After months of deliberation, Council is taking the territorial government to court over what the mayor calls Yellowknife’s ¨systemic and chronic¨ underrepresentation in the legislative assembly.
Though Yellowknife has 48 per cent of the territory’s population, it has only 36 per cent of the seats in the legislative assembly – seven of 19.
Even so, for Yellowknifers to support the City’s legal crusade, Mayor Mark Heyck feels it’s important to understand the negative impact of this underrepresentation.
“We see it all the time in the legislative assembly. There are MLAs from other regions in the territory who will state as their rationale for voting against something that it’s a project in Yellowknife.”
The Government of the Northwest Territories’ recent rejection of a motion to fast track approval for new long-term care beds at the Avens Centre is one example. As is the relatively small amount of community government funding Yellowknife receives from the GNWT – a mere 11 per cent, despite having nearly half the territory’s population.
“As a territory, we need to get past this Yellowknife versus the rest of the territory dynamic, it doesn’t serve anybody,” said Heyck.
One of the biggest hurdles to achieving a balance of power is that “the final decision (on electoral boundaries) rests with an institution that has an entrenched interest in maintaining the status quo,” said Heyck. “We have a commission that provides recommendations (to the government), but at the end of the day the legislature makes the final decision.”
As a point of comparison, he said, when rejigging federal election boundaries, commissioners from across the country have final say for their regions.
Before deciding to to go to court last Monday, the City tried to remedy the problem through less-extreme measures. Last year, Heyck wrote to the Northwest Territories Electoral Boundaries Commission asking for another seat in Yellowknife, but the GNWT voted against the 21-seat option the commission presented.
“We (then) took a less confrontational approach and asked the Minister of Justice to refer this question to the courts,” said Heyck. The request was denied.
“Council feels at this point our only recourse is to the court,” said Heyck. Though it should be noted three councillors are unable to take part in case due to a conflict of interest given their work at the GNWT.
The process from here
Lawyers from Vancouver’s Lidstone and Associates are expected to file a lawsuit in the coming weeks. In the mean time, the City is reaching out to Yellowknifers to help fundraise for legal fees, said Heyck.
It’s uncertain how long the case will take or how much it will cost.
“It depends how far it goes and how much time is involved,” said Kerry Penney, the City’s Manager of Legal Services. “It’s going to be costly… It won’t be a million, but it could easily be $50,000.”
Should they win, the City may be compensated for the costs, she said, but this is not guaranteed.
Case “not as strong” this time around
The electoral boundary issue has been through the courts before. In the late 1990s, the succession of Nunavut left a slew of ridings more than 25 per cent above and below the territorial mean – a legal guideline mandated by the Supreme Court of Canada to guarantee the constitutional right to fair representation.
A citizen group called the Friends of Democracy successfully took the GNWT to court, forcing the addition of three seats: two in Yellowknife, one in Hay River.
“The case this time around is not as strong as it was in ’99,” admitted Heyck. According to official statistics, all the ridings are within the 25 per cent window following the passage of Bill 18 in May, which redrew several boundaries.
Some Yellowknife ridings, however, are on the edge of the 25 per cent mark.
“It took only 28 people to raise the Weledeh riding above the 25 per cent guideline, and anybody who takes a drive up there sees the amount of construction, the amount of homes and apartment blocks that have opened since those initial data were collected,” said Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley back in May.
The City’s case may also be bolstered by support from Dettah and N’Dilo, which were carved off Weledeh in May and added to Tu Nedhe, the riding that encompasses Lutselk’e and Fort Resolution. At the time, Tu Nedhe MLA Tom Beaulieu said the GNWT’s decision was “essentially eliminating the Weledeh people from having a seat here in Yellowknife.”
Heyck is also hoping for support from the underrepresented Tlicho riding of Monfwi.