The Two-Row Wampum: Has this metaphor for co-existence run its course?

Article 5 / 9 , Vol 42 No. 2 (Summer)

The Two-Row Wampum: Has this metaphor for co-existence run its course?

In this article – an abridged and revised version of a longer academic research paper – the author illuminates elements of the Northwest Territories’ (NWT)consensus-style Legislative Assembly. He discusses how it is situated within both the political cultural traditions of the Indigenous peoples of NWT (the Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit people) and also the Canadian political culture that has developed out of the Westminster parliamentary system. He contends the Northwest Territories’ consensus style of government is uniquely structured to meet the needs
of its residents. While noting his analysis should not be construed to suggest that this system can or should be exported wholesale to either Indigenous governments or Canada’s parliaments, he suggests it does demonstrate that with shared purpose and political creativity, new ways can be found to define a third shared normative space, sparkling like jewels in the waters of the Two-Row Wampum.

Tim Mercer

The Gus-Wen-Tah, or “Two-Row Wampum,” was
first negotiated between Dutch settlers and the
nations of the Haudenosaunee confederacy.
It served as a model for subsequent treaties with the
British, including the one executed at Niagara in 1764,
following the Royal Proclamation of 1763.1 The purple
rows of the wampum symbolize the two distinct
people, each traveling in their own vessels and not
attempting to steer or impede the other. The three
white rows symbolize the shared river and peace,
respect and friendship.
The Two-Row Wampum represents an understanding
of the first and subsequent treaties on the part of
Indigenous people that is starkly different from their
modern interpretation by non-indigenous Canada.
It does not represent a surrender of sovereignty to
the Crown, the extinguishment of land title or an
agreement to abide by the laws of another nation. It
envisions two separate and independent people on a
shared journey, each respecting the sovereignty and
independence of the other and a shared commitment
to peace, friendship and non-interference.
Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people two
and a half centuries later, and the painful history that
has led to it, bears little resemblance to this foundational
metaphor. As Indigenous and non-indigenous people
grapple with genuine attempts to forge a post-colonial
relationship, they face a fundamental dilemma: Does
the path to decolonization and self-government lie
in making space within the existing institutions of
Canadian government for Indigenous people (berths
in the settlers’ ship) or do such shared institutions
fundamentally contradict the nation-to-nation
relationship envisioned in the Two-Row Wampum
and the inherent right to self-government?
This article offers a possible interpretation of
the Two-Row Wampum metaphor that respects
the individuality of each of the purple rows in the
wampum belt, but changes the focus to the river of
interconnected white beads that they both travel
over. Consensus-style government in the Northwest
Territories has adapted the Westminster parliamentary
system to reflect and encompass some common
aspects of Indigenous political cultures. Moreover, this
form of public government accepts Indigenous selfgovernment
and strives to work alongside it to serve
a population that may have representation in both.
The NWT example demonstrates that Indigenous
self-government and shared public institutions are
not mutually exclusive; that they can co-exist, adapt
and thrive. Far from perfect, the institutions of public
government in the Northwest Territories nevertheless
demonstrate that a more holistic interpretation of the
Two-Row Wampum is both possible and instructive.
It may also be inevitable.
The Northwest Territories’ Consensus-style
Legislative Assembly
It is often said that the Northwest Territories is
the quarry from which most of Canada was mined.
The former Hudson’s Bay Company territories of
Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory were
left out of Confederation in 1867 because of the Red
River Rebellion but were ceded to Canada in 1870,
coincidental with settlement of the rebellion and the
creation of the Province of Manitoba. Its political
boundaries once included present-day Alberta,
Saskatchewan, Manitoba, vast portions of Ontario and
Quebec, Yukon and Nunavut. As such, its Legislative
Assembly is among the oldest parliamentary
institutions in Canada.
Frederick Haultain served as premier of the
Northwest Territories from 1897, when it achieved
full responsible government, until 1905 when the
provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were created.
Haultain was a leading figure in the movement to
create a single north-western province that would
operate without political parties which, in his
opinion, were anathema to the effective operation of
responsible government. While it is a stretch to credit
Haultain with the form of consensus government
practiced in the NWT today, his outlook demonstrates
a natural unease with adversarial politics on the part
of political cultures not steeped in that tradition.
After 1905, the Territories’ Legislature was abolished
and replaced by an appointed Commissioner and
Council consisting exclusively of federal civil servants
based in Ottawa. The Council was largely dormant
until 1921, when oil was discovered at Norman Wells,
and a sense of urgency to negotiate treaties with the
Indigenous people of the Mackenzie Valley emerged.
In the years that followed, representative and
responsible government returned to the Northwest
Territories in small increments, commencing with the
addition of three elected Members from the Mackenzie
District in 1951. The Commissioner and the territorial
administration relocated from Ottawa to Yellowknife
in 1967. Following this, the size and power of the
elected Council increased steadily until, in 1975, its
15 Members consisted entirely of elected northerners.
Notably, this was the first time in Canadian history
that a legislative body consisted of a majority of
Indigenous members. This has continued, without
interruption, to the present day. It was not until 1987
that the chairmanship of the Executive Council, or
Cabinet, was transferred from the Commissioner, still
a federal civil servant, to an elected Member chosen
by his or her legislative colleagues. Party politics
Two-Row Wampum: The purple rows symbolize the two distinct people, each traveling in their own vessels
and not attempting to steer with or impede the other. The three white rows symbolize the shared river and
peace, respect and friendship.
did not take hold under such a hybrid of appointed
and elected Members. Although candidates affiliated
with political parties have been nominated in recent
elections, all have been rejected at the polls. By and
large, residents of the Northwest Territories view
political parties as “alien, southern-Canadian political
institutions which impede political development
along distinctively Northern lines.”3
The structure and operation of the NWT Legislative
Assembly has remained fairly constant since the return
of responsible government in the 1980s. Following
division of the territory in 1999, both Nunavut and
the remaining portion of the NWT maintained
largely the same systems, commonly described in
both jurisdictions as “consensus government.” On
a fixed date every four years, a general election is
held to return a single Member from each of the 19
electoral districts. In the absence of political parties,
candidates run as independents. Results are largely
decided on the strength of each candidate’s character
and individual record as opposed to their party
affiliation, popularity of the party leader, ideology or
suite of policy proposals.
Following each general election and prior to the
selection of a premier and cabinet, all 19 Members
meet in private over the course of several days to
develop a strategic vision and priorities for the life
of the Assembly. These discussions take place within
the Caucus, one of the most distinctive features of
consensus government. In the absence of political
parties, the Caucus consists of all 19 Members.
In addition to setting a broad strategic direction
for each Assembly, the Caucus meets regularly
when the Legislature is in session to discuss the
scheduling of sittings, the timing of major debates,
the appointment of independent officers of the House
and administrative matters affecting all Members
equally. Members are expected to participate in
Caucus discussions free from Cabinet solidarity or
the expectations normally placed on those holding
certain offices, such as premier, speaker, or committee
chair. This differs from political party caucuses which
act more as political “war councils.”
Once a speaker has been elected, Members
proceed to elect, from amongst their ranks, a
Cabinet consisting of a premier and six ministers.
The premier is elected at large whereas two of the
ministers must represent constituencies from each
of the NWT’s three geographic regions, namely
Yellowknife and those constituencies north and
south of Great Slave Lake. Although the premier
assigns individual portfolios to each minister, they
neither choose who is appointed to Cabinet nor have
the authority to revoke those appointments. Unlike
the prime minister or the provincial premiers, the
premier of the Northwest Territories does not have
the authority to seek dissolution of the Legislative
Assembly or call an election. Only the Commissioner,
on the recommendation of a majority of Members,
may dissolve a Legislative Assembly prior to the
conclusion of its fixed term. Without the structural
power typically afforded first ministers in Canada’s
liberal democratic institutions, the premier of the
Northwest Territories is truly a first amongst equals.
To lead effectively, he or she must rely upon a mix of
inspiration, influence and wisdom.
The remaining eleven so-called “regular Members”
are appointed to various standing committees of
the House and, to a limited extent, work together to
hold the Cabinet to account. Importantly, however,
they do not present themselves as a “government
in waiting.” Their ultimate goal is not to discredit,
embarrass, or defeat the Government. On the contrary,
regular Members, both individually and collectively
through committees and the Caucus, work closely
with the Government to develop public policy. The
institutionalized adversarialism which forms the basis
of Canada’s other parliaments does not exist in the
NWT. Rather, opposition Members focus their efforts
on fulfilling what Peter Aucoin, Mark Jarvis and
Lori Turnbull describe as the “traditional core role”
of parliament: to review and then approve or reject
proposed legislation; to scrutinize the Government’s
administration of public affairs; to hold ministers
to account for their performance, collectively and
individually; and to withdraw its confidence in the
government, as deemed necessary.4
Unanimous support for its legislative and
budgetary proposals is normally sought by Cabinet,
and is routinely received. The concept of an “official
opposition” is non-existent. This is not to suggest
that Cabinet is given free rein to govern in the
absence of meaningful accountability and oversight.
In fact, because regular Members do not oppose the
Government in dogmatic fashion, their criticisms
are viewed as more genuine and meaningful when
presented.Ministers are sometimes removed from
office and disagreements have boiled over into
animosity and distrust, but this is neither the norm
nor the expectation. As Professor Graham White has
observed, “it is the possibility and the frequency of
accommodation, cooperation, and compromise that
defines consensus government.”5
Standing committees play an active and important
role in the creation of policy and the delivery of public
services in the Northwest Territories. In the absence
of party affiliations and discipline, Members are free
to engage in frank and honest dialogue with ministers
regarding legislative, policy, or budgetary proposals.
Ministers, as a matter of course, consult with Members
and committees before finalizing or announcing
major initiatives. Whereas the first time a nongovernment
Member in a partisan legislature would
see the details of a proposed bill or budget would be
at formal introduction stage in the House, standing
committee Members in the consensus system are
asked to comment on early drafts of bills and budgets
before they are finally approved by Cabinet and
tabled in the Legislature for public debate. Standing
committees travel extensively throughout the NWT
to consult the public on legislation referred to them
by the House and these consultations frequently
result in amendments to bills with, or more rarely
without, the Cabinet’s consent. Although there is no
requirement for ministers to obtain the approval of
committees for everything they do, a failure to work
closely and collaboratively with committee on major
public policy issues is inconsistent with the principles
of consensus government. Contrast this with partisan
legislatures where committees reflect the ideological
divisions of the House and, as such, are little more
than procedural hoops through which the governing
and all-powerful party must jump.
Although the look and feel of the NWT Legislative
Assembly is distinctly Westminster, from gowned
clerks to a near wholesale adoption of British rules
of procedure, there are notable and important
differences. Most obviously, the design and
functioning of the legislative chamber is steeped in
Indigenous symbolism. The legislative chamber is
circular, representing the base of a traditional tipi
or igloo. This unique shape was intended to avoid
the adversarial appearance of most parliaments
and symbolize a unity of purpose. Members are
encouraged to wear traditional Indigenous attire
in the chamber and commonly speak one of nine
Indigenous languages which, in addition to French
and English, have official status.
Chamber of the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly
For those accustomed to boisterous parliamentary
debate, the relative civility of the NWT Legislative
Assembly stands out immediately. When a Member
is speaking, interruptions, heckling or sidebar
conversations are frowned upon. The Speaker is
seldom required to intervene to bring order to
debate. On those rare occasions when a Member’s
conduct is deemed unparliamentary, sincere
apologies are usually offered and accepted. For the
most part, oral question period is used to get answers
or public commitments from Ministers as opposed to
attempting to discredit, embarrass, or score political
points. Seldom is there an exchange between a regular
Member and a minister that is not parenthesized
with the words “please” and “thank you.” Unlike
partisan legislatures where the parties are divided
both ideologically and physically, Members in the
NWT Legislature share a common lounge to the
rear of the Chamber where they socialize and dine
together during breaks in the sitting day.
Not only is debate civil, it is also relatively
thoughtful and genuine. In the absence of party
discipline, Members are able to speak freely on behalf
of their constituents or present their individual
perspectives on matters under consideration. Minds
are frequently changed and positions modified to
reach solutions that a majority can support. The rules
of the House allow for extensive debate. There are
few time limits imposed on Members’ speeches and
those that do exist are customarily set aside with
unanimous consent. In fact, unanimous consent is
routinely obtained to extend oral question period
beyond its daily, and generous, one hour. Although
any Member may move closure of debate, such
procedural guillotines are rarely used. The rules
of the House place greater emphasis on free and
extensive debate than they do on efficiency or timemanagement.
In this sense, the NWT Legislative
Assembly is truer to the notion of parliament as a
forum for the free and open exchange of ideas than
its partisan counterparts and more consistent with
traditional northern Indigenous political culture.
Consensus government provides all elected
Members the opportunity to play a direct and
meaningful role in shaping public policy. As
mentioned earlier, the strategic vision and priorities
for the Government are established by all Members
prior to the election of a Cabinet. This helps to ensure
that the views of all the NWT’s regions and people
are reflected in the Government’s mandate. No one
is left out of the decision-making process simply
because they are Members of an opposing political
party. All Members have an equal opportunity to
let their names stand for and serve on Cabinet.
Because of Cabinet’s perennial minority, the input
of all Members is sought and often accommodated.
Standing committees provide non-Cabinet Members
with the rare opportunity to scrutinize and influence
budgets, legislation, and policy proposals well before
they are drafted or formally introduced in the House.
By the time that legislation and budgets are introduced
in the Legislative Assembly, they have typically been
the subject of intense review by regular Members
and standing committees. The opportunity for every
elected Member to play a direct and meaningful role
in the crafting of public policy, regardless of ideology
or party affiliation, is viewed by many as the very
essence of consensus government.
Whereas opposition Members in party-based
parliaments must often wait for a change of
government to effect real change, consensus
government as practiced in the NWT allows for more
frequent course corrections from outside the ranks
of Cabinet. Private members’ bills are given the
same priority as government-sponsored legislation
and are an effective way for the House to impose
its will on a reluctant Cabinet. The fact that they are
rarely used is likely an indication that Members are
generally able to meet their legislative objectives by
working closely with ministers and Cabinet. Because
each minister is appointed by the House as a whole,
their accountability and responsiveness to members
is quite strong. As with any minority government,
Cabinet must have the support of at least a portion
of those Members outside its own ranks to govern. It
cannot impose its agenda on an unwilling Legislative
Assembly. Because the premier does not have the
power to dissolve the Legislature, Cabinet cannot
speak over the heads of regular Members in a direct
appeal to the electorate. Both “sides” of the House
must work together to govern effectively.
Like any system, consensus government is not
without its shortcomings. In the run-up to the
creation of Nunavut in 1999 there were extensive
discussions respecting the preferred constitution for
the remaining portions of the NWT. The primary
tension underlying these discussions was between
the legitimacy of the public government, which
many Indigenous groups felt, and continue to feel,
is a colonial system imposed on northern Indigenous
people from southern Canada, and the inherent right
to self-government. This tension is most keenly felt by
those Indigenous groups, largely from the southern
regions of the territory, who signed formal treaties
with the Crown in 1898 and 1921. Those who did
not sign treaties, most notably the Inuvialuit from
the Mackenzie Delta region, are more comfortable
negotiating land and self-government agreements
with the territorial government as a future partner.
Despite its many accommodations to northern
Indigenous political culture, many Indigenous
Members hold on to the view that consensus
government is too greatly influenced and constrained
by the Westminster tradition. While the premier and
Cabinet are in a perpetual minority, their ability to act
in unison in the Legislature affords them significant
power. On controversial matters, all they require
are the votes of three non-Cabinet Members to carry
a majority vote. As such, consensus government
is viewed by some as a series of shifting alliances
between cabinet and various groups of Members
depending upon the issue at hand. This often has
the result of creating tension and disunity among
the 11 non-Cabinet Members and motivating them to
abandon cooperation in favour of self-interest.
Finally, while consensus government at the political
level reflects northern Indigenous political culture,
the territorial bureaucracy is distinctly southern in
its structure and operations. This is a result of both
the bureaucracy’s evolution, and the complexity of
programs and services it provides.
The crucial years in the development of the
northern public service were those in which both
administration and politics were controlled and
managed by federal public servants and appointees.
The territorial public service that developed under
this regime, perhaps not surprisingly, is closer to
a small-scale version of the federal bureaucratic
structure than to a distinct northern and nativeoriented
system of administration.6
Because the Government of the Northwest
Territories provides the same scope of services as
its provincial counterparts, and receives the lion’s
share of its funding from federal sources, a degree
of administrative consistency is seen as necessary
to both the efficient delivery of services and the
legitimacy of the Government of the Northwest
Territories in the eyes of its mainstream Canadian
counterparts. The result has been a territorial public
service characterized by hierarchy, the concentration
of power and adherence to rigorous, impersonal and,
at times, inflexible rules. One of these, the merit
principle, with its emphasis on formal education
and relevant experience, based largely on southern
standards, has helped ensure that the senior ranks
of the public service are underrepresented by
Indigenous people. Of equal importance, the crucial
role played by the public service in the formulation
and delivery of public services is, at times, out of step
with traditional northern Indigenous culture.
The Members who serve in this uniquely
northern adaptation of the Westminster model have
expressed a high level of support for maintaining its
fundamental features and, more precisely, keeping
party politics out. In a 2008 survey of Members, all
19 expressed the view that consensus government
will continue to serve the needs of the Northwest
Territories in the future. The introduction of party
politics was opposed by 87 per cent.7 The few
attempts to elect candidates on a party banner have
failed. It is unclear whether these electoral failures
were a rejection of the individual candidates, their
parties, or party politics in general. It would appear
that consensus government is an adaptation of the
Westminster system that best reflects the values and
traditions of all the people of the NWT, Indigenous
and non-indigenous.
Only time will tell how well the NWT’s consensus
government is able to hold up to the increasing
pressure and uncertainty brought by Indigenous
self-government, urbanization and the constant view
of party politics as the solution to its shortcomings.
The Tli Cho Dene were the first to negotiate a
comprehensive self-government agreement in the
Northwest Territories in 2003. Interestingly, in
the 15 years since the agreement was signed, the
Tli Cho Government has called for more, not less,
representation in the territorial Legislative Assembly
to reflect its growing population. Contrast this to the
Dene of the Deh Cho region whose land and selfgovernment
negotiations have been stalled for years
as the result of a reluctance to recognize, let alone
negotiate with, the Government of the Northwest
Territories. The constitutional requirement for
representation by population is creating additional
pressure to increase the number of representatives
in the Legislative Assembly from its growing urban
centres, most notably Yellowknife. Resistance to
more seats in the Legislature from the largely
Indigenous communities outside Yellowknife have
led to calls for party politics as a means to ensuring
fair representation. The specter of a political party
system divided along racial lines is cause for
concern. Furthermore, as history has demonstrated,
once political parties find their way into legislative
assemblies, they are challenging to eradicate.
In its Final Report, the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission of Canada submitted 94 calls to action
to overcome the legacy of Indian Residential Schools
and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.
One of these calls to action reads:
45. We call upon the Government of Canada,
on behalf of all Canadians, to jointly develop
with Aboriginal peoples a Royal Proclamation
of Reconciliation to be issued by the Crown.
The proclamation would build on the Royal
Proclamation of 1763 and the Treaty of Niagara
of 1764, and reaffirm the nation-to nation
relationship between Aboriginal peoples
and the Crown. The proclamation would
include, but not be limited to, the following
iv. Reconcile Aboriginal and Crown
constitutional and legal orders to ensure
that Aboriginal peoples are full partners in
Confederation, including the recognition
and integration of Indigenous laws and legal
traditions in negotiation and implementation
processes involving Treaties, land claims and
other constructive agreements.8
At first glance, this call to action is internally
inconsistent. On one hand it calls for reaffirmation
of the nation-to-nation relationship negotiated at
the Treaty of Niagara and symbolized by the Two-
Row Wampum. Further, the perceived need to have
this proclamation issued by the Crown calls into
question the very essence of the inherent right to
self-government. On the other hand, it identifies
the inclusion of Aboriginal people as full partners
in Confederation as a fundamental precondition
to reconciliation. How is it possible for Indigenous
people to embrace identities as both Canadian citizens
and members of self-governing nations? Does
shared citizenship not involve the subordination
of cultural identities to a common authority when
inconsistencies arise?
To help us overcome this apparent inconsistency,
Melissa Williams suggests a notion of citizenship
based on “shared fate” as opposed to “shared
The core of this idea is that we find ourselves in
webs of relationships with other human beings
that profoundly shape our lives, whether or not
we consciously chose or voluntarily assent to be
enmeshed in these webs. What connects us in a
community of shared fate is that our actions have
impact on other identifiable human beings, and other
human beings’ actions have an impact on us.9
In other words, even though the political cultures
of Indigenous and non-indigenous people are very
different, and in some ways wholly incompatible,
our interdependence means that there is no plausible
alternative to working together to make our
respective societies survive and thrive. The inherent
right to self-government means that a myriad of
Indigenous institutions will emerge on Canada’s
future political landscape, like the jewels in Indra’s
net. The measure of our success in navigating this
new reality is not the manner in which we each go
our separate ways, but rather in finding creative new
ways to work together as we travel on the same river
towards the same destination.
As Canada seeks to make sense of the emerging
post-colonial relationship between Indigenous and
non-indigenous citizens, the metaphor of the Two-
Row Wampum may continue to serve us well.It can
be thought of as constituting three distinct normative
and legal spaces.10 The first two spaces, the purple
rows, symbolize Indigenous self-governments in
all their current and future varieties and Canada’s
federal, provincial and territorial liberal democratic
institutions. The bed of white beads constitutes a
third normative space occupied by both Indigenous
and non-indigenous Canadians. It is preoccupied
with the relationship between the first two spaces as
well as those inescapable areas of shared jurisdiction
and interdependence. To succeed, the political
culture of this shared space must be agreed to by
both Indigenous and non-indigenous people. It
must involve the creation of institutions that reflect
both traditions, and from which both can take
ownership and derive a sense of shared community.
It must involve more than simply making room
for Indigenous people within Canada’s liberal
democratic institutions. It may mean changing
the ways our institutions operate to better reflect
Indigenous political culture.
The Northwest Territories’ consensus-style of
government is uniquely structured to meet the
needs of its residents. While far from perfect, it
has withstood the initial tests of time by adapting
the British parliamentary system to the political
culture of the Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit people
who constitute a majority of the population.
Whereas each of these traditions is the result of
starkly differing world views, their coming together
has resulted in something distinctly northern. The
preceding analysis is not to suggest that this system
should be exported wholesale to either Indigenous
governments or Canada’s parliaments. Rather, it
demonstrates that with shared purpose and political
creativity, new ways can be found to define the third
shared normative space, sparkling like jewels in the
waters of the Two-Row Wampum.
1 Michael Morden, “Indigenizing Parliament: Time
to Re-start a Conversation,” Canadian Parliamentary
Review 39:2 (Summer 2016), p. 31.
2 “Two Row Wampum – Guswenta,” Onondaga Nation
3 Graham White, “And Now For Something Completely
Northern: Institutions of Governance in the Territorial
North,” Journal of Canadian Studies 35:4 (Winter 2001),
p. 503.
4 Peter Aucoin, Mark D Jarvis & Lori Turnbull,
Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible
Government (Toronto: Emond Montgomery, 2011), p.
5 Graham White, p. 84.
6 C.E.S. Franks, “Toward Representation of the
Aboriginal Population in the Public Service of the
Northwest Territories,” in Rebecca Aird, ed., Running
the North: The Getting and Spending of Public Finances
by Canada’s Territorial Governments (Ottawa: Canadian
Arctic Resources Committee, 1989), p. 393.
7 Stephen Dunbar, Seeking Unanimous Consent:
Consensus Government in the Northwest Territories,
Master’s Thesis, (Ottawa: Carleton University,
Department of Political Science, 2008), p. 82.
8 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,
Calls to Action (Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation
Commission of Canada, 2015), p. 4.
9 Melissa S, Williams, “Sharing the River: Aboriginal
Representation in Canadian Political Institutions,”
in David Laycock, ed. Representation and Democratic
Theory, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004), p. 104.
10 Ibid., p. 108.

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