N.W.T. Premier Floyd Roland signed a historic but controversial agreement with the federal government Wednesday that puts the territory on track to gain control over Crown lands and resources.
Only two of the seven aboriginal groups asked to sign the deal said they would, and those who didn't sign said they will discuss whether to take legal action.
About 50 people from the crowd of 250 gathered for the signing at the Yellowknife legislature walked out on the ceremony.
"You're selling out our territory," one woman said as she left the room.
Dehcho Grand Chief Sam Gargan said the deal doesn't give the N.W.T. a big enough share of resource royalties and Dene groups fear their land claim and self-government talks will be circumscribed by its provisions. No representatives of the N.W.T.'s 10,000 Dene yet support it.
The "devolution" agreement-in-principle sets out the terms for transferring authority from Ottawa to the territorial government, giving it the power to collect some royalties on resources and to give it control over Crown lands.
"Much of what the provinces have today, northerners are asking for in a decision-making process around developments that occur in the North," Roland said just before signing the agreement.
The deal comes after more than two decades of talks and has topped the agenda for every territorial government over that time.
Previously, final approval for any resource development always had to come from the federal minister of Indian affairs and northern development.
"This is a historic agreement and one which will provide the Northwest Territories with the long-awaited and rightful ability to manage and control public lands and to secure a share of the revenues generated from those lands," said Ann Marie Tout, president of the N.W.T. Chamber of Commerce.
Aboriginal requests for delay denied
Some aboriginal groups had asked for a meeting with federal Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan, asking that he hold off until their concerns were addressed. But Duncan refused.
"This has been a long time in the making," Duncan said. "There's nothing in the [agreement] that pre-empts or takes away any of their … aboriginal rights," he said.
The Métis nation plan to sign the deal next month, and the Inuvialuit signed it Wednesday.
Nellie Cournoyea of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation said it was important to be at the table for future devolution negotiations and when it's decided how resource revenues will be split up.
"The Inuvialuit are insistent that they are involved with the process and have the input into that process, and we will not take a second place in designing that process," she said.
Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus said the federal government has a duty to consult with aboriginal communities, but didn't in this case.
"We're not against devolution," he said. "People are not against that. They want to be equal partners and they want to participate in developing the future of the North in a positive way."
The government had shown no respect for aboriginal people, Dettah Chief Ed Sangris said. "This is our territory, our traditional territory, and they didn't even have the courtesy to acknowledge us."
The premier said aboriginal groups can still sign on, as it will be at least two years before the final agreement is in place.
Duncan said he wants all seven aboriginal groups on board for the final agreement, but couldn't say whether their involvement was legally necessary.
Yukon signed a deal on controlling its resources in 2003. Duncan said the government is committed to beginning similar negotiations with Nunavut.