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No apology from NWT premier as Supreme Court upholds Indigenous childcare law

On Feb. 9, Premier R.J. Simpson defended the decision he made as NWT attorney general during the 19th Legislative Assembly to join a Supreme Court case seeking clarity on Indigenous childcare law. Screenshot courtesy GNWT

Premier R.J. Simpson says the NWT’s intervener status in the now decided Supreme Court case on whether Indigenous childcare laws can overrule provincial ones was taken out of context.

During question period in the legislative assembly on Feb. 9, Simpson defended his decision as NWT attorney general to join Quebec in its challenge of the law. A Quebec federal court had determined two clauses of the law were unconstitutional, but the federal government appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. The court voted unanimously last week that the law was in fact constitutional.

When Inuvik-Boot Lake MLA Denny Rodgers asked if the GNWT would uphold the spirit of the ruling, Simpson said the decision to join Quebec against the law stemmed from a constitutional question interpreting the Northwest Territories Act. When pressed by Rodgers if he would apologize to Indigenous governments for the GNWT’s stance, the premier said the decision to enter the case was “apolitical.”

“We were happy to see the decision was in line with the principles that we are already upholding and we will continue to do so,” said Simpson. “This decision was made by me as attorney general in the previous government. There was no desire to put a political lens on decisions.

“What was in question was a very specific legal question. We weren’t fighting Indigenous governments. We weren’t on side with the provinces. The reason I intervened in that case is because there was specific language in that federal act that we needed clarity on in relation with how it interacts with the NWT Act. That’s not an issue for any of the provinces, they’re not established by the NWT Act, they’re established by the Constitution.”

Simpson said the answer to the legal question, “at first glance,” was that Canada’s territories are legally treated the same as provinces, regardless of whether created by an act or the Constitution itself.

A similar legal question exists in the Yukon Act, however Yukon did not join Quebec as an intervener.

“We wanted the act to continue,” said Simpson. “What we were seeking was clarity. This wasn’t a fight that we were getting engaged in. It wasn’t an attempt to hold on to power. We need a predictable and workable legal system in the Northwest Territories.

“I encourage all members to look at the decision, understand what we put forward as a government and not politicize this and turn it into something that it’s not. It is not what is has been portrayed as in this House on a number of occasions. It doesn’t matter how many times I stand up and explain this, it doesn’t seem to sink in.”

In a statement, the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, which passed its first childcare law — “Inuvialuit Qitunrariit Inuuniarnikkun Maligaksat,” or the “Inuvialuit Family Way of Living Law” in November of 2021 — issued a statement following the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“This decision is a major win for Indigenous self-determination in Canada. The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized Indigenous government’s inherent right to make laws for their people,” reads the statement. “For Inuvialuit, it reaffirms what we already knew: that Indigenous communities should be the ones who decide how their children are cared for.

“IRC will work with all governments to ensure this decision is respected. While there is much work still to do, this is a major victory for Inuvialuit and Indigenous communities in Canada.”

The IRC added that Inuvialuit Qitunrariit Inuuniarnikkun Maligaksat aims to improve sharing of information; enhance supports for Inuvialuit families so they thrive and reduce interventions; provide cultural continuity for Inuvialuit children; and to grow and develop an Inuvialuit jurisdiction to oversee child and family services “at our own pace, in our own way.”