Nunavut’s next senator should be elected
Most people alive today in Nunavut today were not even born when the former prime minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, appointed Willie Adams of Rankin Inlet to the Senate on April 5, 1977.
Between 1977 and 1999, Adams represented the Northwest Territories in the Senate. After 1999, Adams represented Nunavut, while a separate seat, now occupied by Nick Sibbeston, was created for the NWT.
After serving as a national legislator for more than 32 years, Adams retired this past June without ever having to endure the inconvenience of an election campaign. He owes his entire career to an arbitrary political decision made in 1977 by a now-deceased prime minister who left office in 1984.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper must now make a big decision. He must decide not only who to choose as Nunavut’s next senator, but how.
On this issue, the “how” element of the question is far more important than the “who.”
This past week, some people have been thinking out loud on the radio about whether the next Senator should “speak Inuktitut.” Others, such as Mary Simon, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, have opined that Harper should choose “an Inuk.”
All this is irrelevant. The most important attribute that a new Nunavut senator should possess is political legitimacy. To suggest otherwise is an insult to the people of Nunavut.
And in the year 2009, political legitimacy means earning your right to hold office by means of a fair, open election.
Here’s what Stephen Harper said on Oct. 16, 2007, when Bert Brown of Alberta, one of only two elected senators, was inducted into the Red Chamber:
“The mandate to govern, when it is given to you directly by the people, is a great honour and a great responsibility. It’s the very essence of responsible government, and it is the minimum condition of 21st century democracy.”
Note Harper’s choice of words: “the very essence of responsible government” and “the minimum condition of 21st century democracy.”
A year later, Harper flushed these lofty principles down the toilet when he filled 18 vacant Senate seats with Conservatives by direct appointment and not by election.
But the departure of Willie Adams gives the prime minister another chance to live up to the principles of democratic accountability that he and his Conservative party campaigned on.
Harper’s next conversation on this issue, therefore, should not take place between himself and ITK.
His next conversation on this issue should take place between himself and the two groups whose interests are most affected by it: the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut, and the people of Nunavut.
When Willie Adams vacated his seat, the interests of the legislative assembly were automatically triggered.
This is because it’s part of the Senate’s role to provide representation for regions. In his case, Adams provided federal representation for the same geographic region that the legislative assembly is responsible for.
So before Harper makes any decision on Nunavut’s vacant seat, he must first consult Nunavut’s elected government and legislature. In turn, Nunavut’s elected government and legislature must demand that they be consulted.
And as part of this conversation, Harper should ask the Nunavut government to consider holding an election next fall to choose a new Nunavut senator.
Such a vote would bring the people of Nunavut into a conversation that until now, has taken place among a remote elite. Elections Nunavut has the capacity to do it. In this case, the federal government ought to help pay the cost of running the Senate election and offer the assistance of Elections Canada, should it be needed.
At the very least, Nunavut’s government and legislature must be given a chance to decide if they want to do this. They are the rightful owners of the issue.
If the Nunavut government decides not to hold a Senate seat election, there’s another option they could consider: choose a Senate appointee by means of a vote among the 19 MLAS. This is a less appealing option than a direct election by all voters, but it would at least give the new Nunavut senator some semblance of political legitimacy.
One thing is certain: if the prime minister accepts only ITK’s advice, Nunavut’s new senator would have no political legitimacy.
As a private ethnic association, ITK has the right to lobby on the behalf of the four private land claim corporations whose interests they represent in Ottawa, and they have the right to express whatever opinions they choose to form on this and any other issue.
But their stated position, so far, rests on inaccurate assumptions. Willie Adams did not represent “Inuit Nunangat.” Before 1999, he represented all the people of the Northwest Territories and after 1999, he represented all the people of Nunavut, regardless of ethnicity.
This means that the most legitimate option for filling his vacant seat is also the most democratic option: an election. JB