The N.W.T. may, finally, be ready for more women in gov't

Traditionally, men have dominated the Northwest Territories legislature, with only two of 19 seats going to women in the 2015 election. However, as Catherine Lafferty writes, the Oct. 1 election could be where we see that change.

Columnist Catherine Lafferty says a gender-reversed Legislative Assembly could be just what the N.W.T. needs

The Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly. Currently, only two of the N.W.T.'s 19 MLAs are women, but columnist Catherine Lafferty says that may be about to change dramatically. (Chuck Stoody/Canadian Press)

Late last year in Hay River, I stood in line waiting to vote for a new Dene Nation leader. A brave Indigenous woman, Eileen Marlowe, had put her name in the running, marking one of the few times in the history of the Dene Nation that a woman had decided to run for a seat as national chief. 

While standing in the long lineup, I stood behind a middle-aged woman to whom I introduced myself and asked: "Who will you be voting for?"

I was surprised with the answer I got.

"I want to vote for Eileen, but I don't think she's ready. Norman [Yakeleya, who was ultimately elected] has a lot of experience."

I thought for sure she would have voted for one of our sisters. Then I asked myself the same question: is being in leadership really about the need to be experienced? Norman would also have had to start from a less than experienced position in his early career.

Eileen Marlowe at the Dene National Assembly in Hay River, N.W.T. Marlowe ultimately finished in second place to Norman Yakeleya in the race for Dene National Chief. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

I couldn't understand where the line was drawn, or where the priorities were set. Eileen had a significant post-secondary education behind her, was well known in the community, and came from a traditional family. I tried to convince the woman in front of me that a woman's perspective would be nice for a change, especially in Indigenous politics — where the pendulum still swings heavily to one side — but my efforts weren't getting through. 

I looked around and saw that the ratio of men to women in the lineup was quite even. My hopes for a new female leader dwindled. Up until that point, I thought for sure that a woman would vote for another woman, knowing that we are the minority in the political playing field.

Eileen ultimately lost the election, finishing in second place. 

I realized then that it was going to take more time for people — not just men, but women too — to get comfortable with women in leadership. 

Is change on the horizon?

Word is out: more women need to run in this year's territorial election, and people are stepping up. Already, twice as many women have announced they will put their names forward as in 2015, and there are rumours that at least one woman will run in every constituency.

We're also seeing some male cabinet ministers, like Alfred Moses, Robert C. McLeod, and Glen Abernethy bowing out. Their decisions are their own, but could it be partly because they are intimidated by their female counterparts? Or because they are moving over to make room for us?

It's definitely been said that men can be intimidated by strong women, but there are men who are confident in their abilities as leaders and fully support women, respecting them collegially. We applaud them for doing so. 

However, the question remains: are the people of the North ready to shift from a predominant patriarchal legislature to a more diversified, inclusive regime? Maybe. Just look at the influx in female mayoral leadership across the N.W.T.

The 2018 N.W.T. municipal elections resulted in women mayors in four of the territory's largest centres: Natasha Kulikowski in Inuvik, Rebecca Alty in Yellowknife, Lynn Napier-Buckley in Fort Smith, and Kandis Jameson in Hay River. (CBC)

Since the 2015 election, Hay River, Fort Smith, Inuvik, and Yellowknife have all elected female mayors. Female chiefs in the North are on the rise as well. There's also hope of further progression as these leaders prove that women are more than capable of exercising their strengths in leadership with brilliance and grace, making moves that create long-lasting change for the betterment of their communities — and, more importantly — doing so with compassion for the people they serve. 

It's good that the Legislative Assembly has recently had formidable women like Julie Green and Caroline Cochrane, the only two women elected to the assembly in 2015, serving their ridings. But we need more. We have our historical figures — Ethel Blondin-Andrew, Nellie Cournoyea, and Lena Pederson, among others — these women have blazed a path and are an inspiration for women of the North to look up to. Now is the time to follow. 

Women are running in numbers never seen before in this year's election because they are on a mission for much-needed systemic change. I expect that if elected, they are going to do things differently. It will be a breath of fresh air to have driven women running the show; front and centre, instead of behind the scenes. We are the quiet matriarchs of entire organizations, and we will not sit behind the curtain any longer. 

So, if we do indeed see a gender reversal in the legislature, what will the N.W.T. look like with a cabinet made up with a majority of women? I can almost guarantee that business won't be done as usual, and that's just what the N.W.T. desperately needs. 

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Catherine Lafferty is a northern Indigenous author. Her first novel 'Northern Wildflower' debuted in 2018. Her upcoming fictional novel entitled 'Land-Water-Sky' is set to be released in 2020. Catherine previously served as a councillor for the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and is now in her first year of studies at the University of Victoria in the Indigenous Juris Doctor program.


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