A Yellowknife MLA says the N.W.T. government is going back on its promise of an "aggressive" land inspections program as the territory's Department of Lands now looks to cut back on inspections of diamond mines, construction sites and other land activities.

The 2017-2018 budget would, if approved, reduce the department's spending on travel for inspections by $375,000.

"Part of the rationale for seeking devolution in the first place was a promise by our government, by the current premier, that we were going to do things a lot better than the federal government," says Kevin O'Reilly, the MLA for Yellowknife's Frame Lake riding and the former executive director of the Ekati mine's environmental watchdog group.

"Here we are three years into devolution and now the government is talking about cutting."

Department cites slowdown

The department's operations arm, which conducts the inspections, is budgeting a total of $867,000 for travel next fiscal year, down 32 per cent from 2016-2017.

It's also down from the "aggressive" $950,000 inspection budget touted by Lands Minister Robert C. McLeod just before the N.W.T. took over inspections from the federal government, under devolution, in April 2014.

The department says it's merely responding to the times.

"Growth in the resource economy has slowed and the demand for inspections on resource projects (ie: land use permits, water licences, spills) will decrease as a result," said Toni Riley, a department spokesperson.

If more projects need inspecting, the department will request more money, she added.

'Missing potential liabilities' 

But O'Reilly says the plan to cut is puzzling given that the federal government promised the territorial government not only one-time transition funding of $26 million but also about $65 million in funding every year for the territory's new land management responsibilities (plus other responsibilities inherited by two other departments).

"Now it looks like the government is cutting some of that spending — federal dollars that were given to us to better manage our resources — and we seem to be now diverting that to create a surplus that can then be used to fund infrastructure projects?"

Fewer inspections of existing sites could lead the territory down a dangerous path, he added.

"I'm not saying that not carrying out these inspections is going to lead to Giant Mine, but that's what happens when you start to cut corners, when you start missing potential liabilities which then come back to the taxpayer."

Exposed cable Mackenzie Valley fibre link

It was N.W.T. inspectors who discovered problems with parts of the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Optic Link - such as exposed cable - as it was being installed. (Department of Lands Inspection Report)

The department says it uses a "risk management program" to determine how many inspections each project requires every year. The program considers factors like probability, frequency, severity and past performance or compliance of the permit-holder.

Inspectors have made 638 visits this fiscal year to date, down from 791 the year before.

"Inspection targets derived by the program have been met in each year since devolution and it is anticipated inspectors will continue to be able to meet the targeted numbers," said Riley.

6 positions targeted for cutting

Premier Bob McLeod touted devolution as a source of new jobs for the territorial government, with 132 federal employees moving to the N.W.T.'s side.

But now the Department of Lands is proposing to cut six positions (though only three of them are currently filled).

"Two are vacant and one will be realized through attrition," said Riley.

The department did not specify what positions are on the chopping block, despite a request for that information.  

Devolution revenues set to decline 

The government's share of resource royalties, made possible by devolution, looks poised for a decline. 

After transfers to Indigenous groups and the N.W.T. Heritage Fund, the government's share has averaged $18.3 million a year since devolution.

That number is expected to plummet to $5.3 million next fiscal year. 

"We collect and keep more revenues from alcohol and cigarettes than we do the resources that are extracted here," said O'Reilly.

But O'Reilly added he's hopeful the launch of the Gahcho Kue diamond mine will help make up for the loss of De Beers' troubled Snap Lake mine.