr. Bell pointed to a page of the territorial budget showing how much of its revenue Nunavut gets from Ottawa - over 90 percent - and how small its tax base is: About five times as much revenue is anticipated from tobacco taxes as from corporate income taxes. The power to spend is fundamental to the power to govern, he says. "Given what this represents, consensus may be the best choice for an underfunded fledgling government."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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