The Northwest Territories' MLAs have mixed reactions to a draft devolution agreement that would transfer federal control of lands and resources to the territorial government.
Under an agreement-in-principle reached by the federal and Northwest Territories government negotiators, Ottawa would hand over control of all federal lands and resources in the territory — including water and minerals — to the territorial government.
The N.W.T. government would then be able to pass its own laws with regard to land and resources. However, that transfer of control would not extend to lands that aboriginal groups own through land claims.
Negotiators are asking the N.W.T.'s aboriginal governments to sign off on the agreement-in-principle and join in on the subsequent talks. But the agreement also recommends that devolution talks proceed with or without approval from the aboriginal groups.
But some N.W.T. MLAs and aboriginal leaders say the agreement would make the territory's aboriginal governments subservient to the territorial government.
"They can cover it up however they want, but when I see this deal, it's government-to-government — Northwest Territories government and the federal government," Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya told CBC News outside the legislature on Monday.
Yakeleya said aboriginal groups were mere spectators in devolution talks, which he said is a huge setback because those groups have fought for the right to be recognized as being equal to the territorial government.
"That's the scary part. Why is this devolution going (on) without the legitimatized third level of government, which is the aboriginal governments?" Yakeleya said. "Do we still have that attitude [of] 'We'll take care of you?'"
Aboriginal leaders reject deal
Dehcho and Gwich'in leaders have said they don't like the proposed agreement because of how they say it would position their governments, and also because it is vague on the aboriginal governments' share of resource royalties.
"The government of Canada, in their own wisdom, has decided that it's not important to listen to the aboriginal people…. They have no fiduciary responsibility to protect them," said Richard Nerysoo, president of the Gwich'in Tribal Council.
"There is no constitutional basis for any respect for the land claims and treaties that exist."
Nerysoo said while he supports devolution negotiations, he will only accept an agreement if aboriginal governments are seen as equal partners. Otherwise, he said his organization would consider launching a legal challenge.
Dehcho Grand Chief Sam Gargan said the territorial government "has no land interests outside of the municipal boundaries" and therefore should not have any control of resources.
Gargan said he would not be prepared to sign a devolution agreement until his First Nation's land-claim negotiations have been settled.
"We are discussing province-like powers too," Gargan said. "We want to be able to control development of our own resources, on our own land."
Mackenzie Delta MLA David Krutko said he's worried aboriginal groups may not have a say in the final devolution agreement, even though those groups will have a stake in that agreement.
"My fear is that once you have an agreement between the government of the Northwest Territories and the federal government, what room is there for aboriginal groups to come back and ask to add something to the agreement-in-principle?" Krutko said.
Deal would create jobs: MLA
"Once it's final, it's final," Krutko added. "We've learned from these previous devolution experiences and it hasn't been a good experience."
But Tu Nedhe MLA Tom Beaulieu said a devolution agreement would benefit northerners, since federal positions involved in administering the N.W.T.'s lands and resources would be shifted to the territorial level, which would mean more jobs in communities like those in his constituency.
"A place like Lutselk'e or Fort Resolution — five, six, seven, eight positions? It could be major for a community," Beaulieu said. "There would be a lot more money circulating and employment rates would be a lot better."
Aboriginal governments have until the end of this month to respond to the agreement-in-principle. It will then be up to the territorial and federal governments to sign the document.
In a news release Monday, the N.W.T. Chamber of Commerce called the unsigned agreement "a tribute" to all the governments involved, including the territorial and aboriginal governments, in progressing toward devolution.