Graham White

Political Science Professor Graham WhiteProfessor Graham White has long been interested in the structures and processes of government in Canada’s northern territories. And over the past 20 years he has indulged this passion by making many research trips to the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut in order to study the unique forms and issues of government there.
Nunavut in particular has piqued White’s interest because over a number of years he was able to observe people “designing a government pretty much from scratch,” in the period between the finalization of the Nunavut land claim in 1993 and the establishment of the Nunavut Territory and its government in 1999.

“My colleague, Jack Hicks, a long-time Northerner from Iqaluit, and I decided to do a book to look at the processes by which the Nunavut government was designed and created,” says White. “Once it became clear that a new territory was to be created, how did people figure out the political and administrative issues of setting up this new government? In particular, we looked at the distinctive design feature of decentralization.”

Any modern government has field offices to deliver services, but what the designers of the Nunavut Government proposed went much further. Instead of having all the corporate functions of government – human resources, policy development, financial management – located in the capital city of Iqaluit (as would be the case in other governments), the decision was made to place significant administrative, ‘headquarters’ offices in remote communities with only 1500 to 2000 people. The prime reason for this highly unusual organizational design was to spread the economic benefits of government jobs as widely as possible throughout the territory, given that the weakness of the private sector means that public sector employment is crucial to local economies.

In addition, however, the hope was that decentralizing influential government jobs would also ensure that power and authority of the new government were located as close to the people as possible.

Finally, placing good jobs in the small communities was seen as a way of facilitating the recruitment and retention of Inuit into middle and senior management positions. With family ties so important to many Inuit, it was important to offer them the possibility of securing permanent, well paid, white collar jobs without having to move away from their home communities. “In essence, this meant an opportunity to move up the bureaucratic ladder a fair bit without having to move to the capital city, as you would have to do elsewhere,” says White.

According to White the results have been mixed. “No question a lot of economic spinoffs have occurred,” he says. “There are a lot of people working good jobs they otherwise would not have. The houses have been built, the offices have been built, and Inuit are moving into significant government positions.” At the same time, he adds, “the downsides of having ‘headquarters’ functions spread all over the territory are evident in higher operating costs and organizational complexity. And it is very clear that the hope to have power and authority decentralized from the capital hasn’t happened; power is very much concentrated in Iqaluit. My overall view is that decentralization was the right thing to do, and on balance I would say it has been moderately successful.”

White and Hicks are close to finishing their book, tentatively titled A Government That’s Better: Designing and Decentralizing the Government of Nunavut. They hope the book will allow readers to understand just how different and difficult the situation is for northern communities. The book looks mostly at what happened before the division of Nunavut from the Northwest Territories in 1999, but also follows up to see how decentralization has worked in practice. It also captures a unique moment in Canadian history.

By Jerome Johnson