A letter from Senator Nick Sibbeston used to sit above the coffee machine at the Yellowknifer newspaper offices, congratulating publisher Jack “Sig” Sigvaldason on a lifetime achievement award and cryptically mentioning a 1980s session of the territorial council, precurser to the legislative assembly, and an incident involving a coffee mug. I’d heard the story when I worked there as a reporter, as well as one involving fisticuffs, but never in as much detail as Sibbeston lays down in his newly-published memoir, You Will Wear a White Shirt: From the Northern Bush to the Halls of Power.
After Sibbeston had dramatically taken off his suit, vest and tie in the middle of a council meeting and donned instead a moosehide vest, complaining about the adoption of foreign governance symbols in the North, some other members of the council wanted to get back to budgets and legislation. From the book:
I spoke about the racism toward the Native people in this part of the North, and how white people had imposed their system on us. In frustration, I declared, “I am serious to the point of crying on this issue.” Tagak Curley, who was sitting two seats away from me, interrupted. “Cry! Cry tears!”
I turned on him. “You had better watch out or I will go and give you a punch.” As I began speaking again he continued making rude remarks, and I lost my temper. I stalked over and hit him on the side of the head with my fist.
Sibbeston was expelled from the house for the day, and apologized for his conduct the next. But he kept pressing the point—to the annoyance of some of his colleagues—that aboriginal people were coming from the bush without the education and knowledge to get government jobs, which often went to southerners.
It was as if I were invisible. There was just stony silence on the other side where the ministers sat. Emotionally drained, frustrated and upset, I picked up a coffee cup from my desk and threw it in the direction of the chairman. The cup came crashing down on the floor in front of him and broke into pieces. Everyone fell silent, aghast at what had happened. I was surprised myself. Then I stood and walked to the exit. “If that’s all you care about the things I said, stick this council up your ass. I resign!”
At the urging of his colleague John Parker, Sibbeston didn’t resign. He instead returned to his home in Fort Simpson for a rest, worried about what his reception would be.
I shouldn’t have worried. In the stores, in church and on the streets, people greeted me like a hero. They found it amusing that I had thrown a cup in the assembly. I soon realized that what had seemed like a serious incident in Yellowknife was not seen that way at all by the people. Some said, “It’s about time someone shook things up in Yellowknife” while others said, “You should have thrown more cups.”
He’d go on to become government leader, and in 2001 Prime Minister Jean Chretien appointed him as senator. We caught up with him as he got ready to return to a very different Ottawa from the one he left.
How have things changed in the North since you began your career?
Initially the communities were very small, living in log houses and hunting and trapping, living that kind of a life—the settlements have really changed. They have become modern. In places like Fort Simpson, my hometown, when I first started in the ‘70s people were going to outhouses, and that isn’t the case any longer. People have modern houses.
I was in some southern First Nations communities a couple of summers ago on a senate study of housing and infrastructure, and some communities in Northern Ontario and Manitoba, they really had bad housing. They had a lot of mould—and just basically no housing, you know? Materials were brought in the summer and people do the best they can but there just isn’t the money to provide adequate housing, and I just felt when I was there, doesn’t anybody care? Isn’t anybody accountable? Don’t they have an MP? Don’t they have an MLA? Here in the North we have local government and housing associations and education boards, so the short of it all: I think in the North the situation is so much better for native people than it is in the Northern [provinces].
People live very well. The other night I was in Fort Liard and I slept at my friend’s cabin along the highway. It isn’t a palace by any sort, but it’s an adequate cabin. He’s got all of the things he needs and he’s happy to live out in the bush along the highway. When he wants to, he goes out to the highway and thumbs a ride to town. So just the fact that you don’t have much doesn’t mean that you are poor, or that you’re pitiful. You live freely, you live as you wish, and you can go to town and get all the amenities and the things that you need and come back to live where you will, and I think that’s the case with a lot of people in the communities.
Is it possible to improve living conditions in the Northern provinces?
I don’t know. The situation is so severe. You have a lot of boil water situations. I think having reserves makes it difficult. We have remote communities but we have programs to provide housing, to provide proper water, to provide good schools and so forth. I think native people in the North are fortunate because they’ve been able to become involved.
The relations between native and non-native people is much better in the North than it is in the northern parts of the provinces. Native people are kind of segregated onto little enclaves, reserves [down south]. They’re isolated and it just makes it more difficult.
In the North, is there a difference in the types of people in the territorial government nowadays than when you first got into politics?
Well, when I was in government there were hunters and trappers, bush pilots, ex-RCMP members, businesspeople, the odd lawyer, the odd reporter. I’m thinking of back in the ‘70s. I think now you have to be fairly educated. It’s difficult for a hunter and trapper to just come out from the bush and be a candidate, but in the ‘70s that was possible, and we had a number of Inuit members that just knew their own language, didn’t know any English at all.
When you look back at your scuffle with Tagak, the coffee cup—that wouldn’t happen nowadays, would it?
At the time I was able to be quite passionate about issues. I just feel that I had a great opportunity and I was able to do all of this and express some of my real concerns and feelings, and—unfortunately or whatever—it got taken up with a lot of passion. But I’ve always said that’s what it takes in order to get change. Nothing happens by writing nice, kind, soft letters. You really have to pound the table and become really active. That’s how changes come about and it certainly did in my time. Tagak Curley just got an Order of Nunavut. I sent him a letter congratulating him.
That was around the time you were lobbying for more traditional culture to be integrated into government ceremony.
I was so afraid that we were going to inherit or grow into an Alberta or Ontario style of government. We in the North are unique—let’s develop and accept something that’s really identifiable to the people of the North that makes sense to them. Even the Speaker’s chair—why do you bow to something? What is there, something magical or a spirit in there? If you’re going to do it, let’s do it with something we identify with and know.
What do you make of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?
He’s been in the region and down the Nahanni. I think he’ll be reasonable. I think he’ll be good to the North. Already he’s been good to the North—look at the Inuk he’s appointed, Hunter Tootoo, to be minister of fisheries. I’m pretty impressed with the way he moulded the cabinet. A very diverse group of people. We have an aboriginal person that’s in charge of Justice. That’s pretty amazing.
And that’s Jody Wilson-Raybould of the Kwakwaka’wakw.
I think it’s great. Obviously, not all the positions of the federal government will change, in terms of dealing with First Nations, but at least the Minister of Justice will have an understanding of native issues and the constitutionality of aboriginal rights.
Are you expecting a different mood in Ottawa?
I’m excited about going back because it had been a terrible place to be for the past few years under the Harper regime because in the Senate itself, there was a lot of manipulation. There was an attempt by the prime minister’s office to control the Senate, the Conservative members, in terms of just passing its legislation, and it’s been real caustic, not a very nice place to be.
But I think things will change. I really look forward to going back to Ottawa now, with a new government. In the Senate I know that the Liberals are somewhat independent, we’re not part of the Liberal caucus—and the Senate really needs to be independent, less partisan, and really be good sober second thought. Oftentimes legislation is passed hastily in the House of Commons under political maneuvering, so the Senate has a chance to review it in a calmer, less partisan way.
Now the independent Liberals will I think represent the government in the Senate, and the Conservatives that had been representing the [former] government will sit in opposition. They’re more numerous—there’s about 60 of them—but they’ve already indicated that they’re going to be cooperative. They’re not going to be blocking legislation. I have a feeling that a certain amount of rationality and civility will come to the Senate.
The Harper government gained praise for apparently paying more attention to the North than any other previous government.
Well, he came more often. He didn’t pay attention. He didn’t meet with any people. It was all very controlled; a photo opportunity. Sure, he’s probably been North more than any other prime minister, but he never really engaged with Northerners in a real, meaningful way. And [the Conservatives’] view is to militarize the North and I’ve always thought well, that’s fine, but really the best way to recognize sovereignty is the people living there. Engage with them and have them happy.
What can the government do to make it such that the people in the North are really happy, comfortable, at ease?
That’s the challenge. There’s things that the federal government can do: making sure that the territorial government has enough money for housing; money for hospitals and healthcare. It’s very expensive because there’s no adequate hospital services [in most of the communities] so people have to be flown to the bigger centres or to the south.
Do you have a wishlist for the federal government?
I’d love to see the government build a highway down the Mackenzie Valley. What a difference a road would make. It changes lives everywhere there’s a road. The government has slowly been building bridges over the creeks and rivers. It’ll take millions of dollars, but it’ll do wonders for the North. It’ll open up the area for development, lower the price of food and provide a better quality of life because people then can drive out.
The NWT itself is changing pretty rapidly, not only with devolution but with the momentum from self-government agreements—the Tłi¸cho¸ have theirs, Délı¸ne’s has been signed, others are in negotiation. How might this change how the territory operates?
You already have a government in place with the territorial government. It’s a baby government because it just came about in ’68, but it’s progressed a lot to the point where it’s typical of any responsible government in the south. Now with devolution, it has control over lands and resources, so it’s come a long ways.
I think it will be interesting to see how the aboriginal governments come and interface and interact with the territorial government—because, at the moment, the territorial government provides all the services, all the programs.
But in these land claims, these self-government agreements, there’s provisions for these aboriginal governments to take over certain functions: education, social programs, housing, justice. It’s going to be decades and decades before these aboriginal governments are mature and developed enough to take on these functions, but the provisions are there for them to take on a lot of the functions that the territorial government is presently providing.
It’s like the Northwest Territories is becoming a federation of its own.
That’s right, because you have the central territorial government and you have the aboriginal governments in different parts of the North. You’re eventually going to have all these governments develop and grow and become functional and interface with government. In 20, 30, 40 years from now, the situation will be quite different. Everything will not be handled out of Yellowknife, as it is now. All these aboriginal governments will be functional, little entities unto themselves. You’ll have aboriginal government—truer, more realistic than it is now. Now it’s aboriginal government in name and in theory, to an extent. In the next 20, 30 years they’ll come unto themselves, they’ll develop and they’ll become functional.
Hopefully they’ve been designed well enough that it will all work. Because the notion of self-government is significant. You’re not going to be governed from afar, even Yellowknife. I think when people govern themselves and take responsibility, there can be more accountability and kind of a truer government, more independent.
At the moment I think everyone in the North is so used to government. Money comes from government. Without government there wouldn’t be any money, it almost seems. There isn’t much industry otherwise. Through time, hopefully, as these self-governed entities develop, they’ll also have to deal with the reality of the economy. How are they going to provide jobs? How are they going to be self-supporting, to a certain degree? And they’re going to have to look and see what is on their land that can be developed, maybe mines, maybe oil and gas. Some, if they’re fortunate, could have the resources just like Alberta and be very well off, and others that don’t have the resources will have a more difficult time. It’s like a microcosm of Canada, in a sense—the different regions, the way they can develop and be economically sound, it’s just all dependent on resources.