Whatever happened to community empowerment?


It wasn’t so long that the territorial government of the day was enthusiastically promoting a major policy aimed at transferring a long list of administrative responsibilities and powers to the various community governments of the Northwest Territories.

Called “community empowerment,” the policy evolved out of a similar, but more limited initiative called “community transfer.” It was founded upon the assumption that government works best when it is close to the people who are governed, and that the people of the NWT’s small communities can best decide how to run government services, ranging from the recreation, economic development, the maintenance of local infrastructure, and social services.

Towards the end of the period when the Government of the Northwest Territories had jurisdiction over Nunavut, this idea even evolved into something called “regi0nal empowerment,” in which groups of communities were invited to band together to receive devolved programs from the territorial government. One example of this was the controversial Keewatin Pilot Project, which appears to have sunk without a trace.

Still, most Nunavut municipalities supported the community empowerment policy in principle — even though most were suspicious of the territorial government’s willingness to transfer enough money to properly run the programs and services they seemed so eager to get rid of. As well, the territorial government never seemed to provide an answer to lingering questions of whether it was prepared to pay for the training and capacity building needed to provide residents of small communities with the ability to run local programs to the satisfaction of local residents.

Since the creation of Nunavut on April 1, 1999, the new territorial government in Nunavut has been virtually silent on the issue of community empowerment. It’s not clear anymore if the Nunavut government intends to continue the policy that it has inherited from the GNWT, or if it intends to deal with municipal governments. And while the Nunavut government, led by Premier Paul Okalik, have been clear in their desire to break down the artifical barriers created by regionalism and unnecessary regional institutions, the Nunavut government has been less than clear on the question of how it plans to deal with Nunavut’s municipal governments.

The Hamlet of Clyde River’s widely-publicized and still unresolved financial problems, which go back to 1988, ought to tell us that the territorial government must devote some urgent attention to the issue.

Given the dysfunctional state of Clyde River’s finances, and the lack of capacity with its municipal government, true community empowerment seems a long way away right now for Clyde River residents. And there are several other have-not communities in Nunavut whose municipal finances aren’t much healthier. It seems likely that the 15 Nunavut communities that will receive no jobs, no government functions, and few benefits from the creation of Nunavut will create increasingly difficult issues for officials within Nunavut’s Department of Community Government.

For some communities, mere survival, not empowerment, will be the challenge of the future. The Nunavut government must make it a priority to reform the funding formulas that it uses to grant money to small community governments such as Clyde River’s. JB

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