Northwest Territories Premier Floyd Roland is defending a draft devolution agreement in principle reached with the federal government, but only one of the territory's aboriginal governments has expressed support for the agreement to date.
The federal and N.W.T. governments have recently reached an agreement-in-principle for negotiating the transfer of federal authority over the territory's lands and resources.
Negotiators with both governments are asking N.W.T. aboriginal groups to sign on to the agreement and participate in further talks. The groups have until the end of this month to indicate if they will sign on.
But so far, only the Inuvialuit have said they want to get involved. Other aboriginal governments that did sign a similar deal from 2007 say they are now opposed to the current agreement. Other groups that did not sign on in 2007 say they are still opposed to the deal.
Part of the opposition stems from concerns that the current devolution deal would affect the N.W.T.'s current and future aboriginal self-government and land claim agreements — something Roland said Tuesday will not be the case.
The draft deal
Read the current agreement-in-principle on N.W.T. devolution. (Adobe Acrobat required)
"I would like to assure members of this house, the public and our aboriginal partners that the ownership of land and resources — both surface and sub-surface — recognized under existing or future land claims, will not be jeopardized by a devolution agreement," Roland said in the legislature.
"Aboriginal people, through their claimant organizations, will continue to be significant land owners in this territory."
Dehcho and Akaitcho leaders have said discussions of land, resources and resource revenues must be part of their own land claim negotiations.
"You have to understand that there's two regions still negotiating their claims. To step over them and go ahead with this is, to us, not a popular way to do business," said Chief Edward Sangris of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.
Roland said under a devolution agreement, aboriginal governments would receive resource revenues in addition to what they already receive through land-claim agreements.
The premier said he is thinking of writing a plain-language summary of the agreement-in-principle to clear up any misconceptions about what it means.
In 2007, the N.W.T. government had worked out a draft devolution agreement-in-principle with four aboriginal governments, but Ottawa did not sign on to that deal.
Two of those aboriginal governments, the Gwich'in and the Sahtu, now say they oppose the terms of the current agreement-in-principle reached between the N.W.T. and Ottawa.
"We're not happy about the process because it's a bilateral process — they'll do it with or without us," Ethel Blondin-Andrew, chair of the Sahtu Secretariat Inc., told CBC News.
Blondin-Andrew said her Sahtu predecessor never had approval to sign the 2007 draft agreement.
Inuvialuit Regional Corp. chair Nellie Cournoyea said she supports devolution negotiations, but that support will not be made official until her organization holds its next board meeting in late November.
"We've got to move forward," Cournoyea said. "No one in the end has to sign a final agreement, but we have to put our full efforts and intelligence to make sure that there's a good deal, not only for aboriginal people but for everyone."
Officials with the Tlicho aboriginal government are expected to comment on the agreement-in-principle on Wednesday.
The Northwest Territory Métis Nation has not returned calls from CBC News for comment.
Yukon is currently the only Canadian territory to have province-like powers over its land and resources. A devolution agreement it reached with Ottawa came into effect in 2003.
Western Arctic NDP MP Dennis Bevington, who represents the Northwest Territories, said Wednesday that he suports devolution as an important goal for the territory.
Bevington said if the territory can gain province-like control over its resources, then northerners are more than capable of managing those resources.
"In terms of our ability to make good decisions about resource development, particularly mineral development, that's the direction that we have to go in. It will move us forward in terms of responsbility for our own affairs," Bevington told CBC News.