Can Nunavut afford to pay for political parties?

Cash-poor Nunavut could be vulnerable to sleaze and corruption

The seven-member Nunavut cabinet chosen at the start of the third legislative assembly in 2008 wait to be sworn in on Nov. 19, 2008. The assembly chose an eighth minister in early 2009. (File photo)

By Jim Bell

For those who believe Nunavut’s ready to choose a premier by way of a direct, pan-territorial public vote, instead of a vote held only among MLAs, there are likely many ways to bring that about.

The Nunavut Implementation Commission investigated the issue in 1996, and, though dated, many of their observations are still valid. You can find their report embedded at the bottom of this editorial.

But all those options would require complicated sets of changes to the rules and conventions under which the Nunavut legislature defines the relationship among MLAs, the premier and the executive council.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. But some believe there’s an easier way to get there.

And that is for Nunavut to encourage and embrace a system of territorial political parties.

That wouldn’t be quite the same as choosing a premier in a direct territory-wide vote. But that’s how it’s perceived, and in matters of political legitimacy, it’s often perception that counts.

For example, many Canadians likely believe that in 2015, they elected Justin Trudeau to serve as prime minister.

But they actually didn’t. They elected 338 MPs and Justin Trudeau was only one of them. He became prime minister for two reasons. One, in 2013 a private political organization called the Liberal Party of Canada chose him as their leader. Two, in 2015, 184 people loyal to that party were elected, representing a majority of the 338 seats in the House of Commons.

And it’s that Liberal majority in the House of Commons—now comprising 177 MPs—to whom Trudeau owes his job, at least until the next national election. Under the unwritten conventions of the Constitution, Trudeau governs because of their support and not because of yours.

But the party system makes people feel as if they chose Trudeau to lead the national government, and it’s that perception that matters.

Which brings us to Nunavut, where there are no legal or constitutional barriers standing in the way of a party system. So if you want to create a territorial political party for Nunavut, go right ahead. Round up 22 candidates willing to run under your party banner in the next territorial election.

But early on, you’ll run into a big problem. How do you pay for it?

In particular, how would you pay for an election campaign? How do you pay for websites, telephones, internet, posters, signs, buttons, brochures and advertisements?

Above all, how do you pay for the enormous cost of mounting a party leader’s tour throughout all or most of Nunavut’s communities?

For every political party in Canada at every level, their lifeblood is money, money given to them by large numbers of individual persons, corporations and unions.

The Yukon territory offers a useful comparison. Yes, culturally and demographically, Yukon does not resemble Nunavut. But the size of its population, about 40,000 or so, is roughly equal to Nunavut’s, and its legislature is made up of only 19 MLAs, even fewer than Nunavut’s.

The Yukon’s legislators are organized into political parties. This means their financial disclosures, released by Elections Yukon, give us a rough idea of how much it costs to run partisan election campaigns in a territory that’s roughly comparable in population size and capacity to Nunavut.

In Yukon’s last territorial election, in 2016, the Yukon Liberal Party gained power by winning 11 of 19 seats. To do that, they spent $254,774.93, Elections Yukon reported.

The second-place Yukon Party, which took six seats, spent $215,139.14. To win two seats, the third-place Yukon New Democratic Party spent $229,455.77. The tiny Yukon Green Party, which won no seats, spent only $4,118.50.

This tells us that to run a credible territorial election campaign for a population of around 40,000 people, you’ll have to raise at least $200,000 to $250,000.

So how did Yukon’s political parties raise that money? Through donations of course—within a system that imposes very few rules.

In Nunavut, no person, business or group may contribute more than $2,500 to a territorial election candidate. Also, such donors must be based only in Nunavut. Out-of-territory contributions are forbidden.

But in Yukon, it’s wide open. For example, a Vancouver-based mining company called Copper North Mining Corp. gave the Yukon Liberals a $50,000 donation in 2016. That single donation accounts for nearly one-fifth of the party’s election spending that year.

And another B.C.-based firm, called Victoria Gold Corp, gave the Yukon Party $10,000. The Yukon Party also received $6,400 from Shoppers Drug Mart Pharmaprix, based in Toronto.

As for the Yukon NDP, they received sizeable donations from unions: $10,000 from Toronto-based UNIFOR, $7,000 from the Ottawa-based Canadian Labour Congress and $5,000 from the United Steelworkers, based in Burnaby, B.C.

In Nunavut, all those contributions would be illegal. (They would also be illegal at the federal level, because Elections Canada now imposes a $1,600 limit on all contributors to federal parties and candidates.)

The Elections Nunavut rules, of course, apply only to individual non-partisan candidates contesting individual constituencies. The Nunavut Elections Act doesn’t regulate territorial political parties—because there aren’t any. But the Nunavut rules are clear: a $2,500 limit and no contributions from outside the territory.

There’s another reality to consider. Yukon’s population, as of December 2018, stands at 40,700. About three in four of those people, 31,800, live in Whitehorse and its various neighbourhoods. Almost all other communities are reachable by road. The only off-road, fly-in community is Old Crow, in the north of the territory.

This means that when Liberal leader Sandy Silver or Yukon Party leader Darrell Pasloski did their campaign tours in 2016, all they had to do was jump into their SUVs and drive around.

But if a political party’s election campaign in a comparatively low-cost jurisdiction like Yukon costs around $250,000, how much more would such a campaign cost in Nunavut?

We don’t know enough to be able to offer a precise estimate. But given the well-known costs of scheduled and charter air service, it’s likely much, much higher.

Elections Yukon reported that all territorial political parties in Yukon, together, received a total of $641,023.78 in revenues during the 2016 election year. So in higher-cost Nunavut, it’s conceivable that a viable three-party system could require between $1 million and $2 million in donations in any given election year.

Given the crushing poverty that afflicts Nunavut, where about half the population is dependent on subsidized social housing and, for at least part of the year, income support, where will these political contributions come from?

Party politics may not be as easy as you think. Without strict contribution and spending rules, a political party system in Nunavut could be extremely vulnerable to sleaze and corruption. No one, except those with vested interests, wants a system where big unions and big corporations, including royalty-rich Inuit corporations, could buy themselves an election.

Incidentally, a poorly designed system for the Nunavut-wide direct election of a premier would likely create similar exposure to sleaze and corruption.

In the end, it’s up to the elected representatives who run Nunavut’s public government who have to make the final decisions. But please be careful. As we said last month, look before you leap. JB

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(22) Comments:

  1. Posted by pissed off on

    very well written Jim!!
    and to the point

  2. Posted by inummarik on

    NOt sure where this political Party system ever came about, This has not been talked about when wanting to resurface the idea of a Territorial wide election of a Premier…These two ideas are two complete different systems…Nunavut came about because of Inuit, who want to control their own affairs, and who know how to control it and run it, for they have for thousands of years before Europeans came to this Inuit homeland.

    • Posted by Recalibrated on

      Inuit were clearly experts in living life on this land for the last 1,000 years of their occupation, but the western style political system that is in use today is an entirely new feature of political life here.

  3. Posted by look around on

    It would be useful to examine the political party system in Greenland, which has made-in-Greenland political parties rather than local franchises of Danish parties. Greenlanders find their system of government as natural as some people in Nunavut find ‘consensus government’ — which is really just a holdover from the early days of the GNWT, when White officials wanted to block the emergence of a party committed to indigenous rights. Also interesting is the fact that Greenland switched from having regional constituencies to national party lists, to strengthen ‘national’ rather than local thinking and planning.

  4. Posted by No parties on

    Political parties would be the worst, most divisive idea for Nunavut. If the Republicans/UCP/Liberals/Democrats have shown us, they easily descend into mucky sewage tank politics.

  5. Posted by Umilik on

    Political parties are the best option for Nunavut. Currently, the political set-up in Nunavut is similar to a municipal election. The candidates stand for nothing and the voters know nothing about what they believe. Here in Kitikmeot, we want pro-resource MLAs. Baffin has given into fearmongering, and they believe eco-colonialist nonsense about resource development. However, strong pro-resource party candidates in that area could educate and show the public the importance of resource development for Nunavut’s future prosperity, and thousands of jobs.

  6. Posted by Observer on

    I’m somewhat at a loss as to how it would be any different from a single person running for the job of premier. They’d have the same travel and advertising costs as a party leader, only they’d have it even worse; a party by default has a local representative in each riding, namely the candidate. Unless they’re relying totally on volunteers, a single person running for a Nunavut-wide position needs to pay people to do most of that same work. if anything, it would seem to be even more open for corruption.

  7. Posted by No parties on

    We should NEVER have political parties. Our government is much better in our current system of junior high elections that are nothing more than popularity contests where voters have no idea what policies or political philosophies they are voting for. This is so much better!!!

    • Posted by Philosophize on

      Party politics isn’t a buffer against the “popularity contest” and propensity to elect total morons, sadly. Ontario and the good old US of A seem like the best examples right now.

  8. Posted by so do it! on

    It’s worth noting that there’s nothing stopping Nunavummiut from forming political parties. It’s your right to do so. Go for it, people!

    • Posted by iWonder on

      Why though? What would be the benefit?

      • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

        Can’t be any worse than the ineffective mess that we have now, can it?

        • Posted by iRoll on

          Dialing it in a little today I guess, hey Israel?

  9. Posted by Subterranean Homesick Alien on

    With all due respect to you Mr. Bell, I wonder if your argument here, though well reasoned and valid, is not also a red herring? Conventional ways of politicking may not be viable, this is true, but this is not to say unconventional ways of communicating with constituents are not viable and that party politics itself is not viable either. In a way these points seem like an aside from the issue of whether party politics are desirable or not, thought your points about sleeze and corruption are duly noted, I doubt there is much difference between a party and a non-party system in relation to that.

  10. Posted by For real on

    Honestly people, how democratic or informed is our current non party system? Every election, all of the candidates parade around saying exactly the same things: We need more housing, an addictions treatment centre and more jobs etc.etc.etc. without any specifics on how we are to get there. Because the voters have no detailed platforms to choose from, they are left to choose the most likeable candidate (someone like George Hickes for example) and who cares about the policies anyway?? After the election, government bureaucrats draft a “mandate” for what the government intends to do for the next four years and the new MLAs just follow along with it like trained seals.

    Yes! What a democratic system we have here!!!

    • Posted by Taima on

      To those who are not happy with Nunavut as it is today, start planning how to change it. Now is the time to begin. Be ready with specific plans when the next election is held. Campaign on your plan. Get a mandate for that plan from the voters. Then make it happen.

      Don’t just get elected and then try to figure out what to do. That’s a way to waste a couple of years. Instead, do your homework now. Know what to do and how to do it.

  11. Posted by Inuit on

    Inuit lived in Canada way before anybuddy so where’s the inuit’s money going???? to immigrants and refugees! we us Inuit shouldn’t and never lack of money from gouv.

    • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

      Ummm, what “Inuit money”? Nunavut is huge net financial drain on Canada. Not saying that is the only, or even remotely the most important, way of measuring value.

  12. Posted by Fact Check on

    “Inuit lived in Canada way before anybuddy [sic]”

    Not true. Inuit arrived in Nunavut about 1,000 years ago. Approximately the same time the Vikings attempted to settle in Newfoundland. The first people to arrive in what is now Canada did so tens of thousands of years earlier and are not directly related to modern Inuit.

    “where’s the inuit’s money going????”

    What is Inuit money? The Government of Canada funds the government of Nunavut to a tune of about 90% of its budget. Still, i’m not sure what you mean by ‘Inuit money’? Can you clarify?

    “we us Inuit shouldn’t and never lack of money from gouv.” Oh yea…

    • Posted by oh boy on

      Your user name is “fact check” yet you don’t know anything about NTI massive war chest? Google “Nunavut Trust”. NTI has been sitting on millions (maybe billions by now, we don’t know) since 1993.

      • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

        We’re discussing government money though, not special interest groups like the NTI.

  13. Posted by Putuguk on

    Nunavut has been created as a political jurisdiction within which Inuit are a significant majority, and are therefore guaranteed majority representation in democratic institutions such as the Nunavut Legislative Assembly.

    In the past 20 years, this has been true – Non-Inuit are rarely elected to our Assembly. This will not change any time soon.

    A political ideology can be described as a certain set of ethical ideals, principles, doctrines, myths or symbols of a social movement, institution, class or large group that explains how society should work and offers some political and cultural blueprint for a certain social order.

    In a diverse society, parties bring these ideologies forward into governance in contrast to inform a balance of interests. Nunavut is not a diverse society, and it has been made this way on purpose.

    Inuit have a collective cultural political ideology. Our ideology is most closely matched in Canadian politics by the New Democratic Party-pluralistic, agrarian, and socialist. You can see these thoughts mirrored in IQ principles.

    It is therefore reasonable to expect that all Inuit that are elected into the Legislative Assembly will share the same ideology, and would, if political parties were created, all be part of one party.

    Having only one preeminent political party in Nunavut is as sure a recipe for corruption as there ever was, when the focus is more on what a person can parrot and spout, and not with how they act and what they do.

    For these reasons, not cost, political parties are useless in Nunavut.

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