Graham White & Nunavut

Jack Hicks

It is a rare and a special thing when a person can look back and identify the precise moment when an important relationship in their life began. In my case it was the receipt, just over twenty years ago at my desk as Director of Research for the Nunavut Implementation Commission (NIC), of a four-page letter from a Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto enquiring if he might stop by and pay our office a visit during a forthcoming to Iqaluit.

I remember reading this letter several times and sharing it with my co-workers, simply because it was such a brilliant letter. After explaining that he was a guy from Toronto who had become intrigued by the non-partisan legislative system in the Northwest Territories, Dr. White expressed fascination with the work just underway to divide the NWT and create a third territory.

And Graham had clearly done his homework, having read and given much thought to all the documents that had been produced to that point. In his letter he expressed enthusiasm for the NIC’s proposal for a “gender equal” legislature employing two-member constituencies. He warned against the suggestion (and it was never more than that, an option for consideration) that Nunavut might have a directly-elected Premier. The former he saw as an entirely workable innovation within the framework of a Westminster legislature, the latter he saw as potentially quite dangerous. He laid out his arguments clearly and compellingly. And as a professor will do, he gently and humorously corrected a factual error (about some obscure aspect of Canadian legislative history) that he had found in a footnote of something the NIC had published.

It should be noted that Graham has a great sense of humour. In May 2000 he felt compelled to write a letter to Nunatsiaq News about a photo caption, noting that Gene Vincent would never be caught dead in a sequined white jumpsuit.

And so it was that one-day Professor Graham White strolled into the NIC’s tiny research office – two apartments with a wall knocked out between them – clearly astonished. “You can’t design a government like this!” he exclaimed. His point being that surely there were another hundred or so planners tucked away in another office somewhere… As I came to understand Graham’s fascination with institutional design and the dynamics of institutional change, and with attempts to incorporate Aboriginal values into modern governance systems, I realized what an amazing moment that must have been for him.

Nunavut was a challenging project for an Ontario academic to take on. An understanding of the territory’s past, present, and aspirations cannot be obtained solely from reading documents – it requires spending time on the ground, in Iqaluit and in the smaller communities, and speaking with both those making decisions and those living with the results of decisions. Graham made a long-term commitment to his work on the new territory, and made many research trips North.

The structures established by implementation of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement are unique, and relationships between them are complex. Graham invested in learning not just about legislative political process, but also about the operations of the representative Inuit organization Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) and the institutions of public government. Now, one of Graham’s “retirement projects” is to finish a book on the wildlife management boards in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Yukon.

Simply put, Graham was the only academic who realized that something really interesting and complicated was about to happen in the evolution of governance in the Eastern and Central Arctic and decided to try and study it in great detail. Others have considered the big picture, and still others have looked at pieces of the puzzle, but only Graham has tried to research, write about, and teach about the puzzle as a whole.

But there is more to the story than Graham extending the range of his knowledge of, and publications about, politics at the provincial/territorial level. Having worked in the Clerk’s Office in the Ontario legislature, Graham understood that political and bureaucratic systems are composed of people. His fascination with the life stories of the individuals he met on visits, being they Inuit who had grown up in Nunavut or southerners who had been drawn to Nunavut, gave him insights into the human aspects of the processes that were unfolding. As an example, Graham often remarked on the shared commitment and personal connections he saw between the politicians and officials of the NIC, NTI, the GoC and the GNWT – commitment and connection which cut across the institutional silos the staff worked within.

In the years after Nunavut’s creation Graham spent countless days in conversation with officials of all manner of organizations – listening carefully to their reflections on the challenges they faced, asking practical questions, offering observations of his own and (although he would never phrase it as such) wisdom drawn from his vast and nuanced knowledge of Canadian politics, and – when invited to do so – making presentations in meetings and workshops. Genuinely wanting to see the new governance arrangements work smoothly, Graham never turned down an opportunity to offer practical help in any way he could.

Graham White’s years of work in and on Nunavut have set a high standard for how an academic should engage with, and contribute to, his field of research. I hope that his career inspires some young scholars to follow his example and make a comparable contribution in their own careers.

For the record I would like to note that Graham and I still occasionally sigh and express regret that the “gender parity” proposal was defeated in a public vote, after almost the entire political leadership had agreed to give it a try. Far more contentious aspects of the design of the government had been settled by consensus between the three parties to the Nunavut Political Accord (Canada, NTI, and the GNWT) after discussion of design options proposed by the NIC, but the GNWT decided that this one matter had to be put to a public vote. The proposal would have set the new legislature off on a bold and hopeful course. We’ll never know, but Graham and I agree that social issues could only have been given greater attention if there had been equal numbers of women and men in the Legislative Assembly on Nunavut.

Jack Hicks is a social research consultant and a university and college lecturer based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He is co-author, with Graham White, of Made in Nunavut: An Experiment in Decentralized Government, which was published by UBC Press in December, 2015.