In a move unusual in consensus government, N.W.T. cabinet MLAs helped vote down a motion Thursday that criticized changes to federal environmental legislation.
Several MLAs said they were worried about federal backlash, especially on the eve of a devolution deal. And in an uncharacteristic move, cabinet — which usually abstains when MLAs vote on motions — helped vote it down.
The motion called for the territory to speak against changes to environmental laws. It said the federal government is eroding protection and the territory would need to ask for more money to improve oversight.
Some MLAs said the changes could result in damage to waterways and fish stocks.
"The only partisan part of it is that some of us believe more strongly perhaps in the environment than others," said Frame Lake MLA Wendy Bisaro.
But others said the motion had the potential to hurt future projects, such as the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway.
"The federal government, they are obviously the keepers of our funds," said Hay River North MLA Robert Bouchard. "I feel this type of motion ... could be difficult for us in the future."
The N.W.T. government's sights are pinned on a devolution deal in the next few months that would give them more control over lands, water and resources.
"Suggesting that Canada will simply download responsibility for a broken regulatory system is wrong and misleaded," said Premier Bob McLeod.
Six regular MLAs supported the motion and two abstained. Mackenzie Delta's Sonny Blake was the only regular MLA to vote against it.
Cabinet followed the premier's lead and helped vote down the motion.
Bill Erasmus, chief of the Dene Nation, said cabinet's decision to vote down a motion goes against the principles of consensus government
He said the premier's decision to speak against the motion stifles debate and sets a dangerous precedent.
"What they're telling us is that they want devolution so bad, that they'll almost let anything happen. That's what they're telling us," he said.
"So if that's the case — let's say devolution happens tomorrow. From here on in, we can't speak out against the federal government because if you're not going to speak out today, you're surely not going to speak out tomorrow."
The motion also said Ottawa didn't consult enough before making changes to environmental laws.
Erasmus said if the territory won't demand more consultations, that responsibility will fall to First Nations.
He says despite the premier's assurances, the impacts of Bill C-38 and C-45 on the territory are still unknown.