Lessons from Northern Canada

Earlier this month I attended the 17th annual Banff Forum in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories (NWT). The Banff Forum is a community of cross-sector leaders across Canada who convene annually to examine our nation’s issues through the lens of public policy. I joined the Banff Forum in 2017 and I always look forward to the critical conversations and connections from the community.

This was my first time in Northern Canada. Growing up, I had little knowledge of the north asides from it being home to the three Canadian territories. No better learning occurs than when you walk into the unknown.

Some of my highlights included visiting the NWT Legislative Assembly to learn about their unique consensus style of government, fireside chats (around an actual fire!) in tepees at the Somba K’e Civic Plaza with the Dene Nahjo, and connecting with our keynote speaker Helen Clark (former Prime Minister of New Zealand and former Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme). Observing the aurora borealis for the first time was pretty unreal too. While up north, I learned I was called a “southerner”.

In the spirit of distributing privilege through knowledge sharing, I’ve written up my notes and learnings below. The Banff Forum operates entirely under Chatham House Rule, which is why I have not directly attributed quotes to anyone. These learnings all took place on the traditional territories of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, whom I thank for hosting us on your lands.

NWT operates on a unique system of consensus government.

There are no political parties in the north – each Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) is elected independently. Northerners see political parties as southern oddity. Under a consensus government, each member must view each other as relatives. After being elected independently, all 19 build a platform together after the election. A disadvantage is that voters can’t choose to vote for a united vision. Each of the 19 MLAs are encouraged to speak in any of the 11 official languages in order to connect with the communities they represent. As someone who comes from a region where government is anything but consensus, I was intently curious about this model. However, NWT is able to make this work because its assembly is small and this model becomes difficult to employ at scale. There is also cultural precedence to make consensus work in NWT because collaboration it is a strong northern and Indigenous value.

Don’t try to apply southern solutions to the north.

Play to their strengths — there are many. Take the example of Nunavut: it is one fifth of Canada’s entire landmass. Their majority public language is neither English or French. The population is 44,000 and 45 per cent identify as Inuit. Due to the lack of infrastructure connectivity, most things are delivered by air or water. For the north, the Arctic Ocean is not just water – it is a valuable platform. The average age in Canada is 33; in Nunavut it is 15. Only six northern municipalities collect revenue from property taxes. There is much creativity and entrepreneurship required to live in the harsh conditions of the north and we should harness these strengths when designing solutions. Canada has invested a lot into connecting its east and west. Now more investment is required to connect the Canadian north with the rest.

What would the ideal democracy look like in Canada?

Over 50% of Canadian citizens think we directly elect the Prime Minister (we do not). Young voters are more likely to vote if they feel informed, and less likely to vote if they feel uninformed. However older voters’ sense of civic duty overrides any lack of information, so they always vote, resulting in a more influential vote. We agreed that data increases trust in government and the standardization of data is critical for this. Can too much data lead to a decline in social trust? It seems there is a tension between traditionalists and modernists when it comes to data. Modernists tend to believe in “open by default” in the spirit that it gives people at the bottom the same access to information as people at the top. Traditionalists believed too much data could lead to a decline in social trust, due to the communication and interpretation vacuum it could create. Ultimately, it spoke to the important role that communities play in facilitating trust.

Canada needs to get comfortable stepping out on our own.

Surrounded by three oceans and the United States, we have the safest piece of real estate in the world. Canada has been complacent with our ambitions — until recently we’ve only had to rely on our trusted best friend, America. Canada needs to make bets on big ideas to drive our long-term growth (i.e. artificial intelligence, green jobs, etc).

Delivery is key to public success.

Creating a great political platform is not enough if you can’t follow through with impeccable delivery. Stressed was the importance of walking the talk. It’s what led to the success of leaders like Prime Minister Tony Blair or Helen Clark. In government, the average age of a public servant is 45 and the average age of a public service leader is 60. More sectors, and breadths of life experience, are required for extraordinary policymaking.

Women’s equality is a men’s issue.

Gender equality can only be reached when all genders on board. When it comes to pay gap, women fall significantly behind men once they reach childbearing age. Gender equality will be achieved when men can accept that their lives should look more like women’s, particularly when it comes to childcare.

I want to thank the Banff Forum team – Jenna Zuschlag-Misener, Sarah Cooper, Jane Wisener, and of course the Board of Directors. This team dreamed big and made Banff Forum history by hosting the first conference up north, despite logistical and other challenges that came with it. A big thank you to RBC who helped fund my participation as a Banff Forum Scholar – I would not have gained these insightful learnings without their support.