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More autonomy on horizon for Northwest Territories of Canadian Arctic

CBC NewsEye on the Arctic
A child in starburst parka in Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories. Eilís Quinn photo

An agreement with the federal government to extend more province-like powers to Northwest Territories is expected to be signed in the coming months.

The deal would give the territory more control over its land and resources. Under the Canadian federal system, Canada’s three territories - N.W.T., Nunavut and Yukon - have fewer powers than provinces to manage public lands and natural resources, raise taxes and borrow money.

"We're very close to the finish line," Northern Development Minister John Duncan said in Ottawa Wednesday morning.

"We're still thinking that implementation can kick in in March, April of 2014. It's a tight timeline, but that is what we're trying to achieve."

Earlier this month, the territorial government released a road map of how the changes, known as "devolution," will affect the structure of government in the territory.

The change comes after years of negotiations and a so-called "devolution agreement in principle" signed in January 2011.

"All powers in the North right now come through an act of Parliament, the N.W.T. Act, and we'll be very interested to see what this government is offering to the North," said Dennis Bevington, the NDP critic for the North, and the MP for the Western Arctic.

For now, the territory plans to mirror federal legislation instead of taking complete control of the territory’s lands and resources.

Martin Goldney, the chief negotiator for the territory, said mirroring is the most efficient way to take over control. He added that at this point, the territory won’t make changes to federal regulations.

“We did agree to mirror exactly what the government of Canada has as its suite of legislation, recognizing that one would want to have as smooth a transition as possible,” said Goldney. "And we like to say that it's ‘devolve then evolve,’ and we fully expect that some of that legislation will change over time."

There will be a new lands department, and the territory's department of industry, tourism and investment will be split in two: the energy, mines and petroleum resources departrment and the economic development and tourism department.

Ottawa will provide $65.3 million annually to help implement the change.

The territorial government expects about $28 million in indirect economic spinoffs for the territory, and new opportunities for local businesses.

Control a sticking point

So far, four of the seven aboriginal groups in the territory have signed the devolution agreement in principle. The four groups are the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, the N.W.T. Métis Nation, the Gwich’in Tribal Council and the Sahtu Secretariat Incorporated. The territory plans to forge ahead with the agreement even if the remaining three groups do not consent to it.

While most in the territory agree devolution must happen, many are opposed to the current proposed deal.

The Tlicho, Dehcho First Nation, and Akaitcho First Nation say it will interfere with ongoing land claim negotiations or previously negotiated land claims.

Yellowknife MLA Bob Bromley said the deal will mean the territory no longer has control over its own regulatory system when it comes to resource development.

"My question is, what are we giving up in order to gain that relatively modest level of participation in administering federal legislation? You know, that money's important, but it's not the biggest thing. What's most important is for us to have authority over our own land and resources," said Bromley.

However, N.W.T. Premier Bob McLeod said that won’t be the case.

"I don't understand his [Bromley’s] logic," said McLeod. "Is he suggesting that we should stop everything and walk away from the table until we get 100 per cent control? We have the opportunity now, and within a certain period of time we will be able to evolve."

Bromley said there is not much anyone can do to stop the current deal from going through, but he said the territorial government needs to be more transparent with the public about what is in the deal, and how it will work.

Yukon has had a devolution deal in place since 1993. Duncan said the N.W.T.’s deal will be largely based on that model. Nunavut is also on its way towards devolution negotiations.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.