Canadian politicians, like many of their circumpolar counterparts, brag about their country’s “Arctic identity” or “northern character,” but what do they mean, exactly? Stereotypes abound, from Dudley Do-Right to Northern Exposure, but these southern perspectives fail to capture northern realities. During decades of service as a legislator, mediator, and negotiator, Tony Penikett witnessed a new northern consciousness grow out of the challenges of the Cold War, climate change, land rights struggles, and the boom and bust of resource megaprojects. His lively account of clashes and accommodations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders not only retraces the footsteps of his hunt for a northern identity but tells the story of an Arctic that the world does not yet know.
Tony Penikett spent twenty-five years in public life, including two years in the House of Commons as chief of staff to federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent, five terms in the Yukon Legislative Assembly, and two terms as premier of Yukon Territory. His government negotiated settlements of Yukon First Nation land claims and passed pioneering legislation in the areas of education, health, and language. It also organized Yukon 2000, a unique bottom-up economic-planning process. Between 1997 and 2001, he served as deputy minister of negotiations and, later, as deputy minister of labour for the BC government. He is the author of one book, Reconciliation: First Nations Treaty Making in British Columbia, and two films, The Mad Trapper and La Patrouille Perdue.
Hunting The Northern Character is an eloquent appeal to end condescending treatment of the one uniquely Canada region best known to the outside world.
There are tantalizing snippets of memoir in this book—Penikett is an excellent writer, and there’s one especially lovely description of his presence as honorary pallbearer at his former mother-in-law’s funeral and potlatch. But it is largely a comprehensive review of issues such as governance, international relations (a history and critique of the Arctic Council), resource management, climate change, and social issues like poverty, education, and health. Chapters on climate change, the “hungry ghost,” and the complex issue of sovereignty are especially good, as Penikett honours traditional knowledge (known colloquially as TK), and the slow integration of traditional knowledge into scientific research and analysis in the Arctic.
This is an insider’s view of Canada’s North and the Arctic world generally, informed by decades of experience in all aspects of northern life – social, environmental, and economic. It is astonishingly wide-ranging and comprehensive in its approach to topics, as well as lighthearted and anecdotal. It is difficult to think of anyone who knows more, or as much, about this subject as Penikett, which makes his book indispensable reading for anyone interested in the North.
Summing Up: Essential.