With Nunavik Regional Government, Quebec’s the big winner


Barring more unforeseen delays, the people of Nunavik, early this year, will get to see the final blueprint for a new form of government in their region.

René Lévesque, then the premier of Quebec, planted the seeds of this project in 1983, when he agreed to negotiate a regional government for Nunavik. After two or three false starts and many years of talks, negotiators are nearly ready to unveil a draft final agreement that would, if approved, create a new entity called the Nunavik Regional Government and a deliberative body called the Nunavik Assembly.

This would trigger a community tour and a regional referendum. If more than 50 per cent of eligible voters say yes, a signing ceremony would follow, then an implementation period aimed at getting the new structure up and running by 2013.

We wish them lots of luck. For nearly 11 years, Nunavut’s frustrated populace has endured “a new form of government.” Nunavik planners would do well to learn from Nunavut’s mistakes.

First — and this is easier said than done — leaders should restrain their rhetoric. Do not create unrealistic expectations. Regular residents should also keep their expectations at a low level. But at the same time they should also demand that the quality and quantity of government services be maintained at current levels — something that did not happen in Nunavut.

Second, leaders must be honest about what the new government is and what it is not.

It is not “self-government,” Inuit or otherwise. That’s not what negotiators intended to create. As with Nunavut, it’s a public government, based on non-ethnic principles of political participation.

It is, probably, a useful but modest set of reforms. Maybe, and this is a big maybe, the Nunavik Regional Government might one day provide tools with which democratically elected people in Nunavik will make better decisions about education, health, social services and local government. On the other hand, it’s equally likely that the NRG could degenerate into a Frankenstein’s monster. To avoid disappointment, approach this project with the utmost pessimism.

Third, all observers should recognize that it’s the Quebec state that would be the biggest winner if this exercise is completed.

The NRG will be designed as a legal creature of the Quebec government, firmly under Quebec jurisdiction, responsible to the Quebec National Assembly.

No surprise there. Since the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, it’s Quebec City, not Ottawa, which has served as Nunavik’s primary paternal paymaster.

The NRG project underscores this reality. Based on estimates produced in 2009, about 82 per cent of its approximately $310 million annual budget will flow from Quebec City. Ottawa will pay only about 18 per cent. Since its regional government will exercise no taxation powers, Nunavik will contribute nothing.

The NRG legitimizes Quebec jurisdiction over a huge piece of resource-rich geography lying north of the 55th parallel. As for the people of Nunavik, they will continue to exist as utterly dependent wards of the Quebec government and it’s likely this parent-child relationship will continue for generations.

So for the many influential Quebec sovereignists and nationalists who work quietly within the Kativik Regional Government, Makivik Corp, and other regional bodies, offering key advice or running important programs, the NRG is clearly a nation-building exercise for Quebec.

Since Quebec now enjoys far more autonomy within Canada than it enjoyed 40 years ago, within a decentralized federation of provinces and territories that gets looser as each decade passes, this simply expresses Canada’s current constitutional reality. There’s no turning back.

Within all of this, the NRG offers some useful restructuring. The education board and the health and social services board will disappear and their bureaucracies will merge with that of the Kativik Regional Government. This new amalgamated entity will form the heart of the new regional government, providing services through a number of departments.

The elimination of the education and health boards means 45 public representatives will be replaced by 21. In theory, this should make regional government simpler and easier to understand than the current system.

At the same time, a government leader and four-member executive council, a kind of quasi-cabinet, will be directly elected by all eligible adult voters. This group will be stuck on top of the existing Kativik Regional Government council and the new body would be called the Nunavik Assembly.

This structure raises many questions. Who will police ethical standards for elected officials and provide safeguards against corruption? Who is responsible for access to information? If executive council members owe their jobs to the region’s voters, what happens if they lose the confidence of the assembly? How can they be disciplined or removed from office by an assembly that plays no role in choosing them? Are there enough checks and balances to prevent the abuse of power?

In the Nunavik region, where even CBC is unable to broadcast in many communities, information services are laughably poor. Put that together with the population’s low education levels and extreme isolation and you’ll find yourself asking if a healthy democracy is even possible in Nunavik.

To be fair, Nunavik government negotiators have put a lot of effort so far into providing public information, through newsletters, discussion documents, public gatherings and a website. Every literate person already ought to know the basic principles of the new government, which have existed in the public domain for years.

The NRG’s biggest benefit, perhaps, is that it provides a single forum for discussion of the Nunavik region’s bread-and-butter issues, a modest improvement over the status quo. But after its creation, Nunavik’s intractable social and economic dysfunctions will remain. JB

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