Two of Canada’s three northern territories use a Consensus government model in their legislative assemblies. Some of the unique features of this system are visible in how their parliamentary libraries are situated and used. In this article, the authors outline how parliamentarians and other clients in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut access the libraries’ resources in a way that reflects the openness and the cooperation associated with this method of governance.
Gerry Burla and Riel Gallant
In a Consensus-style government there are no party allegiances. The Members are elected based on their relatability to the communities they represent. In this environment, even the Chamber differs slightly from the traditional Westminster-style Parliament. Traditionally, the governing party sits across the floor from the opposition Members in most parliaments. In a Consensus-style legislature, the seats are arranged in a circle. This layout symbolizes that Members are one amongst equals. The sentiment is echoed in the selection of the Cabinet (who do sit in near proximity to each other) where the Premier and Ministers are selected by the Members themselves during the Territorial Leadership Committee (Northwest Territories) or the Leadership Forum (Nunavut).
Although the circular seating plan gives the perception of unity, the Members sit as individuals. This individuality can be daunting for some Members, especially newly elected Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) who are still trying to find their way. There are no party affiliations to create an instant bond – each Member is on his or her own.
The Legislative Library can serve as a meeting place for Members to congregate and ‘discover familiarity.’ Most MLAs have visited libraries in their home communities or spent time in study carrels at school. In the first few days after an election, the Members are introduced to the Caucus Room, the Chamber, the Committee Rooms, their offices, and several other unfamiliar surroundings. The Library offers a sense of familiarity, even if this is their first time visiting the Legislative Library at the Legislature.
The Library’s location within the Precinct gives testimony to this purpose. In the Northwest Territories, the Library is situated directly beneath the Caucus Room; gatherings and discussions held there may be continued in the Library in a much less formal manner. The Caucus Room mimics the Chamber in its circular design. It is smaller than the Chamber, but still has enough room for all the Members to participate in discussion. In a Consensus government, the Caucus Room is where Members debate the strategic directions and important emerging issues relevant to the Territory and its citizens.
Directly below the Caucus Room, the Library offers the opportunity for Members, should they wish, to conduct interviews in a space that makes them feel comfortable. Many times the interview or speech given from the library location tends to be longer than average, such as a recorded message for an opening address to a conference or an expression of appreciation for a function to which the Member unfortunately could not attend. The backdrop of the Library adds a sense of warmth to the statement.
In Nunavut, the Library is located on the top floor of the Precinct. Regular Members from the first floor and Cabinet Ministers from the second floor will routinely drop by the Library when visiting the Office of the Clerk. The atmosphere in the Library is relaxed and welcoming. Visitors will often begin by taking a glance at the “New Arrivals” shelf at the front door before proceeding to the reference desk or the collection. Some prefer to come through the back entrance to take advantage of the reading area which looks over the western end of the city.
The library materials not only make a pleasant and inviting backdrop; they also serve a function. The Members are welcome to sit and read periodicals on local news from their home communities, and there are also reports and research papers on different subjects of interest to better inform the Members.
Research is an important task, and an unfortunate reality of the north is that not all government departments have libraries. The Legislative Library fills that role when called upon. All Members may take advantage of the resources maintained by the Library. Annual reports, strategic frameworks, and topical documentation going back decades are included within the Library’s collection. These resources are utilized by the Library staff to respond to in-depth reference questions, and to participate in research conducted by the Research Unit of the Assembly. With a limited number of Assembly staff to assist the Members, partnerships amongst the Units are necessary to achieve the desired results.
The information provided to the Members from Research Division and the Library may be presented to the House in the language the Member chooses. In Nunavut, the content may be delivered in English, French, Inuinnaqtun, or Inuktitut. The Northwest Territories provides the right for Members to speak in these same four tongues plus North and South Slavey, Cree, Chipewyan, Gwich’in, Inuvialuktun, and Tłı̨chǫ. The Library makes every effort to acquire, and to make accessible, materials in these official languages (among others) for the benefit of the Members and the people of the northern territories, although translation services are offered through other departments.
The Library is steeped in tradition but is also evolving for the future. Assembly staff are working with the Library to combat the great distances between communities. Community engagement through visits during the Committee schedule is an integral part of Consensus government. The Library is continuously developing ways for the Committee members to access the information resources required to meet the communities’ and the Members’ needs.
The legislative libraries within Canada’s northern territories’ Consensus style government precincts reflect the openness and the cooperation associated with this method of governance. Like the people the Members represent, the Libraries are retaining much of the northern traditions as possible while keeping an eye on the future and the developments yet to come.