The NWT has been without a commissioner since May 10, when George Tuccaro left the office after putting in his six years to head south for — you guessed it — some retirement golf.
It’s the longest the territory has had to wait for a new appointee to the position since the 1930s, when the now largely honorary title still held political weight from Ottawa and it took almost two years for Dr. Charles Camsell to replace Hugh H. Rowatt.
So when are we going to meet our new commissioner?
I asked the NWT Commissioner’s fairly empty office for an answer after a friend of mine told me she’d called them up a few weeks ago to ask how one’s name would get on the list of those being considered for the position. (We had some thoughts as to who ought to be the new commissioner ourselves back when Tuccaro stepped down.)
“We’ve been asking for more clarity on the process, and not even our premier knows.”
In both cases, there was no answer about how the selection process worked, or whose names were being shortlisted for this ceremonial but still prestigious job, which carries with it a lifetime government pension.
GNWT senior cabinet communications could offer no help, either, understandably deferring the task of response to Ottawa; after all, the commissioner is a representative of the Canadian government to the NWT.
I decided to check in with the regular MLAs to see if they knew what was going on.
“What we were told by the premier was there would be a vacancy with the commissioner and we would need to provide advice to the prime minister,” Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart tells me. “Regular MLAs were canvassed for suggestions. We provided feedback, and the premier did provide advice to the minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.”
While that was months ago, Testart says the new Liberal government in Ottawa is in the midst of refining its appointment process to be more transparent, which could be the cause of the delay. Questions directed to both Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) and the Privy Council Office (which handles appointments, like those to the Senate), as of yet, have not elicited any response.
“We were told that the premier would be able to provide advice to the prime minister, but there is a new appointment process that’s being developed by Ottawa and the decision might take some time,” Testart says.
But exactly what that process is, even leaders in the NWT aren’t quite sure.
“We’ve been asking for more clarity on the process, and not even our premier knows,” Testart says. “But it seems that INAC has total jurisdiction over this and our government’s role in choosing a commissioner is actually quite minimal.”
Testart wants to see the appointment of a commissioner become more public, transparent and in Northern hands.
“I would certainly like to see Northerners be in the driver’s seat of the process,” he says. “There’s plenty of ways we could open up even a ceremonial position and engage Northerners in their government. That’s sometimes what we miss in relying on Ottawa to make decisions for us, is how we can involve and empower Northerners in making those decisions themselves.”
Ottawa began appointing commissioners from the senior ranks of the civil service — typically former deputy ministers of a federal department having something to do with the North — to the commissioner’s role in the early 1900s. In the 1980s, that changed, and the position became more like that of a provincial Lieutenant Governor — ceremonial in purpose, tasked more with giving speeches and shaking hands than matters of governance.
In the interim, the commissioner’s limited duties are being fulfilled by NWT Deputy Commissioner Gerald Kisoun.
Though some MLAs have gone public with their suggestions for commissioner, like Yellowknife Centre’s Julie Green, who generated an engaging social media post on potential women candidates for the historically male-dominated position, the lucky appointee will still be a surprise to those in the North.
“We did the best we could with a limited amount of time to reach out to the public, but the government has the resources to really make a difference in facilitating public input. Maybe this is a missed opportunity; maybe next time around it could be done differently,” Testart says.
“But that of course depends on who the premier is and how important this issue is to the government of the day. Until then, we’re just holding our breath in anticipation, waiting to hear who the next commissioner is.”