The Baker Lake Incident: A Historic Confrontation

There are many side issues in this controversy but we believe that the overriding factor in the cancellation of the workshop is a deliberate political attempt by the Executive of the Territorial Government, namely the Commissioner, to ensure that native people in the Northwest Territories learn and are taught only what the government wants to teach them. This completely rules out the right to self-determination of the native people of the N.W.T. It is obvious therefore, that the Territorial Government has a fixed concept of the political future of the north and that only if native people go along with it then will they assist us in any training.

Hugh Unganai and David Samailik, Settlement Council of Baker Lake, March 29, 1977

In March 1977, the territorial government made one of the largest political blunders of its early existence: it cancelled a workshop.

The seemingly innocuous decision, made by then-Commissioner Stuart Hodgson, was to “postpone” a training event in Baker Lake (now in Nunavut), meant to impart skills in conflict resolution considered necessary for running a community government. The workshop was cancelled because of concerns over the material that would be taught.

Those conflict resolution skills would have come in handy. The cancellation resulted in a five-week political confrontation, six resignations, one termination, and national media attention. It helped incite a movement towards self-determination across the Arctic, and would define Indigenous nations’ estranged relationship with the territorial government for decades to come.

Creating local governments

In the mid-70s, the research and development (R&D) division of the department of Local Government (now Municipal and Community Affairs) was charged with developing workshops for communities across the Northwest Territories that would assist them with setting up municipal governments.

Along with administrative skills, the division had a mandate to develop political and social awareness, and the workshops included training in communications, accounting and human resources. But a fundamental conflict was brewing.

Riff-raff: R&D head of research and planning Des Sparham, protesting outside a Territorial Council meeting in 1977.

“What was getting in the way was the ideology or philosophy behind the development of these workshops,” recalls Yellowknife consultant Lois Little, then a training officer aiding in the design and facilitation of the workshops.

R&D employees shared a clear objective that hinged upon the right to Indigenous self-determination. Even the division’s head of research and planning, Des Sparham, had marched outside a Territorial Council meeting earlier that year with a placard reading:

Political Self-determination is an Aboriginal Right. Inuit and Dene, take notes from the Welsh, Scots, Basques, and Bretons. Survive!! Inuit and Dene, Be Masters in your own Homelands.

Higher-ups in the government with a different agenda began tuning in and cracking down, vowing to clean up the “riff-raff” in R&D.

With a suspected reorganization underway, Sparham and other R&D staff decided to force the executive to put their cards on the table. They demanded to know whether or not the principles they were to be operating on were those of “guided democracy” – that is, imposed structures of government – or self-determined democracy.

Their answer came abruptly.

‘Things they shouldn’t be taught’

Thirty-seven delegates, most of them Inuks from Gjoa Haven, Pelly Bay and Baker Lake, were already on their way to the meeting on March 25, 1977, when a command was made from on high to abruptly shut the workshop down.

Organizers, who expressed shock and hurt at the undoing of weeks of work, were told by Hodgson that the executive was worried delegates were being taught “things they shouldn’t be taught” – according to a report written by Mark Stiles, a former consultant from the University of Alberta who assisted in (and was ultimately fired for) developing the workshop content.

While Hodgson said he hadn’t read the materials himself, a complaint – the source of which was never identified – objected to the presence of Saul Alinsky’s book, Rules for Radicals, on the workshop agenda.


Frightening stuff

Little considers this a “red herring.”

“Saul Alinsky [was a] community development extraordinaire,” she says today. “[The book] was looking at different ways that you problem-solve because you’re mobilizing people, bringing people together, in the community development process. That was a great resource for that. But the language and the title of that book obviously sent fear into the hearts of those people in power… It was really laughable.”

No one was laughing at the time, however, especially the Baker Lake Settlement Council. Perhaps realizing he’d been baited by more hardline members of the executive, Hodgson decided to undo the cancellation at the last minute; but feeling like political yo-yos, the community refused. It was too late.

A political showdown

Within days, the Baker Lake council released a scathing press release condemning what they considered to be censorship and colonial meddling by a territorial government afraid of an empowered Indigenous population.

“The cancellation of the workshop is a deliberate political attempt by the Executive of the Territorial Government, namely the Commissioner, to ensure that native people in the Northwest Territories learn and are taught only what the government wants to teach them,” councillors Hugh Unganai and David Samailik wrote.

Inuit Land Claim Commission director John Amagoalik, one of the founding fathers of Nunavut, rallied with them, calling the cancellation part of a larger agenda opposed to Indigenous control over Indigenous lands.

“The issue is whether or not the Territorial Government is willing to work on the principle of self-determination for the residents of the NWT,” Amagoalik told CBC.

At the time, Hodgson argued that the department could only function within the established constitution and legal framework of the country. While self-determination was, of course, part of that framework, he said there were “concerns” that some members of R&D were promoting unconstitutional forms of government.

Alliances form

On April 4, Gjoa Haven and Eskimo Point (now Arviat) joined Baker Lake in protest, accusing the Commissioner of denying Inuit the rights of free speech, assembly and self-determination, and expressing a loss of confidence in the administration.

Over to the west, Dene and Inuvialuit were also rallying to the Inuit cause. A Dene Assembly in Fort Franklin (Deline) had just ended with a press release inviting the Inuit to join in a collective battle for self-determination, birthing a powerful new alliance. The Committee for Original Peoples’ Entitlement, the voice of the Western Arctic Inuit, also took a public stand of solidarity.

Feeling strength in numbers, Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (now Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami) president Michael Amarook approached federal Indian Affairs Minister Warren Allmand with a sharply worded critique of the Commissioner’s behaviour.

“The cancellation of the Local Government training workshop in Baker Lake and the suspension of future Local Government training workshops convinces us that the Territorial bureaucracy is committed to the traditional colonial approach, i.e., teaching the local people only what their colonial masters believe they should be taught about local administration,” Amarook wrote.

“But, when it comes to real political self-determination, these bureaucrats are afraid to teach the people about their rights as Canadian citizens. This fear is perfectly understandable, of course, because it represents a threat to the colonial empires these bureaucrats have worked so hard to build.”

The letter ended with a footnote, calling into question the very legitimacy of the territorial government – a sentiment that has continued to rear its head during points of conflict over land claims, devolution and resource management ever since.

It had been less than two weeks since Hodgson’s decision, but every Indigenous group in the territory (minus the Metis Association) was now united against the territorial government.

“Even in the Globe and Mail, there was quite an outcry,” Little said. “Here was a territorial government dictating what we should know and what we shouldn’t know. That really sent a chill throughout many communities, that this wasn’t a government that was interested in working for Northern people.”

Six resign

Those in R&D had long since passed the point of no return, with fiery memos thrown back and forth between the division and the executive for weeks. It was time for people like Sparham and Little to get called in to someone’s office. Stiles, who was not a GNWT employee, had already been fired unceremoniously from his position.

When given the choice to buy in to the department’s new mandate or ship out, six would choose to pack up their desks: Dave Molstad, Howard McDiarmid, Daryll Sullivan, Alethea Foster, Ed McArthur and Little.

“None of us could live with this. It wasn’t possible to basically be betrayed like that,” said Little, one of the very few involved who stayed in the North.

“You go into the public service with a certain understanding that you are there as a servant of the people. We all thought that we were working to empower communities to take control of their governments in ways that worked for them; we weren’t there to impose a limited model of governance on people.”

Changes to policy were made to try prevent a similar conflict from happening again. In a paper directed to the R&D division, Hodgson disagreed with the right to political self-determination on the basis of ethnicity, Aboriginal or otherwise, and dictated that public servants were no longer allowed to take stances on political matters.

Commissioner Hodgson, seated right, in the 1970s | Photo via UNW

But according to Little, the most serious damage had already been done.

“It really set up this antagonistic kind of relationship [between the territorial government and Indigenous peoples] that I think has persisted,” she said.

A tumultuous time

The 1970s were a time of great change in the North, with tensions mounting between Indigenous governments and the Territorial Council over land and power.

The Berger Inquiry hearings had just finished. The Dene were demanding recognition of their right to self-determination and political jurisdiction over the Mackenzie Valley. In the east, Inuit were working on their land claim proposal. Throughout Canada, there were calls for constitutional change.

“There was a concern about power; that’s really what was at the heart of this. We were at a time when we were talking political rights and self-determination,” Little said. “There was an environment where there could have easily been Indigenous governance in a very real sense of the word.”

Ripple effects

While the showdown resulted in changes to policy offering greater protection to the executive, the act of censorship would ultimately backfire, pushing more Indigenous leaders into the path of self-government than ever before.

For Lawrence Norbert, currently the justice coordinator for the community of Tsiigehtchic, the incident shaped his own path forever.

Norbert, a Gwich’in man from the delta, was hired as one of the Baker Lake workshop planners at the age of 22 after he participated in a similar workshop in Tuktoyaktuk.

At the time, Norbert says, he was struggling with “the burden of shame and trauma” from his residential schools experience. Plagued with a combination of distrust for authority and “dependency thinking” – that government would solve his people’s problems, he found the premise of people running their own affairs greatly appealing.

“I was young and I was naïve, thinking and believing that – on the very basis of common-sense and respect – the government would facilitate an atmosphere of empowerment and self-determination, starting with a simple workshop on organizing community people to ‘gain social, political, legal and economic equality by challenging the current agencies that promoted their inequality,’” Norbert says. “Alas, as events proved the need for government to hold onto its power, this was not to be for me.”

But far from quashing his desire to work for change, the Baker Lake affair had the opposite effect. Norbert joined the Gwich’in Tribal Council, first as negotiator at the Gwich’in-Inuvialuit Self-Government negotiations main-table, and then as their communications coordinator.

“In a way, I benefitted vicariously from the firing of Mr. Stiles and the resignations of McDermid, Little, et al.,” Norbert says. “I learned to challenge dogma and existing authority, and to try – in no small measurement – to make life better for those around me. For that, I am eternally grateful for their sacrifice.”

Back in the day, today

Though the controversy eventually faded, similar points of contention would arise throughout the decades to follow as the territorial government inherited more and more powers from Ottawa and Indigenous governments began settling their own land claims and self-government agreements.

But with several land claims and many more self-government agreements yet unfinished in the territory, and a national Indigenous rights movement underway, Little believes we face another pivotal point where government has the opportunity to change its relationship to Indigenous peoples once and for all.

“I think that until we, as a territory – as a country – actually honour and respect the rights of Indigenous people, this conflict is going to continue,” she said. “Those were the days, but they are still the days.”

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