The federal government is pushing ahead with its plan to eliminate regional land and water boards in the Northwest Territories despite aboriginal opposition.

People who have seen the plan have told CBC News that Ottawa intends to have most of the changes in place in time for devolution, which happens next April 1.

The changes, designed to speed up the permitting process for mining and oil and gas projects, were first suggested more than six years ago by the federal government, which said it wanted to fix the regulatory regime in Northern Canada.

"It's essential that we maximize the benefits of resource development while protecting the environment, and to do that we must have predictable, efficient and effective regulatory regimes across the north," Chuck Strahl, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development said in May 2007.

Local opposition

Regulatory officials say that since that time the boards have made changes to address industry concerns by standardizing their procedures, clarifying the approval process, and adopting timelines for their work.

"The timelines would be the same, the procedures would be the same, the processes, and ultimately a board decision should come out with the same permits, whichever region you're working in," says Zabey Nevitt, executive director for the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board.

Eliminating the three regional boards will not address the biggest problem now facing mining companies in some of the most resource-rich regions of the territory -- unsettled land claims. 

"A lot of the issues we're facing right now are really outside of the scope of what the boards can deal with — as I said, with the land use planning, unsettled land claims," says Nevitt.

And, the federal plan to centralize the approvals process doesn't include a key change to the system that was recommended by Neil McCrank, who the federal government hired to review the regulatory system.

He said the land and water board should have final say on water licences and land use permits instead of the federal minister. Currently there are five projects awaiting his approval, including one that has sat on the minister's desk for two years.

Premier: politicians should have final say

Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod says politicians — not the boards — should be the ones to make the final decision on resource projects.

"We need the ability to give them direction," McLeod says. "We want jobs and we want protection of the environment, which is very consistent with the Government of Canada."

When McCrank first proposed eliminating the regional land and water boards, aboriginal leaders protested. That hasn't changed. The Tlicho are considering going to court to argue the changes are a violation of their land claim and self government agreement.

"The one-board system is something that the feds are putting together for the north," says John B. Zoe, an advisor with the Tlicho government. "They're doing it by themselves."

He says the federal government agreed to the boards when it negotiated the land claim and self government agreements that led to their creation.

"What was negotiated was ignored and what is replacing it is something that's unilateral."

The federal government has released a document outlining the changes to mining companies, aboriginal groups, the territorial government and regulatory boards.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development officials have not responded to repeated requests for interviews for this story.