For Ernest Taylor Pokiak, the creation of the Government of the Northwest Territories in 1967 was a chance to progress his career.
The Tuktoyaktuk-based elder had been working for the federal government in Inuvik since 1964. He recalls workers being offered the option to transfer to the territorial government when the GNWT was created, but not everyone did so.
He took up a position as an apprentice mechanic with the GNWT and continued to have a long career in transportation with both the territorial government and federal government, retiring in 2009.
“We worked long hours, pretty well six days a week,” recalls Pokiak about his time in Inuvik back then.
“It was good and people were happy. It was fun to work for government. The people that were out of Inuvik, most of them used to be from Aklavik, there was a lot of work for them. We worked hard, we played hard, I guess you could say.”
In those days, there was little if any private industry, he said.
Pokiak fondly remembers $9 float plane tickets from Tuktoyaktuk to Inuvik.
The culture was a little different then, too.
“There was alcohol but my recollection of that time is alcohol didn’t keep you away from your work,” said Pokiak. “People got up in the morning to go to work at 7 and nowadays it’s different. People have a party and next morning they have a hangover so they stay home. People are softer now than that time, I always think.”
Not everything about the GNWT has been positive, remembers Pokiak. A round of cuts and layoffs in the 1990s changed the mood around government, as he recalls.
It’s been 50 years since the creation of the territorial government, and looking at a list of everything that happens makes that sound like a short time period.
Probably the most important general trend in former Inuvik mayor Peter Clarkson’s estimation is more involvement in the government by members of the communities.
He started with the GNWT as a bear biologist in 1984 in Yellowknife before transferring to Inuvik in 1987, following the Inuvialuit land claim, as a grizzly bear and wold biologist. He’s bounced between positions in the Gwich’in Renewable Resources Board, politics and the territorial government since, now nearing the 12-year mark as regional director for the office of the executive.
“The change that I’ve seen over the last 30 years is more and more people form the communities have been able to get positions with the GNWT as their capacity grew, so whether they became teachers or nurses or plumbers or electricians or senior managers, there are more and more local people working for government in a whole range of capacities,” said Clarkson.
Before, many Northerners just received government services from southerners or Ottawa hires, whereas now they provide them. The territory’s legislative assembly is now majority Indigenous, with both Inuvik MLAs and the premier all being from communities in the NWT.
“People nowadays are a lot more part of the government than what they would have been in the past,” said Clarkson.
Still, there’s a lot more work to be done, especially in terms of bringing up education levels and providing more opportunities for people in the communities.
The territory needs more homegrown doctors, engineers, IT professionals and just about everything else, said Clarkson.
One of the upcoming challenges is shifting the focus of the territorial government should the Inuvialuit and Gwich’in achieve their own self-government agreements.
“As the capacity builds with the Indigenous governments, they will be able to take on more responsibility, as they have since their land claims,” said Clarkson.
“Some of that will be shared responsibility working with the territorial government and some of it may be transferred over to the Indigenous governments to deliver those programs and services. The challenge we’ll have in most of the areas is economies of scale.”
The smaller the pieces of the pie get cut, the more difficult economies of scale become, he said.
That will require much debate going forward, such as how to handle mixed communities like Aklavik and Inuvik, or how the territory’s education system may change.
“I think it’s a milestone at 50 years,” said Clarkson. “When you look back, sometimes we forget how much progress we’ve made.”
Fact file: Milestones
1967 – The Civil Service moves from Ottawa to Yellowknife.
1969 – The current flag of the NWT and the new license plate design is introduced. GNWT becomes responsible for education and social services.
1971 – The Government of the Northwest Territories assumes authority for the courts.
1973 – The Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC) begins investigating Inuit land use and occupancy of the North.
1974 – GWNT takes over responsibility for housing.
1974-77 – The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry travels to communities across the NWT.
1975 – First fully elected NWT Council/Assembly has a majority of Indigenous members.
1980 – The process of reclaiming the Aboriginal names of many NWT communities begins.
1982 – The first plebiscite is held on the creation of Nunavut.
1984 – The Inuvialuit Final Agreement is signed and the NWT Official Languages Act is passed into law.
1986 – Arctic College is established.
1987 – GNWT takes over authority for Forestry.
1988 – GNWT takes over authority for Health and Power.
1992 – The Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement is signed.
1993 – The Sahtu Dene Metis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement is signed.
1995 – GNWT takes over authority for all NWT airports.
1999 – Nunavut and the new NWT are created.
2001 – Members of the 14th Legislative Assembly pass the National Aboriginal Day Act, the first jurisdiction in Canada to do so.
2002 – The Tłįchǫ Agreement and the Salt River First Nation Treaty Settlement Agreement are signed.
2005 – The Tłįchǫ Agreement comes into effect.
2012 – The Deh Cho Bridge opens.
2014 – The Northwest Territories Lands and Resources Devolution Agreement comes into effect and the GNWT becomes responsible for managing public land, water and resources in the NWT.
2016 – The Délı̨nę Final Self-Government Agreement comes into effect.