Gender Parity in Nunavut?


Jens Dahl

On the 26th of May 1997 inhabitants of the soon to be self-governing region of Nunavut voted on so-called electoral gender parity of men and women. The voters were asked to vote yes or no on "Should the first Nunavut Legislative Assembly have equal numbers of men and women MLAs, with one man and one woman elected to represent each electoral district? _ Yes, _ No." If the proposal were to pass, one woman from a special women's list and one man from a special men's list would be elected from each of the 10 or 11 electoral districts. Each voter, regardless of sex, would mark two boxes: one from the women's list and one from the men's list.

The story has a quick ending, because on 26 May the proposal was rejected. 57% of Nunavut's volers voted against the proposal and only 43%, for. 39% of the eligible voters went to the polls. The plebiscite and plebiscite results are, however, interesting for a number of reasons:

- How can it be that there was a plebiscite on such a radical proposal? Even by global standards the proposal was unique;

- The public debate leading up to the plebiscite and the voters' decision addressed a fundamental question: the culturally determined relationship between men and women in the modern Inuit society.


In 1992, the Canadian federal government made a two fold agreement with the Inuit people in the Northwest Territories. The 20,000 Inuits form a majority (approximately 85%) of the population in Canada's enormous northeastern corner, Nunavut, - Greenland's closest neighbors to the west - and since the mid-1970s, they have demanded the right to self-determination. The 1992 agreements ensured the lnuits ownership rights to a good 18% of Nunavut (of which approximately 10% included full rights to subsoil resources) and gave them special hunting and fishing rights thioughout the whole of Nunavut. Moreover,. their land claims agreement with the Canadian government guaranteed special rights in connection with use of renewable resources throughout Nunavut. Only the Inuit are included in this land claim agreement.

A political accord calling for establishment of a self-governing region, Nunavut, in 1999 was attached to the land claim agreement. Similar to the Greenland Home Rule Government, the political accord will establish a territory where all habitants, regardless of ethnicity, have the same political and social rights. The Inuit conditioned the land claim agreement by demanding the establishment of Inunavut - well aware that they constitute he vast majority of the population.

Ahead of them lay the big job of establishing Nunavut's institutions. The Inuit had negotiated through the organization Tungavik Federation of Nunavat. After entering into the land claim agreement the organisation's name was changed to Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI). In addition to representing Inuit the NTI will manage all Inuit owned land.

Furthermore, the NTI entered into a trilateral co-operation with the federal government and Northwest Territories' government in Yellowknife. Together, they established a special institution, Nunavut Implementation Commission (NIC), which will advise the founding parties and provide proposals for the structure of Nunavut's many new institutions as well as the big questions of Inuit employment, establishment of an Inuit controlled economy, transfer of employees from Yellowknife to Nunavut, etc. Additionally, NIC has twice called for plebiscites to determine the inhabitants' opinion on issues of central importance for Nunavut. In both cases the issues were extremely controversial. The first plebiscite was called to determine where Nunavut's new capital would be located. Iqaluit, Nunavut's largest city, was selected.

Among the questions NIC had to respond to was the division of Nunavut in electoral districts as well as proposals for an electoral system (proportional represensation, individual constituencies, electoral lists, etc.). In December, 1994, NlC brought forth a discussion proposal on gender parity, and two years later NIC was able to present a concrete proposal to the federal government, territorial government and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. The proposal was backed by a number of the Inuit's own organizations as well as the federal minister responsible for indigenous affairs. On the other hand, the Northwest Territories' government was against the proposal, and the Nunavut caucus in the local parliament in Yellowknife did not support the proposal either. The opposition was led by Manitok Thomsen who is the Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs and the Women's Directorate.

The campaign

We are sitting in the school's gymnasium, an audience of approximately 35 listeners. Most have not removed their quilted jackets and hats, even though it is not so cold in the hall. Some women are sitting on a couple of benches along the side with their children in amoat, the special type of anorak where the hat is shaped like a pouch. There is also a table with coffee and different kinds of homemade, baked goods off to the side. The evening's three speakers are sitting at a couple of tables in front of us.

We are in Pangnirtung, a small community on Baffin island, Canada. More precisely, we are in a side-fjord deep in the Cumberland Sound on the east side of Baffin Island. It is the end of May, but the fjord is still covered with ice and the hunters still travel by snow mobile on the ice.

The meeting in the school has been called on the occasion of the approaching plebiscite on whether or not the new self-governing territory of Nunavut should have a legislative assembly with an equal number of man and women.

The three guests on the podium represent the national Inuit organizations which put forth the proposal on equal representation of men and women. They are welcomed by a local man, who asks one of the listeners present to come up to the podium and open the meeting with a prayer Then it is time for the speakers. After the short presentations there is a question and answer session. The meeting takes place in Inuktitut, but there is simultaneous translation to English to the delight of the non-Inukitut speaking part of the audience.

Men are the first to respond They apologise for the low turnout, but explain that due to the good weather most men went hunting. They are not excited about the proposal. Men are the masters at home, and only problems will result if women go off instead of staying at home with the children. Moreover, they state that 'all Canadians are equal, and we can become priests or presidents - even women', to illustrate that the proposal is superfluous.

Counter-arguments are put forth from the podium, that, for example, praxis shows that women do not have the same opportunities as men. In the future Nunavut it will be necessary to try something new to resolve the many serious social problems. And here it is important that women and men work together. 'The existing Northwest Territories parliament is something that has been rammed down our throats, so this is our proposal as to how we want to organize ourselves', is heard.

The debate goes back and forth. It is basically only men who speak out. After a solid hour and a half the meeting is about to come to a close. Then one of the women speaks out: 'We need to try something new she says. 'With all of the bad news reaching us by radio everyday, I want something good to happen. And equal representation of men and women in Nunavut's new legislative assembly is a good place to start: The podium is unable to respond before another woman from the hall supports her, and she is barely finished before another woman takes over.

The meeting could easily give the impression that only men were opposed to the proposal. During the days leading up to the meeting there were radio and TV broadcasts of interviews with many women who, with the same arguments as the men in Pangnirtung, were against the proposal: all Canadians have the same rights, men and women; it is just a question of the best qualified seizing the opportunity. Supporters of the proposal point out that Nunavut first and foremost benefits men with the proposal on special financial support to hunters.

A constant issue is the comparison between the home and the future legislative assembly, 'house of commons'. Supporters of the proposal state that the legislative assembly should have the same gender parity of men and women as found in the home. One listener expressed on the radio that 'if the legislative assembly is to be a home, there should be room for both a mother arid father figure'. The role of men and women is different, but they complement each other and are of equal importance. That is how it should also be in the legislative assembly there are issues which women are best able to see to, and it is therefore imperative that their representation be assured. Likewise, with a starting point in the traditional division of roles in the home, opponents state that women should stay at home.

Another issue is the proposal's status as regards the Christian conception of the relationship between men and women. At the meeting in Pangnirtung one of the male listeners tried to argue that men were more intelligent than women. He modified his position, however, when the podium countered that God created man and woman equal. On the other hand, religion was often heard being used on the radio as the basis for opposition to the proposal.

A third issue is discrimination. Even women raised this question. Electoral gender parity will discriminate against women, because they will not be able to compete with men (I have neither heard nor seen presented the opposite and technically correct argument that the proposal will also discriminate against men), and if the two best candidates in a district are women, only one of them will be able to be elected.

Many of the issues which had been on the radio or TV during the previous weeks were repeated at the meeting in Pangnirtung. One of the issues which had been touched on by many perspectives was if electoral gender parity of men and women was in agreement with traditional Inuit ideas and values. And what is traditional and what is not? Are the consequences of equal representation of men and women in the legislative assembly in accordance with traditional Inuit values, or do they break with the old customs? Does the proposal represent an attempt to return to traditional, valued Inuit ideals, or is it a product of modern times?

In connection to this, a question arose several times as to whether or not the present proposal came from the Inuit themselves or if it was a proposal from the South. The latter was argued by opponents of the proposal. Considering that the existing considered it to be of no matter where the proposal originated; for them it was crucial that Inuits themselves found their own ways to resolve key issues. 'gender parity is made in Nunavat'.

After the meeting in Pangnirtung the guests flew back to Iqaluit, Nunavut's future capital, located a solid one hour flight south of Pangnirtung.

The plebiscite

There was not much evidence that in Iqaluit, on the 26th of May, a crucial plebiscite had taken place. But the event had been carefully covered by the northern media, both radio and TV. At the national level the vote received less attention and was dwarfed by coverage of the Canadian parliamentary elections to be held the following week. Due to the time difference between eastern and western Nunavut, the plebiscite ended two hours later in the west than in Iqaluit.

About a dozen people were gathered together in Nunavat Tunngavik Inc.'s rooms, including the leaders, who during the previous weeks had come out in full support of the proposal. It was not until nine o'clock that evening that the first results were announced on the radio. They were from the Arctic Bay/Nanisivik on Baffin Island and showed a small majority against. Soon thereafter the results from the nearby prison (for men) arrived and showed a small majority for the proposal' which gave cause to a number ol comments.

Judging from the results from the Baffin Island region, it quickly became clear that it would be difficult to obtain a majority for the proposal. And this tendency became more and more obvious as the evening drew on and results from the eastern region (Nunavut has three regions. Baffin Island, Kivalliq (Keewatin) and the northern region Kitikmeot) came in. In Kivalliq there was a solid majority against the proposal which made any hope for passage of the proposal unrealistic. In Chesterfield Inlet there were 117 votes against the proposal and only 9 for; Repulse Bay showed 143 against and only 16 for; the region's largest city, Rankin Inlet, showed 305 for and 112 against the proposal.

It was now clear that the proposal had been rejected even though in the little northern region of Kitikmeot there was support for the proposal - this was the only region to vote in its favour.

As the evening drew to a close, only the results from Iqaluit, the largest city, were still missing. Only an enormous voter turnout and overwhelming majority for the proposal could change the result to a yes. The results first arrived around 11.30, and by then many had abandoned Nunavut Tunngavik's offices. The atmosphere in the office was far from cheerful. One of the leading politicians watched a hockey game on TV, out of frustration, and refused at that time to speak to the radio or TV.

Five out of six communities in Kitikmeot had voted 'yes', but the voter turnout percentage was low. In the largest region, Baffin, there were three times as many votes as in Kitikmeot and double the number of votes in Kivalliq. The voter turnout was 40,5% in Baffin; 38,4% in Kivalliq; and 32,0% in Kitikmeot. Umingmaktok (Kitikmeot) had the highest turnout of any region (76% ), but there were only 50 voters entitled to vote. 75% of Chesterfield Inlet's (Kivalliq) 169 voters voted. Umingmaktok voted 'yes', and Chestefield InIet had an overwhelming majority against.

[A detailed chart (40k) of election results by community is available here.]

The lowest voter turnout rate was in Kugluktuk (Kitikmeot) with 21% and 635 voters; Clyde River (Baffin) with 26% and 341 voters and Baker Lake (Kivalliq) with 28% and 741 entitled to vote. Kugluktuk was the only one of the three to vote 'yes'. There are a number of reasons to explain the low percentage of voters. Both supporters and opponents stated that the month of May is a period during which many inhabitants set out to fish or hunt. Another explanation is purely and simply a lack of interest in the proposal.

At this point it had to be accepted that the proposal had been voted on and rejected. Reactions to the plebiscite results in the following days were varied. Inuit leaders had suffered a considerable defeat - on the other hand, it was inflicted by their own constituents. There was no evidence that it was especially Inuit who had been the supporters and the white Canadians who had been the opponents. There are not enough of the latter group, and Iqaluit with its many white inhabitants actually voted 'yes' to the proposal contrary to many communities with few White inhabitants which voted 'no'. In Chesterfield Inlet, for example, where 94% of the population are Inuit, 93% voted against the proposal. The leading article after the vote in the prominent Nunavut newspaper Nunatsiaq News was a bitter and frustrated reaction:

Compared to most of Nunavut's men, Nunavut's women are more literate, more level-headed and more skilled ... A self-governing Nunavut will need leaders who know how to read, write, count and compute in both our major languages, and leaders who know how to show up for work without a hangover. But take a look at who shows up the next time your regional Inuit association or community council holds a meeting. Then, count the number of men around the table who possess those qualities. Next, count the number of women who possess those qualities. Observe who's doing the typing, the interpreting, the translating, the minute taking, the bookkeeping and the telephone answering. Observe who's doing the work that actually takes brains to do. If you do that, you'll understand what the people of Nunavut really lost on Monday's vote. You'll understand that the gender parity proposal was not created for the benefit of women - it was created for the benefit of all. (Nunatsiaq News, 30, May 1997)

The majority of Inuit political leaders supported the proposal on gender parity of men and women.

Some had originally been opponents, but during the two years that the proposal circulated many of them changed their opinion. Considering this, there is good reason to question why the majority of the population voted against the proposal anyway. A good part of the answer will only be conjecture, but the results could show something about modern Inuit culture anyway.

Plebiscite results showed certain regional differences in that Kivalliq unequivocally voted against the proposal. One explanation can be the simple fact that the leading opponent, Manitok Thomsen, comes from there. It could also be that the Inuit's leadership has been associated with the Baffin region, which is not unthinkable even though most political leaders come from Kivalliq (as they always have done).

The plebiscite results can be understood as a certain competition between regions but also as a protest against the political leaders' power. Frustration that Iqaluit is to be the capital of Nunavut (and not Rankin Inlet in Kivalliq) could have played a role as well. The fact that it is felt that many of the positions the new development has created are monopolised by a little elite with connections to the leading Inuit organizations, which are based in Iqaluit, could also have been a factor. In this connection it should not be forgotten that there have not been any concrete improvements for most people during the preparations for the establishment of Nunavut - after decades of discussions and promises they are still waiting. Nevertheless, in the big picture, the plebiscite results show Nunavut to be more homogenous than in the regions.

During the weeks leading up to the vote representatives for Nunavut Tunngavik inc., Nunavut Implementation Commission and Pauktuutit (the Inuits women's organization) ran a campaign in which they visited a number of communitics in Nunavut. However, the plebiscite results do not evidence that these visits had any positive effect for their cause - in fact the opposite is true.

This can be explained by the fact that many people felt intimidated by the one-sided campaign. Why didn't you bring representatives from the opposition'' Who has paid for your campaign? These and similar questions were repeatedly asked during the meetings and by the media.

Perhaps many reacted against the feeling that they were being forced to do something and therefore withdrew and voted 'no'. There was talk of conservatism after the vote. Instead, maybe it should be understood as a withdrawal of support for a politician, not out of disagreement but simply because his or her power is beyond that which can be considered to be legitimate. Both sides legitimated their positions by referring to the Inuit's traditional values and ideals. In this light it can be said that the result is an expression of a positive diversity in modern Inuit culture, because it is basically unimportant who is right. Both sides referred to their position's consistency with modernity, for example, human rights.

The proposal on gender parity of men and women led a number of men to see the proposal as a threat to their position. The man is the traditional hunter who comes home with the catch; he is the provider. After hunting he comes home not only with food but with experiences, information and new knowledge about other people and about nature. It is the man who passes on his knowledge - the woman listens. In many ways the last decades have witnessed a break in this monopoly. Women have become wage earners; many have a good education; and it is now often men who are unemployed and must stay home.

This development has been psychologically difficult for many men. On top of this they are faced with a proposal which is seen to be an attempt to give women a special political position (at the cost of men. because it is not considered to be an attempt to ensure men an equal position with women) - a position which will make them the providers of income, information and power. It could be pointed out that in reality the proposal would only affect a dozen women or so.

A quantitative argument is. however, not important if it is the symbolic meaning of the proposal which determines people's position. It can be assumed that many men perhaps came to consider the proposal to be the essence ot the process that has deprived them of their role as provider.

The difficulties of understanding the results in terms of voter behaviour among traditional (in the Euro-American sense) social groups was made clear in a TV programme about young people. It would have been expected that young people would be more open to the proposal thar older people, but after the programme it was clear that among both Inuit and nonInuit youth there was a marked opposition to the proposal.

It has been mentioned on several occasions that the proposal on gender parity of men and women did not come from the Inuit people themselves. However, nothing suggests that this has been a decisive factor for opponents. That the proposal was accepted by a broad group instead suggests that many must have felt that it passed in with their cultural values - or perhaps that it was in agreement with the strong desire that Nunavut should function differently from the Euro-Canadian society which for decades has been forced on the Inuit people.

At any rate, it is the opinion of this article's author that if the proposal had been approved it would have meant that the entire world would have taken notice of the development in Nunavut. But of even greater importance, it could have contributed to an Inuit understanding that it is possible to do things differently than they way they have been forced to do things by outside forces.

In the meantime, however, the proposal has been defeated by plebiscite and it is doubtful that it will be reintroduced. The strong opposition to the proposal by women shows that the desire for a strong family plays a dominant role in Inuit culture. Any initiative which can be interpreted as a threat to the family will be rejected out of fear for more social problems. Regardless of who has the best solutions, in Nunavut there is a strong ideological desire to strengthen close family relations - even if there are many indications in everyday life that point in the opposite direction. Or, as many pointed out before the plebiscite, equality of men and women should first take place in the hope before being carried out in other places.

[This article is reprinted with permission from the July-December, 1997 issue [no.3/4] of Indigenous Affairs, International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, Copenhagen, Denmark.]

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