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N.W.T. government needs to identify racism in its policies, MLAs say

March 8, 2021
The Canadian Press

By Sarah Sibley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter


The Northwest Territories government must do more to eliminate systemic racism, its politicians declared during a session dedicated to the subject at the territorial legislature this week.

Members of the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly ended Wednesday’s session by passing a motion requesting that the government, known as the GNWT, review its policies and determine where any racial and cultural bias may exist.

Moved by Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos, the motion requests an examination of policies related to education, health and social services, justice, housing, and government hiring.


“This motion is very much in line with my entire life philosophy of improving government for the people we serve. I have been fighting my entire adult life for the betterment of Black, brown, and Indigenous people,” said Martselos, the former chief of the Salt River First Nation.

“Racism takes many different forms, especially in government. Gaps in cultural barriers have always been a problem. Affirmative action and the procurement policy are prime examples of bureaucratic systemic racism. This has to change. Only then, we will make a difference.”

Premier Caroline Cochrane and her six fellow cabinet members abstained from the vote on Martselos’ motion, as is convention for such motions brought to the House by regular MLAs, but said they were in favour of it.

The territorial government has about four months to respond to the motion. What that response may look like remains unclear.

Some MLAs used Wednesday’s themed session to address personal experiences of systemic racism, while others discussed how to make policies more equitable.

Steve Norn, the MLA for Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh, said action must follow Wednesday’s discussion to ensure real change occurs.

Deh Cho MLA Ron Bonnetrouge, who seconded Martselos’ motion, said he had felt racism first-hand from a range of institutions, describing “lots of racist overtones happening to our people.”

Lesa Semmler, the Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA, said recent steps in the right direction had still to eliminate many barriers.

“It’s very hard, steering this ship in a new direction with the obstacles that we have. We have not enough money from our federal government to correct the past policies that were created to try to eradicate or assimilate Indigenous people, that caused more damage,” Semmler said.

“There is much more that needs to be done to correct the damage history has caused to the Indigenous people of this territory.”

Implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has been on the 19th Legislative Assembly’s to-do list since this set of MLAs was elected in 2019.

That process has moved slowly. In November, a Special Committee on Reconciliation and Indigenous Affairs said it was working to begin the process of implementing the declaration.

On Wednesday, Premier Caroline Cochrane reinforced the need to adopt the declaration and to “ingrain these principles into our legislation, policies, and institutions.”

“We are committed to learning from the mistakes of the past and moving on from colonial and outdated ways of thinking,” Cochrane said.

“We must embrace the principles of the United Nations declaration and the principles of anti-racism in the way that we approach all of our mandate commitments.”

Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby questioned how the GNWT is combating racism in hiring practices. She asked whether hiring targets will be implemented for senior levels of management.

Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek, who carries responsibility for human resources, said an Indigenous recruitment and retainment framework would in the coming year introduce departmental hiring targets that extend beyond entry-level positions.

She said the territory will launch an anti-racism campaign from March 16 to April 21 that “will encourage all GNWT employees to challenge their beliefs and attitudes around racism.”

“Systemic racism hides in plain sight,” Wawzonek said.

“We recognize that, in order to eliminate systemic racism in the N.W.T., we must build a culture of anti-racism within the public service.”

The implementation of mandatory cultural awareness training for employees has yet to be completed. The N.W.T.’s affirmative action policy is under review.

Health minister Julie Green vowed to address racism in all its forms in the N.W.T.’s health department and health authorities.

“Research shows that Indigenous peoples experience a disproportionate amount of negative health and social outcomes in comparison to non-Indigenous people,” Green said.

“It is our responsibility as a government to address this inequity directly by making sure that all aspects of the Health and Social Services system are culturally respectful and safe for Indigenous peoples.

“This also includes respecting Indigenous understandings of health and wellness and finding ways to accommodate traditional healing in our system.”

Green said a cultural safety action plan released in 2019 had so far resulted in 13 cultural safety training sessions involving 225 healthcare or social services workers.

The sessions teach people about Indigenous medicine, residential schools and intergenerational impacts, and racism at interpersonal and systemic levels.

Green said an N.W.T. cultural safety framework being developed will be reviewed by health and social services staff as well as an Indigenous advisory board.

Most of that work, the minister said, will come from a unit of almost entirely Indigenous staff from across the territory.

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