The Non-Partisan Paradox: Overcoming Gender Disparity in the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly.

AuthorYurris, Christopher

In the span of one general election campaign, the Northwest Territories went from being the Canadian jurisdiction with the lowest proportion of women parliamentarians in its assembly to the highest, one of the few Canadian jurisdictions with a gender-balanced Cabinet, and the sole jurisdiction with a woman first minister. In this article, the author outlines the institutional barriers that led to the under-representation of women in territorial politics, the historical developments which contributed to such a dramatic change, and why the results of next territorial election will be an important indication of whether this change will be short-lived or more permanent.


Serving as the Premier of the Northwest Territories from 1991 to 1995, Nellie Cournoyea was the second female and first Indigenous woman to become premier in Canadian history; she was only preceded earlier in the year by Rita Johnston in British Columbia. (1) Cournoyea's prominent role, alongside Mary Simon and Rosemary Kuptana, in the negotiations leading up to the Charlottetown Accord, earned the trio the nickname "the Mothers of Confederation". (2,3) However, in the years following Cournoyea's landmark feat and her successful tenure as an MLA, the Northwest Territories has lagged behind other Canadian jurisdictions in terms of the representation of women in the Legislative Assembly. Following the 2015 territorial election, only two female candidates were elected to the 19-seat legislature; at the time, this was the lowest proportion of female representation in a Canadian legislature (10.5 per cent). (4)

The place of women in territorial politics seemed to change drastically following the territorial election in October 2019--nine women gained election into the legislature (47 per cent of seats). The NWT now had the distinction of being the jurisdiction with the greatest proportion of women in a Canadian legislature. (5) The selection of Cabinet resulted in women holding six of seven Cabinet positions, including Premier Caroline Cochrane. (6)

This article will briefly explore some possible institutional explanations for the historical lack of representation of women in the NWT Legislative Assembly. Next, I will examine several attempts at reform, both by individual Members, as well as through committees. This discussion will culminate in an exploration of the 2019 NWT election, which represented a seismic shift in terms of female representation in the Legislature that was subsequently reflected in Cabinet.

Institutional Explanations

There are several possible institutional explanations for the lack of female representation in the NWT Legislative Assembly before 2019. Graham White argued that the non-partisan nature of the Assembly has been paradoxical in explaining the lack of women MLAs. (7) White argues that the "baneful existence of political parties, which frequently operate as "old boys clubs" relegating women to unwinnable ridings, is simply not a factor". (8) This builds off Janine Brodie's idea of "party gatekeepers" preventing women from winning party nominations. (9) Therefore, the absence of parties and underrepresentation of women in the NWT's non-partisan legislature is paradoxical; despite the lack of "party gatekeepers," women were still severely underrepresented. White argues that political parties may in fact serve as a form of structural support, rather than a structural barrier, as they can play a significant role in recruiting and the training of candidates. (10) For example, recent initiatives in New Brunswick aimed to lobby parties to ensure 50 per cent of their candidates in the September 2018 election were women. (11)

Furthermore, the generally more amicable nature of proceedings in the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly stands in stark contrast to behavior found in other Canadian legislatures. Melanie Thomas and Lisa Young recognize that:

The House of Commons is best suited for an adversarial, combative type of debate and does not favour mechanisms of consensus. Many female MPs indicated that they would have preferred to engage in the latter type of debate and found the combative style inefficient and ineffective (12) Conversely, the deliberation in the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly is mainly civil, as described firsthand by current Clerk of the Legislative Assembly, Tim Mercer:

For those accustomed to boisterous parliamentary debate, the relative civility of the NWT Legislative Assembly stands out immediately ... For the most part, Oral Question Period is used to get answers from Ministers as opposed to attempting to discredit, embarrass or score political points. (13)

Additionally, the costs of campaigning in territorial elections, both in time and money, are relatively low, "since ridings typically have small, geographically concentrated populations". (14) Moreover, the maximum campaign spending limit of $30,000 is rarely reached, especially in smaller communities. (15)

Despite the perception of low barriers of entry for candidates, as discussed by White, the final report suggested financial and opportunity costs related to candidacy were often a deterrent for prospective candidates; additional pressures further dissuading female would-be-candidates. For example, quitting full-time jobs was considered too great a risk by several residents with uncertainty surrounding election results. (16) A proposal made in the report to mitigating this risk suggested "convincing employers to keep the position open and offer unpaid leave to employees who run for elected office." (17)

Moreover, some women are dissuaded from running to be an MLA as they are unwilling to take a pay cut and...

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