Q & A

How territorial governments reflect 'settler politics'

Jerald Sabin's recent PhD dissertation looks at why the governments of Yukon and Northwest Territories continue to echo southern Canadian norms despite decades of Indigenous activism and innovation in political institutions created out of land claims.

Non-Indigenous society lobbied for local governments, but recreated southern Canadian institutions: academic

A view of the N.W.T. legislative assembly chamber. Jerald Sabin's recent PhD dissertation looks at why the governments of Yukon and Northwest Territories continue to echo southern Canadian norms despite decades of Indigenous activism and innovation in political institutions created out of land claims. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

An academic's recent PhD dissertation looks at why the governments of Yukon and Northwest Territories continue to echo southern Canadian norms despite decades of Indigenous activism and innovation in political institutions created out of land claims. 

Jerald Sabin is one of the founding editors of Northern Public Affairs and a research associate with the Carleton Centre for Community Innovation

He recently completed his PhD in political science at University of Toronto. His dissertation is titled Contested colonialism: the rise of settler politics in Yukon and the Northwest Territories.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Can you give us the short explanation of your dissertation?

The puzzle I was trying to unravel is when you look at political development in Yukon and the Northwest Territories, you see 40 years of innovation. There's a lot of really interesting and innovative political institutions that have been created out of the land claims and which reflect Indigenous peoples' struggle for self-determination.

Jerald Sabin recently completed his PhD in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. (submitted by Jerald Sabin)

What's so striking is that you also see a set of institutions, namely the governments of Yukon and the Northwest Territories, that look like governments in other parts of Canada. I wanted to understand why would it be that you have the Government of the Northwest Territories that kind of looks like the Government of Alberta, or the Government of Yukon that kind of looks like the Government of British Columbia, when you've had this long period of activism and struggle and the creation of new institutions. I tried to get at how it came to be that after these 40 years we still have these very typical political institutions in the North.

What do you mean when you say the governments look very similar to those elsewhere?

Of course, we know there are no parties in the Northwest Territories, but when we look at the general structure of the legislative assembly, how it operates, the structure of the bureaucracy and its priorities, it really is quite reflective of what goes on elsewhere.

So what I argue in my work is that we have to go back in time to the 1960s and 1970s when these institutions were being set up and look at how that came about.

Up until 1967 the actual capital of the Northwest Territories was Ottawa, and there was a commission that happened in 1965-66 that recommended that the capital was moved from Ottawa to Yellowknife. In that commission, you see reflected largely the views and opinions of the non-Indigenous population of the territories.

So my work looks primarily at how non-Indigenous peoples have used the political tools around them over time to create political institutions that reflect the priorities and needs of that population.

If you've moved up from southern Canada and you're used to a particular kind of government in Ontario or on the Prairies, you want to see that in the Northwest Territories, too. And so non-Indigenous people worked, they organized, and convinced the federal government to give them very similar institutions. Now once that government's created, it tends not to go away. Over time it becomes entrenched, solidified in the ground and it becomes very difficult, even when you have all of this innovation around in the creation of the claims and Indigenous governments, to transform that central institution.

What's the contested part in contested colonialism?

What I document in the dissertation is the creation of a non-Indigenous society in the territories, or a white society. There are several elements that go into that. The first is that you need to have a stable population, that either replicates itself or that enables people to move from other parts of Canada or the world and to become familiar with its culture, its outlook on the world. So you have the creation, then, of an identity — an identity of being a northerner. A good example is the 'sourdough' or the long-time Yukoner.

Then you need to organize and become politicized, in a way, and what happened was many of the political leaders in the '60s and '70s started to see themselves in a colonial relationship with the federal government and they talked about it in those terms. Which of course will be strange, given that they're the newcomers to the territory.

So they began talking about themselves in this way that was like 'no, we're the marginalized people in the territories and only once we've got our political institutions will we be able to fulfil our economic and political destiny in the territory.' 

You actually see, right at the creation of the Government of the Northwest Territories, a goal to privilege one group over another and that has continued, I think, to shape the relationship between the Government of the Northwest Territories and Indigenous peoples through the '70s, '80s and beyond.

WIth files from Loren McGinnis