Copyright © 2019 Senator Dennis Patterson.

First Address in the Senate

December 30, 2009

Hon. Dennis Glen Patterson: Honourable senators, I will begin my first address in this chamber speaking Inuktitut, the first language of the majority of the residents of Nunavut.

[Editor’s Note: Senator Patterson spoke in Inuktitut — translation follows]

I am happy to be making my inaugural speech in the Senate as Senator for Nunavut on International Inuit Day. I begin with a tribute to my predecessor, the Honourable Willie Adams, who is my longtime friend.

Willie helped us in the struggle for the creation of Nunavut. He sent out letters to every resident of the Northwest Territories urging residents to vote yes to the first territorial plebiscite on division of the territories in 1982. Senator Adams and Senator Watt were standing by our side as we fought for the restoration of Aboriginal rights in the Constitution in 1982.

I know that many honourable senators in this chamber know Senator Willie Adams as Nunavut’s elder statesman, a gentleman and a man passionately dedicated to the advancement of Inuit.


I am very happy today to be able to speak Inuktitut and it feels good to have an opportunity to speak here at the Senate.

Premier Eva Aariak told me that the Inuktitut interpretation of “senator”, etuk, means an old man. I told Madame Premier that I would look for a new name since I do not feel old yet, and neither do I see any people in this house who are acting like they are old.


Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Patterson: I need more practice, honourable senators, but thank you.

I would like to take a moment to tell you a bit about myself and events in my life which were pivotal in leading me to the honour of sitting and speaking in this chamber.

I have always been fascinated by politics. I can vividly remember the election of 1957 when John Diefenbaker was running on his campaign of a northern vision for Canada,Roads to Resources. I remember following the footprints painted everywhere on the sidewalk, exhorting us to follow John. What is notable to me in hindsight was that I was nine years old that year. Years later, I was there at his feet when Diefenbaker made a speech, a thrilling moment for a teenage kid, sitting right below those quivering jowls.

In Grande Prairie, where I went to high school and junior college, our MP was Ged Baldwin, a friend of our family and a man who was renowned as a parliamentarian. Like Diefenbaker, Ged Baldwin was a rural lawyer who championed causes of the little people, a man revered by his constituents in the Peace River country and his parliamentary colleagues from all parties. Mr. Baldwin inspired me to pursue my interest in politics so that I got involved in the Progressive Conservative Student Federation and helped Peter Lougheed’s provincial Conservative Party turn over the Socred dynasty in Alberta with six seats at first and then a very strong mandate. Peter Lougheed was yet another inspiring politician in my life.

I was in students’ council in high school, college, and at the university level, and then went to Dalhousie Law School to take law. There, with law student friends, we established the Dalhousie Student Legal Aid Service in the north end of Halifax and watched it lead to an accredited course in poverty law at Dal and later become a model for change for Nova Scotia legal aid store-front clinics.

After law school, I had the honour of articling with Senator Oliver’s esteemed former law firm, Stewart MacKeen & Covert, when Senator Oliver was there and also while the Honourable James Cowan was there, and I think he is still there. I then articled with Shrum, Liddle & Hebenton in Vancouver in my home province of B.C.

It was while I was in Vancouver that I got a call from a former Dalhousie law professor that changed my life. A job had come up on Baffin Island as the first director of a pilot program to establish a new store-front legal aid clinic there, with myself being a year-round resident lawyer in what was then Frobisher Bay. This was an alternative to fly-in/fly-out circuit legal aid lawyers from faraway Yellowknife. I wanted to jump at the chance, but not really knowing what I was getting into, I persuaded my firm to give me a leave of absence so I could come back in a year after helping to set up the new legal aid clinic. I ended up staying for 25 years.

That experience taught me a lot. I was mandated to train and work with Inuit paralegals and support staff, to help people in conflict with the law in criminal or family areas, to provide legal education and to recommend law reform.

After working with elders to recommend changes to a proposed new wildlife ordinance, as NWT statutes were then called, and having difficulties getting our amendments to the attention of the territorial council of the day through our elected representative, I proclaimed my dissatisfaction with the representation we were getting by our MLA. Before I knew it, I had been nominated as a candidate. So began a wonderful 16-year term in the NWT Legislative Assembly and government, including 12 years in cabinet in a variety of portfolios. Most of you probably heard, when I was appointed, that I served four years as premier, but by far my favourite portfolio was eight years as minister of education when I worked at major reforms to the education system, including the creation of school boards and the establishment of the Arctic College.

I was privileged to be a member of the executive council of the NWT when the Honourable Nick Sibbeston was premier. Under Senator Sibbeston’s leadership, the Ottawa-appointed commissioner, who was chair of the executive council, surrendered his gavel to an elected first minister and became, in effect, the territorial Lieutenant-Governor and Queen’s representative. All this was done with the full cooperation of Commissioner John Parker and without a rancorous word.

Later when Prime Minister Trudeau repatriated Canada’s Constitution in 1982, the recognition of Aboriginal rights in the Constitution was eliminated from the draft Constitution after a late-night meeting of nine premiers in a kitchen, and the rules for the creation of a new province were changed from requiring only an act of Parliament to needing the consent of 7 provinces with an aggregate of 50 per cent of the population. That same amending formula even invidiously allowed for the extension of provincial boundaries into the territories.

Our legislature formed a special Committee of the Whole on the Constitution. We decided to travel en masse to Parliament Hill to lobby every senator, MP and cabinet minister who would meet with us. I remember our making a presentation to the Honourable Serge Joyal, now my colleague in this chamber, at which Nellie Cournoyea, known as a tough, strong woman, wept tears of despair over the unfairness of these changes. George Braden, also a fellow MLA and co-chair of the committee at the time, is now working in my office as my policy adviser.

That same intense week we met with the Right Honourable Pierre Trudeau who gave us the joyous news that Aboriginal rights would be reinstated as section 35 of the Constitution. There were tears of joy in our group when that dramatic news was delivered to us.

Later, I participated in the Meech Lake constitutional rounds led by Prime Minister Mulroney. Senator Lowell Murray was Minister of State for Federal and Provincial Relations and I am grateful that during that time the territories were shown respect and invited to sit at the table with other First Ministers. We were no longer sitting in the peanut gallery as part of the federal delegation. Respect for the NWT, however, did not go so far as the removal of the invidious sections 42(1)(e) and (f).

Then I was privileged to be part of the NWT government at a time when major comprehensive land claim agreements were settled and when consensus was shaped, worked at and realized in the bold project of division of the Northwest Territories and the creation of Nunavut.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his capable Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Tom Siddon responded with the bold step of agreeing that, alongside the settlement of the massive Nunavut land claim, which by the way has made the Inuit the biggest private landholders in North America, the new territory of Nunavut would be created simultaneously. The new public government, with its strong Inuit majority, would reflect the Inuit population, its language and culture. I was very privileged to have been involved in that orderly decision-making process over a period of 20 years or so. This was accomplished without bloodshed, by cooperation, collaboration and no fewer than two territory-wide plebiscites.

We helped change the map of Canada. Not since Newfoundland entered Confederation has anything like this happened in this country.

These historic events only happened through the enormous goodwill and collaboration among the diverse peoples of the NWT: seven major Dene nations, Metis nations, the Inuvialuit, Inuit and non-Native populations, and with the critical support of Dene leaders like Honourable Nick Sibbeston and Mr. George Erasmus, Dene Nation Chief at the time, who urged his people to support the Inuit desire to establish their own homeland.

Working together, we forged agreement without partisan politics, always seeking ways to find and build on common interests. It was not always easy, especially determining a fair boundary. So I am approaching this wonderful new job in the Senate with a firm background in what I proudly call consensus government, somewhat inexperienced in the intrigues of party politics at the parliamentary level.

I am privileged to be a member of the Senate representing the vast region of Nunavut, with 20 per cent of the land mass of Canada and Canada’s longest coastline. When we talk of Arctic sovereignty in this house, and I welcome this focus of our national government, I will always remind others that, as the Inuit land claim agreement recognizes in Article 15, Canada’s sovereignty over the waters of the Arctic archipelago is supported by Inuit use and occupancy.


Honourable senators, I have the humbling honour of representing a region which is 85 per cent Inuit — not that I will overlook the interests of the non-Inuit, including the francophone residents of Nunavut, and, yes, some First Nations people. I will not hesitate to advance the interests of the Inuit of Nunavut. In this, I will have common cause with Senator Watt, who represents the neighbouring region of Nunavik; with Senator Sibbeston, my former Legislative Assembly and cabinet colleague in the NWT who also represents Inuvialuit in the MacKenzie Delta and the Beaufort Sea; and with my colleagues in the Senate who represent Newfoundland and Labrador and their Inuit population.

My experience in politics is with the so-called consensus system in the North which does not have the party system, although politics in the North can require bridging diverse geopolitical interests. The watchword, when consensus government is working well, is respect and collaboration. To my delight, even though the party system is amply evident in this chamber — something I am still adapting to — I have taken my place on the Aboriginal People’s Committee, whose chair, and my old friend Senator St. Germain, delighted me by stating openly that “our committee operates in a non-partisan way” — undoubtedly the key to them having done such good work in this challenging field.

The other standing committee on which I am privileged to sit, the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, seems to operate the same way, with an equally wise and experienced chair, Senator Rompkey.

While I understand my duties as part of the Conservative caucus, I pledge to reach across the house, whenever I can, when we have common cause. I want to work with Senator Dallaire to bring respect and status to the Canadian Rangers, who I know he greatly admires and respects. I want to work with Senator Sibbeston and Senator Lang on the creation of a university of the Arctic. I want to work with Senator Watt to improve the justice and corrections system for Inuit. Furthermore, I do appreciate the procedural advice I get from Senator Cools, Senator Segal and Senator Wallin, who help me understand what is going on every day in this corner.

I also want to work closely with our MP in that other place, the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, who first came the my attention as an outstanding leader when she was a high school student participating in a model Parliament organized in the NWT legislature in 1981. She stood out then as she stands out now. I have followed her career in the NWT public service, working her way up in the ranks of my Department of Education, then as an ADM, DM, and Minister of Health and Finance in the Government of Nunavut. She is also a symbol of a good news story in Nunavut. Minister Aglukkaq; the Honourable Eva Aariak, our MP and senior cabinet minister; and the mayor of our capital city, Elisapee Sheutiapik, are all very impressive women.

Honourable senators, I want to express my gratitude for the efforts of His Honour and his capable staff in the Senate, who have introduced me to the intricacies and sometimes seemingly arcane ways of the Senate — I have a real sense of camaraderie and esprit de corps in these professional people. I express my gratitude to Senator LeBreton, Senator Comeau, Senator Stratton and Senator Tkachuk for welcoming me to the Conservative team.

I feel honoured to have been appointed to this chamber by yet another Canadian Prime Minister.

The Hon. the Speaker: Honourable senators, I am sorry to interrupt, but I must advise that the honourable senator’s time has expired. Is the honourable senator requesting leave for five minutes?

Senator Patterson: Yes.

The Hon. the Speaker: So ordered.

Senator Patterson: Thank you very much.

Honourable senators, the Arctic strategy of the Right Honourable Stephen Harper has four pillars: Exercising our Arctic sovereignty, protecting our environmental heritage, promoting social and economic development, and improving and evolving northern governance.

I want to pledge my wholehearted support to the implementation of the Arctic strategy in Nunavut, including improving and evolving northern governance. I will encourage our government to approve a mandate to begin devolution negotiations for the transfer of lands and resource management from the Northern Program of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs to the duly elected Government of Nunavut. Yukon has shown how well this can work. There should be a capacity building plan developed and implemented alongside these negotiations. Yes, Nunavut lacks human resource capacity, but instead of bemoaning that challenge, let us do something about it by investing and developing indigenous human resource capacity. In the process, we can also improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Nunavut’s regulatory regime while at the same time fulfilling the commitments of the land claim to employ Inuit in the North.

The people of Nunavut no longer need the federal government, no matter how well intentioned, to make critical decisions about the management of lands and resources in Nunavut. We deserve the same involvement in developing our significant natural resources as southern Canadians. The Inuit of Nunavut have constitutionally protected rights, through their land claim, to participate in the responsible development of our resources. Working alongside the Inuit, it is only right that the elected government of the people of Nunavut should also have the primary say in development decisions.

This is what I call constitutional development by the back door. We do not need to amend the Constitution to advance constitutional development in the North — to shed the trappings of colonialism and take on province-like responsibilities. Our constitution already provides the potential, through creativity and goodwill, to create more democratic forms of governance in the North. That is how we created Nunavut.

Your Honour, I only have some minutes left in my remarks. I am famous for making two- or three-hour speeches in the NWT legislature. I will have more to say in this chamber, but I wish to state that I have been dismayed by the negative stories that have been circulating about the social and health problems in Nunavut. The Nunavut government is well aware of these challenges, but I would like to give a positive view of the potential for Nunavut.

We have staggering resources in our territory. We have amazing mineral potential in Nunavut that can be developed and is in the near horizon for development. This will benefit not only Nunavut but also Canada. Growth of the GDP in Nunavut also contributes to the GDP in Canada because we do not manufacture steel; we do not have lumber in the North. When these projects get under way, it is an investment in the economy of southern Canada as well.

Honourable senators, there is hope and optimism in Nunavut. I want to challenge the media naysayers to look at the positive and look at the amazing, enormous potential for growth in Nunavut. The Inuit have a share in these resources and they have a responsibility for managing and determining development decisions through the land claim. Everyone is involved and everyone will benefit.

I will say more about the resource potential in Nunavut and how I think the Government of Canada can help at another time, but, in closing, I want to say how privileged I feel to have this position. I am proud to be wearing a seal skin vest today.

An Hon. Senator: Good.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Patterson: Thank you. The seal is a traditional and valued resource for the Inuit of Nunavut, which has helped them survive for tens of thousands of years. It is unfortunate that people do not provide the same respect for Inuit who eat seal as they do for Europeans who eat veal and pâté.

Honourable senators, I thank you for the honour of making this first address in this Senate chamber. I look forward to working in this chamber and with its committees and advancing the interests of the people of Nunavut and Canada.

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!