Territories leader has ties to Lethbridge, University
Today, the map of Canada is changed forever.
The Northwest territories in Canada's Arctic completely disappeared from the map at midnight. In its place are two distinct territories - the western Northwest Territories and Nunavut (pronounced Noonahvoot), meaning "our land" in Inuktitut.
Less than 24 hours before the historic change, Northwest Territories Premier Jim Antoine is relaxed about, and challenged by, the future.
"It's a whole new beginning for all of us."
While the notion of dividing the NWT may seem new to some Canadians, it isn't to residents of Canada's Arctic. The concept goes back to the 1950s when non-aboriginals in the Mackenzie Valley pushed to divide the territory, arguing the move would allow the west to move more rapidly to responsible government. In 1963, the federal government introduced legislation to divide the Northwest Territories into the Mackenzie and Nunassiaq territories. But later the same year, the legislation died on the order paper.
The ultimate goal, said Antoine, is for the new western territory to move toward becoming a province.
"The Inuit people wanted their own territory and we have supported them."
"People are happy. The people in Nunavut are happy. we have reached a milestone and its time to turn our attention and energies to making things better."
Antoine looks forward to a day when the western territory becomes self-supporting.
"We are going to be three territories - the Yukon, the western Northwest Territories and Nunavut - we are not a province. We don't have the same type of power and authority as the provinces enjoy. Our natural resources are controlled by Ottawa."
There are two significant differences between the provinces and territories; the system of government and the election process. The NWT is not governed under the same party politics system which exists in each of the provinces.
After an election, the members select one member to the position of speaker and another as speaker and another as premier.
Nunavut has adopted the same system. Its premier-elect is Paul Okalik.
The provinces differ in their legislative powers also, said Antoine. The provinces have the power to amend their constitutions and control the management and sale of public lands. Not so in the territories. Only the parliament has the right to amend the provisions of the Northwest Territories Act, a federal statute.
Becoming a province is the "ultimate goal," said Antoine. "We depend on the federal government for an annual financial grant to run the Northwest Territories. That's how they will do it in Nunavut and it's how they do it in the Yukon. Eventually we will become a province controlling our own natural resources and benefiting from them.
"I don't know when that will be, it might be way after my time."
With Nunavut, the people of the eastern Arctic, mostly Inuit, will run their own affairs centered from Iqaluit on Baffin Island rather than Yellowknife. The government of Nunavut will be much more responsive to the Inuit people.
The western territory will continue to provide some programs and services in Nunavut until it can develop its own. It will be some time, said Antoine, before Nunavut will have enough trained people to fill its government jobs.
Antoine will attend ceremonies in Iqaluit with Prime Minister Jean Chretien and other government dignitaries today.
Antoine, who represents the Nahendeh constituency, was initially elected to the legislature assembly in 1991 and re-elected by acclamation in 1995. He was elected premier on Dec. 10, 1998.
"Things are really interesting," he said of the times. This marks the first time Canada's map has changed since Newfoundland joined confederation in 1949, the year Antoine was born.
"I am totally committed to this work along with my cabinet colleagues," he said.
Still ahead for the western territory is a decision on an official name. MLAs have agreed the name Northwest Territories will continue to be used until such time as residents are asked to vote on a new constitution.
Antoine didn't always aspire to politics.
Prior to studying at the University of Wisconsin and earning a management certificate at the University of Lethbridge in 1988, Antoine was chief of the Fort Simpson Dene Band.
He returned to his home town of Fort Simpson and bought a service station.
"That's the kind of thing where you work for the bank," he said.
He returned to politics, serving another term as chief. He assisted in the development of the Deh Cho Regional Council and the Deh Cho Tribal Council, now called the Deh Cho First Nations. He also worked as executive director for both organizations.
He was president of Nogha Enterprises, owned by the Fort Simspson Dene Band Developement Corporation. In 1987, he co-ordinated the Papal visit to Fort Simpson.
Antoine and his wife Celine have three sons, Denezeh, Sachey and Tumbah and a daughter Melaw. When he lived in Lethbridge, several of his children attended St. Patrick's Elementary School.
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