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

Article 5 / 9 , Vol 44 No. 3 (Fall)

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

Christopher Yurris is enrolled in a Master program in Political Science at McGill University. He worked as a summer student at the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories in 2021.

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 underrepresentation 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 ineffective12
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 ”reduce their current level of income to the level of earnings made by a Member of the Legislative Assembly”.18 This factor extends beyond a gender analysis and helps to explain the lack of professionals who have served in the Legislature. Before the 2015 election ”only four lawyers ha[d] been elected to the Legislative Assembly since 1951 and only one of the current Members, a pharmacist, [was] a professional.”19 With that being said, there are many civil servants who have successfully run for MLA over the years.

The report also cited the financial costs and time associated with travel during a campaign in the territory’s larger ridings, particularly in more widespread ridings consisting of fly-in communities.20 For example, Shane Thompson, the current MLA for the sprawling constituency of Nahendeh, spent $5,968.79 on travel during the 2015 election campaign, much of the total ($8,525.57) spent on his campaign.21 Similarly, former MLA for Nunakput (another vast riding) Herbert Nakimayak‘s entire budget ($2,062.20) in the 2015 election was used for travel.22

This issue is exacerbated for women requiring childcare, leading to higher expenses; accordingly, the committee suggested that childcare should be an eligible campaign expense.23 Moreover, the reimbursement of childcare costs for candidates who manage to reach a vote threshold is not an entirely new idea. For example, Elections Manitoba allows for reimbursement of “100 [per cent] of reasonable child care and disability expenses”, contingent on a candidate earning five per cent of the vote.24,25 Campaign finance is further complicated by the absence of political parties which creates an uphill battle for candidates wishing to challenge an incumbent.26 The financial incumbency advantage in the Northwest Territories is exacerbated by the prevalence of corporate campaign donations; for instance, in 2015, incumbent in the riding of Mackenzie Delta, Frederick Blake Jr., would receive his entire campaign budget from three local businesses, whereas his challengers would receive no financial backing from the local business community.27

Attempts at Reform
Earlier criticisms had been levied at the territorial government for its inaction in addressing the lack of women representation in the Legislative Assembly. In the early 2000s Sandy Lee, then-MLA for Range Lake, was outspoken in her concern over the lack of women representation in the Legislature. In December 2003, Lee gave a Members’ Statement declaring her disapproval that women were not represented in Cabinet and no Indigenous women were elected in the House. 28 Lee would expand this critique a year later, noting the issue went beyond elected representatives; appointed senior bureaucrats were also overwhelmingly men. She noted the “ratio of all senior government and board appointments [had] been 100 percent male to zero percent female” at the time of her statement.29

The push for increasing the representation of women in territorial politics continued to become a key issue for legislators in the territory. The Northwest Territories Status of Women Council and the Native Women’s Association of the NWT have been active in attempting to address the underrepresentation of women in territorial politics. In collaboration with the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT), these organizations have offered their flagship program, the Campaign School for Women, since 2007. The campaign school’s curriculum is “northern made” and includes modules on conflict management, public speaking, and fundraising.30 Lee, who was a major proponent of the introduction of the campaign schools, promoted them in a Members’ Statement in February 2007.31

Furthermore, the Northwest Territories’ 18th Legislative Assembly (2015-2019) “supporting initiatives designed to increase the number of women running for elected office in the NWT”32 one of its priorities. The Assembly established the Special Committee to Increase the Representation of Women. The introduction of temporary special measures “to overcome persistent barriers to women attaining political office” was one of the suggestions to increase the representation of women in the territory.33 Speaker of the Legislative Assembly Jackson Lafferty released a discussion paper on May 31, 2018 outlining these measures, explaining their purpose and providing examples of political systems where they have previously implemented. In the discussion paper, Lafferty asserted that:

These measures are called “temporary” for two reasons. First, they are often put in place for a limited timeframe, for example, two or three elections, after which the legislation establishing them automatically sunsets. Second, they often have the result of encouraging more women to run, which in turn renders them unnecessary, i.e. they are self-fulfilling.34

These temporary special measures would have instituted reserved seats for women in the event a certain percentage of women are not elected. The benchmark established by the United Nations “of women required in a legislature to bring about significant and lasting policy change is 30 per cent”.35 Similar measures were proposed in the lead up to the creation of Nunavut in the late 1990s; the Nunavut Implementation Commission (NIC) proposed a dual-member system, with one woman and one man elected per constituency.36 Subsequently, a plebiscite would be held in 1997 proposing this dual-member model; the plebiscite would fail, with only 43 percent of the electorate supporting such a model and only 39 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot.37,38 Although the idea of temporary measures in the NWT was explored, in the short term, this was deemed unnecessary, with a strong showing for female candidates in the 2019 territorial election.39

The 2019 Territorial Election
The need for further female representation in the NWT Legislative Assembly was a major headline in the lead up to election day. Significant breakthroughs were made in municipal politics in the years following the 2015 territorial election; women mayors were elected or acclaimed in four of the territory’s largest population centres. In 2018, Lynn Napier-Buckley was re-elected mayor of Fort Smith. Rebecca Alty and Natasha Kulikowski were elected the mayors of Yellowknife and Inuvik, respectively. Kandis Jameson was acclaimed as the mayor of Hay River.40 41,42 Likewise, the appointment of Margaret Thom as the Commissioner of the Northwest Territories (the territorial equivalent of a lieutenant governor) in 2017 marked the first time in over a decade the position was held by a woman.43 Similarly, women achieved leadership milestones within Indigenous government. April Martel became the first female chief of the K’atl’odeeche First Nation.44 Eileen Marlowe also ran to become the chief of the Dene National Council and “held her own in the election against seasoned politicians Norman Yakeleya and Richard Edjericon, running a primarily online campaign and ultimately finishing a close second in the race”.45 Furthermore, in August 2019, two months before the territorial election, the federal government announced $1 million in funding to promote women in Northern politics ($525K of which went to the NWT).46

As candidates began declaring their intention to run in the 2019 territorial election, the news media noted the influx of female candidates.47 Once the nomination deadline passed, the number of women who put their name forward equalled that of the previous two elections combined.48 Along with the quantity of female candidates putting their name forward, the women had varying career backgrounds in the private and public sector. For example, Caroline Wawzonek, who ran (and would win) in the riding on Yellowknife South, had worked as a lawyer in the territory for the past decade; Katrina Nokleby, who would be elected in the riding of Great Slave, worked as an engineer before seeking office.49,50

Furthermore, the representation of women emerged as an issue in the all-male race in the riding of Frame Lake between incumbent Kevin O’Reilly and challenger Dave Ramsay. Ramsay was opposed to temporary special measures, arguing that “it goes against democratic principles. I fundamentally disagree with guaranteeing any group seats.”51 Conversely, O’Reilly was quick to disagree with the accusations that such measures are undemocratic, arguing that having an insufficient representation of women in the House is undemocratic in its own right.52

In her address to caucus following the election, Range Lake MLA Caroline Cochrane asserted that notwithstanding the increase of women representatives, there was still work to be done to address the glass ceiling women still face in many areas of society.53 The increase in representation would be reflected in the Cabinet; Cochrane would be selected the premier through secret ballot by her colleagues. She became the sole woman premier in Canada, as well as the first in the NWT in nearly a quarter-century. Subsequently, the selection of Cabinet, through a similar secret-ballot process, resulted in women achieving five out of seven positions – Cochrane and four others.54,55

The Northwest Territories non-partisan consensus model of government has had a paradoxical impact on the representation of women in the Legislative Assembly. It has been suggested that the absence of “party-gatekeepers” in consensus government should be conducive to greater representation of women in the Legislative Assembly; likewise, it has been noted that the adversarial nature of partisan legislatures often dissuades women from getting involved in politics. However, the lack of political parties may have presented additional barriers for women hoping to get involved in territorial politics. Political parties play a seminal role in increasing the representation of women in legislatures. In the Northwest Territories, women are not recruited through political parties which may have instituted procedures to increase the percentage of women candidates; candidates are also not able to rely on parties for fundraising. Moreover, there were various disincentives that decreased the likelihood women would want to put their name forward, including the opportunity costs associated with running and the pay level of an MLA; these concerns are indicative of a broader trend in territorial politics, with professionals being noticeably absent from elected office.

Early attempts at reform pushed the topic of female representation in the NWT Legislative Assembly into the public consciousness. Likewise, the campaign schools put forth by the GNWT, in consort with several other organizations, also promoted the issue. The campaign to improve women’s representation in territorial politics continued in the 18th Legislative Assembly (2015-2019), with the establishment on the Special Committee to Increase the Representation of Women in the Legislative Assembly.

Consequently, the 2019 Northwest Territories election proved to be a critical juncture for the representation of women in territorial politics. An emphasis on women in politics in the territory was demonstrated through victories by female candidates in mayoral elections in several of the territory’s larger population centres and strong showings in Indigenous leadership elections. An injection of federal funding and intense media coverage further acted as a catalyst for increasing the number of women candidates in the 2019 Territorial Election; Moreover, the plethora and diversity of women candidates who put their names forward dwarfed the previous two elections by comparison. It will be interesting to monitor future elections in the Northwest Territories, to determine whether the increased representation of women in the 2019 election is indicative of a longer-term trend rather a blip in the radar. An eventual return to an underrepresentation of women in territorial politics would necessitate a comprehensive review of what barriers to participation still remain and how they might be removed permanently.

1 Julie Green, “Temporary Special Measures: A Possible Solution to Get More Women Into Politics,” Canadian Parliamentary Review 40, no. 4 (2018): 2-4.

2 Graham White, “In the Presence of Aboriginal Women? Women in Territorial Politics,” in Stalled: The Representation of Women in Canadian Governments, ed. Linda Trimble, Jane Arscott, and Manon Tremblay Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2014, 247.

3 Peter Kulchyski. Like the Sound of a Drum: Aboriginal Cultural Politics in Denendeh and Nunavut. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006, 103.

4 Northwest Territories Office of the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. Discussion Paper: “Temporary Special Measures” To Increase the Representation of Women in the NWT Legislative Assembly, 2018, 8.

5 Elections NWT, “Unofficial Results,” Unofficial Results (Government of the Northwest Territories), accessed November 19, 2019,

6 Government of the Northwest Territories. “Follow along with Cabinet.” Follow along with Cabinet. Government of the Northwest Territories. Accessed November 19, 2019.

7 White, 233-252.

8 White, 247.

9 Thomas, Melanie and Lisa Young, “Women (Not) in Politics: Women’s Electoral Participation,” in Canadian Politics, ed. James Bickerton and James Bickerton, 6th ed., University of Toronto Press, 2014, 373-389

10 White, 247.

11 Green, 2-4.

12 Thomas, Melanie and Lisa Young, 384.

13 Tim Mercer, “Consensus Government in the Northwest Territories, Canada: A Parliamentary Panacea? ,” Constitution 150, May 2017, 4

14 White, 247.

15 Ibid.

16 Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly. Special Committee to Increase the Representation of Women in the Legislative Assembly. Final Report. 3d sess., 19th Assembly, 2018, Committee Report 17-18(3)

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 Tim Mercer, “Consensus Government in the Northwest Territories: Westminster with a Northern “Twist””, Canadian Study of Parliament Group, 2015, 2

20 NWT Legislative Assembly Special Committee to Increase the Representation of Women in the Legislative Assembly

21 “CANDIDATES FINANCIAL REPORT – Summary of Contributions and Expenses for the 2015 Territorial General Election.” Elections NWT. Government of the Northwest Territories. Accessed November 21, 2019.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 “Reimbursement of Election Expenses.” Elections Manitoba. Accessed November 21, 2019.

25 “Opportunities for More Open and Transparent Elections.”, September 8, 2016.

26 Graham White, “The Territories.” In Big Worlds: Politics and Elections in the Canadian Provinces and Territories. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016, 197

27 Corporate Election Donations,” CBC News, May 6, 2016.

28 Northwest Territories. Legislative Assembly Member’s Statements. 12 December 2003 (Ms. Lee)

29 Northwest Territories. Legislative Assembly Member’s Statements. 29 March 2004 (Ms. Lee)

30 Northwest Territories. Executive and Indigenous Affairs. Campaign School for Women: Empowering Women to Run for Elected Leadership Instructor’s Guide

31 Northwest Territories. Legislative Assembly Member’s Statements. 9 February 2007 (Ms. Lee)

32 Northwest Territories. Legislative Assembly. Priorities of the 18th Legislative Assembly, 2015

33 Northwest Territories Office of the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. Discussion Paper: “Temporary Special Measures” To Increase the Representation of Women in the NWT Legislative Assembly, 2018. p.8

34 Ibid

35 Northwest Territories. Legislative Assembly. Special Committee to Increase the Representation of Women in the Legislative Assembly. Final Report. 3d sess., 19th Assembly, 2018, Committee Report 17-18(3) p.4

36 Young, Lisa. “Gender Equal Legislatures: Evaluating the Proposed Nunavut Electoral System.” Canadian Public Policy / Analyse De Politiques 23, no. 3 (1997): 306-15. doi:10.2307/3551574.

37 Manon Tremblay and Jackie Steele. “Paradise Lost? The Gender Parity Plebiscite in Nunavut.” Canadian Parliamentary Review 28, no. 1 (2005): 34–39.

38 Ailsa Henderson and Canadian Electronic Library. Nunavut Rethinking Political Culture. DesLibris. Books Collection. Vancouver [B.C.]: UBC Press, 2007, 34

39 Paul Bickford, “No Electoral System Tampering Needed for Virtual Gender Parity.” Northern News Services, October 7, 2019.

40 Kirsten Fenn, “How a Former Councillor’s Election Campaign Inspired Rebecca Alty to Enter Politics,” CBC News, October 16, 2018.

41 “New Faces among Elected Mayors in 5 N.W.T. Communities,” CBC News, October 16, 2018.

42 Samantha McKay, “ELECTION NIGHT: Natasha Kulikowski Is Inuvik’s New Mayor,” Northern News Services, October 16, 2018.

43 Alyssa Mosher, “‘I Feel Very Honoured’: Fort Providence’s Margaret Thom New Commissioner of N.W.T..” CBC News, June 15, 2017.

44 “April Martel Elected Chief of K’atl’odeeche First Nation,” CBC News, November 7, 2018.

45 “Eileen Marlowe on Women in Politics, and Lessons from the Dene Nation Election,” CBC News, August 26, 2018.

46 “$1M In Funding Announced to Promote Women in Northern Politics,” CBC News, August 8, 2019.

47 Garrett Hinchey. “New Wave of Female Candidates Makes Splash Ahead of 2019 Campaign,” CBC News, July 10, 2019.

48 Sidney Cohen. “Why They Run: Candidates on Why N.W.T. Politics Needs More Women,” CBC News, September 4, 2019.

49 “About Caroline.” Caroline Wawzonek. Accessed November 20, 2019,

50 “Katrina Nokleby,” Legislative Assembly of The Northwest Territories, Accessed November 20, 2019.

51 Brett McGarry, “Gender Parity for MLAs Comes up in All-Male Frame Lake Race,” Northern News Services, September 25, 2019,

52 Ibid.

53 Northwest Territories, Legislative Assembly Caucus Speeches. 9 October 2019 (Ms. Cochrane)

54 Northwest Territories, Legislative Assembly Speaker’s Address. 25 October 2019 (Mr. Blake)

55 Government of the Northwest Territories, “Follow along with Cabinet.” Follow along with Cabinet. Government of the Northwest Territories. Accessed November 19, 2019.