Policy wonks kickstart northern conversations

It's time the Canadian North stopped being told what to do and how to do it. So say the editors of the region's first public policy magazine.

It’s time the Canadian North stopped being told what to do and how to do it.

So say the editors of the region’s first public policy magazine.

And considering the first edition sold out in Yellowknife and its website’s blogs and Twitter feeds have been inundated with comments, it would appear they are not alone.

Collectively, the editors Sheena Kennedy, Jerald Sabin and Joshua Gladstone have researched in remote communities, worked as a bureaucrat in the cabinet offices of Iqaluit and helped with geological exploration.

Through their various routes, all three found themselves at a big, stuffy conference in Yellowknife in November 2011.

Like so many others who have tasted the burnt coffee and stale pastries of such meetings, the trio started talking about how frustrating it was to hear about all this research and know it probably wouldn’t accomplish much.

“There often isn’t that follow-through,” said Sabin. “The translation of these presentations into public policy; the making it available to decision makers in all three territories.”

Seven months later, the first issue of Northern Public Affairs hit magazine stands.

“We’ve worked really hard to make sure the magazine, in print and in digital copy, will be provided to major institutions in the North and south,” said Gladstone. “That means federal departments that have special responsibilities for the North and whose programs effect the North, MPs and ministers responsible for programs in the North, provincial governments and politicians with portfolios that affect the North and … all the northern institutions that affect people’s lives: northern government, aboriginal organizations, learning centres, libraries, schools, corporations, the not-for-profit sector.

“We believe that what we publish is relevant and timely and necessary, and we want to make sure it gets to the hands of people that matter.”

In the first issue alone, the magazine discusses land claims and aboriginal self-government, foreign affairs, education and even arts. It includes two articles printed in both English and Inuktitut – not being exclusively English is a priority, said Kennedy – and its contributors include students, artists, aboriginal government workers and premiers, past and present.

Yukon’s third premier, Tony Penikett pens an interesting piece called A ‘Literacy Test’ for Indigenous Government?

He describes Canada’s patronizing control over aboriginal government as “a 490-year-old debate about the capacities of Indigenous peoples to govern themselves and their lands – a debate dominated, until recently, by privileged white males.”

Penikett includes himself and current minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, John Duncan, in that description and then begins to give a history lesson of broken treaties and ignored court cases in North America that recognized aboriginal autonomy.

In the article, Penikett describes the self-government and land-claim agreements of Yukon as a model to follow. He lauds them as a compromise that, with land holdings, recognizes elements of separate statehood, but contains the First Nations’ governments in the same way the federation recognizes provinces and territories. The problem, Penikett points out, is that “the provinces are even less willing to share jurisdiction than federal ministries.”

The former NDP premier ends the article by making the argument that Canada will not feel satisfied that aboriginal governments are competent until there is a complete “administrative assimilation.”

This is a “long and painful process,” writes Penikett, and has led to a stalling of any real implementation of any aboriginal governments, in the Yukon and across North America, he says.

The spring edition of Northern Public Affairs also includes a conversation with N.W.T. Premier Bob McLeod and a March oil and gas symposium speech from Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak.

There aren’t any words from Premier Darrell Pasloski, however.

Instead, a section of the magazine that includes snippets from the territories’ and Ottawa’s legislature, called “Overheard,” showcases NDP Leader Liz Hanson’s response to the Yukon’s 2012-2013 budget.

Leaving out Pasloski was not intentional, said Kennedy.

“It’s just coincidence that there were two premiers and not three,” she said.

Yukon is the only territory with party politics. Both Nunavut and the N.W.T. are run by consensus governments, and it is in those eastern territories that all three editors did their northern work.

Currently, however, Kennedy, Sabin and Gladstone are all back in southern Canada, working on their PhDs.

But that shouldn’t be a knock against the magazine’s “northerness,” they said.

Almost all the magazine’s contributors are northerners, they note. So too are the publication’s online bloggers, which include Whitehorse City Councillor Kirk Cameron.

“We work very hard to ensure that it’s the voice of northerners that make their way into our pages and online,” said Sabin. “And I think that’s really been reflected by who’s engaged with what’s written. I think if you look at our Facebook page, as well as if you follow some of the conversations that are going on on Twitter, it’s primarily northerners.”

Plus, all three would be completing their doctorates in the North if they could, they said.

“It really does highlight the need for a northern university,” said Sabin. “Unfortunately, the institutions aren’t there at this moment.”

But the magazine is a step in that direction.

Funded by Aurora, Nunavut and Yukon Research centres, as well as the Carleton Centre for Community Innovation at Ottawa’s Carleton University, the magazine hopes to provide a space for discussions like those that normally take place at institutions like universities. Northern Public Affairs is a place where research can become accessible to the public and people who may have the ability, opportunity and power to actually apply it to real life, the editors say in the first issue.

“It’s time for a new conversation.”

Northern Public Affairs prints three times each year and is available online at northernpublicaffairs.ca or at Mac’s Fireweed and Well-Read Books in Whitehorse.

The upcoming fall issue will look at the Conservative view for the North, with a breakdown of the new federal budget. There are also plans for special editions of the magazine, including one coming up that celebrates historic agreements and documents, like the Yukon’s Umbrella Final Agreement and the 1979 Epp letter.

“We’ll be trying to feature both the historical aspects and the anniversaries as they come up because the North is an exciting and dynamic place,” said Sabin. “There really isn’t another place in Canada like this where the pace of change and the types of change, which has occurred has been so exciting and different.”

The magazine is also being filed in all three federal archive libraries in Ottawa.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at