LETTER FROM THE EDITORS: Literacy & democracy

On October 28, 2013, Nunavummiut went to the polls and elected twenty-two independent members to Nunavut’s fourth Assembly. Since 1999, Nunavut has operated under a form of consensus government derived, in part, from the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories. Under that system, the speaker, premier, and cabinet are chosen by the newly elected members in a leadership forum in the weeks following the territorial election.

Nunavut’s fourth leadership forum was held on November 15, 2013. Nominees for premier, Paul Okalik (Iqaluit-Sinaa), Paul Quassa (Aggu), and Peter Taptuna (Kugluktuk), laid out their visions for Nunavut under their leadership. After a long day of questions and discussion, Peter Taptuna was elected premier in a secret ballot. George Qulaut (Amittuq) was acclaimed as Speaker, while nine cabinet ministers were selected – an increase from the previous eight.

In some ways, the 2013 Nunavut election could be characterized as one of change. Taptuna is Nunavut’s first premier fluent in Inuinnaqtun and to represent a riding outside of Iqaluit. There was a 68% turnover from the previous Assembly. The number of women in the Assembly has not changed, and because of the increase in total members, the proportion of female MLAs has, in fact, decreased.

In other ways, this Assembly is already showing signs of continuity. Taptuna was the only nominee who served in the previous assembly, and his top priorities in his responses at the leadership forum — education, economic development, and housing — are not markedly different than those of his predecessor, Eva Aariak. The new cabinet has a mixture of new and experienced MLAs, including both Quassa and Okalik, the latter serving as Nunavut’s first premier from 1999 to 2008.

Consensus government was, at one time, defended as an important innovation in Northern governance, reflecting both the flexibility of the Westminster parliamentary system and traditional Indigenous values. Today, in both Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, consensus government is facing increasing criticism for its political and legislative outcomes.

The absence of political parties, for example, means there is no formal mechanism for developing a coherent, broadly-shared vision for the future of the territory going into an election. Instead, voters elect regular MLAs who in turn elect the premier and cabinet. These MLAs may or may not share similar views, let alone priorities, and so it is up to the premier to marshal the necessary coherence in cabinet while voters are left on the sidelines to watch the process unfold.

Of course, a formal party system is not necessarily the solution to this problem. A slate of candidates running on a common platform could emerge to challenge the status quo. But such a group would face the difficulties of long distance organizing if it wished to field candidates across the territory, not to mention the work of implementing its vision in a legislature built for consensus rather than partisan decision-making.

The selection of Nunavut’s premier by secret ballot has also become increasingly problematic. Members of the public and media are unable to vet nominees for premier during the election period, nor during the leadership forum. And while MLAs do ask questions of the nominees, candidates’ comprehensive visions for Nunavut remain obscure and, usually, unarticulated. In addition, during the election, most candidates for MLA remain mum about their leadership plans, further obstructing the public’s ability to evaluate potential premiers, ministers, and, ultimately, to take the measure of a future government. The informational burden on the electorate is significant.

This brings us to our special section on literacy in this issue, curated by the Nunavut Literacy Council, the NWT Literacy Council, and the Yukon Literacy Coalition. A healthy democratic politics requires an educated and literate population. Consensus government demands an engaged electorate, one that can analyze the political positions of candidates in twenty-two ridings. Without the benefit of political parties, or the direct election of the premier, the informational burden on Nunavummiut is high.

Education was a central issue for Inuit in the struggle for Nunavut, and it remained central in the 2013 Nunavut territorial election. Candidates took positions on social promotion in schools, standard-setting, and legislative reform, while training and adult education also registered on candidates’ platforms. In one of the election’s great upsets, former premier and education minister Eva Aariak was defeated by George Hickes Jr. who ran to make education a top priority. And, as noted above, the newly elected MLAs in turn brought their concerns about education to the leadership forum in November.

Across Northern Canada, literacy programming is helping to address the basic needs of many Northerners with already low literacy and essential skills. Literacy is the bedrock of any informed citizenry, denoting not only the ability to read and write, but also the ability to function in and critically analyze the world.

Unfortunately, while Northern literacy organizations are leading the way in developing innovative and culturally relevant programs, the federal government appears to be downgrading literacy among its policy priorities. As Brigid Hayes argues in this issue, the federal government’s narrow focus on training for the labour market through the Canada Jobs Grant, coupled with budget cuts and under spending, is likely to reduce access to programming for the most vulnerable.

Consensus politics — or any democratic politics, for that matter — cannot function properly without an educated and literate population. For this reason, those candidates who were elected on a platform to improve education deserve the support of the entire legislature. Let us hope they will be successful in spite of the challenges of consensus government. ◉


Election signs in Iqaluit, Nunavut, October, 2013.

Election signs in Iqaluit, Nunavut, October, 2013.
Photo credit: Northern Public Affairs.