Territories’ Evolutionary Advance

Readers may have come across my piece published here a few months ago “A Little Reorganization: A Lot of Meaning!” I talk there about the symbolic advancement of Canada’s three territories with the transfer of responsibility for the North from Crown-Indigenous Relations to Intergovernmental and Northern Affairs and Internal Trade, which in effect reflects Canada’s willingness to work with the territories as partners (junior partners mind you) within the “Provincial club”.

Much to my delight I write again on a similar matter. The Prime Minister announced August 28, 2018 that, effective October 1 the senior judges of the Supreme Court of Yukon (The Honourable Justice Ronald S. Veale), the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories (The Honourable Justice Louise A. Charbonneau) and the Nunavut Court of Justice (The Honourable Justice Neil A. Sharkey) will assume the title of Chief Justice.

As the Prime Minister notes in the News Release:

“Territorial senior judges have always fulfilled the same duties to the court and to Canadians as their provincial chief justice counterparts. Starting October 1, territorial senior judges will be properly recognized as Chief Justices. This is about fairness and an equal recognition of roles and powers across the country.”
—The Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada

Somewhere along the line I had missed an earlier announcement by the Minister of Justice that this change would be made. This dates back to a Release by the Minister dated November 14, 2017. However this more recent announcement by the Prime Minister confirms this legislated act will take effect later this year.

A little history here… The evolutionary march forward for the territories moving toward provincial status got serious in the late 1960s and through the 1970s. In Yukon, for instance, the late 1960s saw transfer of executive responsibilities from the federally appointed Commissioner to members of the Territorial Council (the name used for the legislative assembly of the day). In 1979 the federal Minister responsible for the territories turned full executive authority to the party with the most seats in the assembly. Ultimately Government Leader Chris Pearson took over the function of the executive replacing the Commissioner as the Chair (President) of the Executive Council (the Cabinet). So, why all these brackets around titles? Well, because name change has been a very significant part of the symbolism of constitutional change for the territories over the years since the 1960s.

“Territorial Council”, through Ministerial Order in 1979, became “Legislative Assembly”. Later, in 2002, with a massive update and rewrite of the Yukon’s Constitution, the Yukon Act, the change was enshrined in law. The “Executive Committee”, so named in the 1960s and through much of the ‘70s was granted the title of “Cabinet”, and in the Yukon Act “Executive Council”. The title of “Government Leader” evolved to that of “Premier”. And, although the step has not yet been taken, there have been discussions in the past among the Governor General, the Prime Minister’s Office, Lieutenant Governors and the Commissioners about changing “Commissioner” to something more appropriate to reflect that that Office now acts in all matters in the way expected of Lieutenant Governors (regarding the role of today’s Commissioner, check out the 2000 Government of Canada publication, Commissioners of the Territories).

The Northwest Territories and Nunavut have had different histories, but the use of the province-like titles is today consistent for all three.

So, it is in this context of the evolution of titles for the territories that I applaud the vision of Canada in declaring that the third branch of government in each of the territories, the Judiciary, be given the distinction of titles consistent with those used in the Provinces where the Office of Chief Justice is concerned.


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