There has long been acrimony between Yellowknife and the NWT’s smaller communities over the subject of how much say the city should have in territorial politics.
In arguing for a more consequential shift in that balance, MLAs rejected the commission’s recommendation that only minor changes be made. Those changes would have balanced the distribution of voters among Yellowknife and Inuvik districts, but left everything else essentially untouched.
With four MLAs not present for the vote and Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly abstaining, seven dissenting votes were enough to defeat the commission’s recommendation.
More voice for Yellowknife?
“I think when we gave this to the commission, many of us expected to see the addition of Yellowknife seats,” said Rylund Johnson, the Yellowknife North MLA, who voted against the commission’s limited changes – essentially rejecting its key finding.
Johnson argued that under the commission’s math, Yellowknife would have to reach a population of 26,000 before earning an eighth seat, which he said “locked in … the under-representation of Yellowknifers for the coming decades.”
He also complained that, in one of its bolder moves, the commission recommended assigning the Ingraham Trail’s residents to the Range Lake electoral district rather than his own.
The MLA said he feared the proposed changes would not pass a judicial review as, in some instances, they would leave districts with too little representation according to norms previously established by the Supreme Court.
The Great Slave district of Yellowknife would also be significantly redesigned in the commission’s other change of note – again, an effort to balance the number of residents in each district. Katrina Nokleby, the present Great Slave MLA, said she was disappointed by that change but prepared to support the commission’s proposal.
Premier Caroline Cochrane and finance minister Caroline Wawzonek, however – both Yellowknife MLAs – agreed with Johnson that the commission had failed in its task.
Cochrane said Yellowknife’s desire for more seats, as demonstrated in a 2015 lawsuit that the city lost, “should have been addressed.” Wawzonek said the commission’s proposal “does not resolve the chronic and historic under-representation of Yellowknife residents.”
Jane Weyallon Armstrong, the Monfwi MLA, said the Tłı̨chǫ request for at least one additional seat was again being overlooked.
“It’s not right,” she said. “In Behchokǫ̀ alone, we have close to 2,000 population. We are under-represented and people do get frustrated.”
Johnson, Cochrane and Weyallon Armstrong were joined by Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green, Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Richard Edjericon, Sahtu MLA Paulie Chinna and Deh Cho MLA Ron Bonnetrouge in opposing the commission’s recommendation.
The commission’s proposal was supported by six MLAs: Yellowknife South’s Wawzonek (despite her reservations), Hay River South’s Rocky Simpson, Hay River North’s RJ Simpson, Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson and Inuvik Boot Lake MLA Diane Archie. Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler, chairing the session at the time of the debate, did not vote.
Frederick Blake Jr, Jackie Jacobson, Frieda Martselos and Caitlin Cleveland did not vote.
‘We don’t want to go there’
With the commission’s proposal voted down, the NWT’s electoral boundaries will almost certainly remain as they are for the next election in the fall of 2023.
Too little time exists, if ordinary channels are followed, for any replacement proposal to come forward and be accepted.
“For Yellowknife MLAs to be tinkering with the boundaries themselves … we don’t want to go there,” said O’Reilly, who suggested either returning the problem to the same commission or approaching Elections NWT, which oversees territorial elections, for a solution.
The electoral boundaries commission’s members were former minister Glen Abernethy, former judge Ted Richard, and former Hay River mayor Jack Rowe.
Their work, which took place between June 2021 and May 2022, had a budget of $150,000.
In its final report, the commission declared it was “of the view that, for the most part, in all of the relevant circumstances, the current number and distribution of seats in the Legislative Assembly does provide for fair and effective representation for all citizens.”
The report also recommended that the names of each electoral district be reviewed. The Deh Cho district, specifically, should be renamed Dehcho in line with the usual Dene Zhatié spelling, the commission stated. That recommendation was adopted by MLAs on Tuesday.