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Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl told a Yellowknife luncheon on Monday that the regulatory overhaul will result in "no loss of representation" for native peoples. ((CBC))

Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl has launched a plan to improve the Northwest Territories' regulatory system, nearly two years after a review called for changes to a process that has often been called long, slow and complicated.

Strahl unveiled his plan at a Northwest Territories Chamber of Commerce luncheon Monday in Yellowknife, announcing that John Pollard will serve as a chief negotiator to develop a newer, streamlined system of land and water assessment boards in the territory.

The land and water boards are responsible for reviewing applications for proposed developments such as mining, oil and gas projects in the N.W.T.

Pollard, a former territorial cabinet minister and mayor of Hay River, N.W.T., started his new job as chief negotiator on Monday, Strahl said.

Report called for fewer boards

The announcement came in response to the McCrank report, a government-commissioned review of environmental assessments and other regulatory processes for proposed mining, oil and gas developments in the North.

That review, released in July 2008 by retired Alberta Energy and Utilities Board chairman Neil McCrank, called for a restructuring of the Northwest Territories' regulatory system with fewer regional management boards.

Some aboriginal leaders opposed that idea, arguing that land and water boards in the N.W.T.'s Gwich'in, Sahtu and Tlicho regions are enshrined in their land claim agreements to ensure that aboriginal people control development on their lands.

Strahl stressed that restructuring the North's regulatory regimes will not prevent aboriginal peoples from having a say in how their lands are developed.

"Land and water board restructuring will not eliminate the co-management approach, or the shared decision-making approach, to resource development that is rooted in the land claim agreements. There will be no loss of representation," Strahl said Monday.

Ottawa retains final say

McCrank also proposed cutting the federal government out of the regulatory process by letting the northern-based boards make final recommendations and decisions.

It is currently up to Strahl and other federal ministers to make those final recommendations, but those decisions often take years to make.

Strahl said transferring such authority over resource management will only happen when the federal and N.W.T. governments negotiate a devolution agreement, which would give the territory more province-like responsibilities.

"I don't think a good thing during devolution [talks] is to say, 'We've got a system, the federal government's been largely responsible for it. It's not working as well as we want, and so why don't you just take it over?' I think we have an obligation to do our best to fix it, and that's what we're going to do," he said.

Last month, the government responded to two regulatory reports on small diamond-exploration projects being proposed near Yellowknife, more than two years after both reports were issued.

In another case, the government's response to a report took 4½ years.

'Analysis takes time'

"The depth of analysis takes time," said Teresa Joudrie, director of renewable resources and environment for the Indian and Northern Affairs Department in Yellowknife.

"The length of time that it takes to do that analysis is dependent on each project, and it's dependent on working together with our responsible ministers to come up with a decision."

Speaking at an N.W.T. Chamber of Commerce event last month, McCrank said the Northwest Territories' economy has suffered in part because it takes a long time for a development project to be approved under the current processes.

Members and staff of northern review boards say it has sometimes been difficult to face frequent complaints about environmental assessments being too slow.

"You know, we are a little sensitive to the criticism," said Vern Christensen, executive director of the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board.

"The glare tends to fall on the boards when, really, we're not masters of the whole house, so to speak."