Northwest Territories devolution officially takes hold

After a decades-long battle to gain more control over its physical assets, the Northwest Territories officially takes responsibility for land, water and natural resources from the federal government today.

Starting today, N.W.T. collects revenues from mining, expected to be about $60M this year

Politicians and local drummers celebrate at the signing of the devolution agreement in Inuvik, N.W.T., on June 25, 2013. (GNWT)

The Northwest Territories is gaining new province-like powers today. 

Until now, the federal government has held on to decision-making power over lands, water and resources. 

Premier Bob McLeod remembers when most of the decisions affecting the territory were made thousands of kilometres away.

"In some areas a clerk would have more authority and responsibilities than a minister in our own government," he recalls. "Now with devolution, that's not the case at all."

The territorial government has been gradually taking on more responsibility. Health, education and social services devolved in the 1970s and 1980s. Negotiating the transfer of lands and resources took more than a decade.

McLeod says the deal isn't perfect, but he's pleased it's finally happened. 

"It will be northerners making the decisions about the things that affect them the most," he says. "They'll control the breadth and pace of development, and that's how I believe it should be. We have a special attachment to the land and water, so we'll make sure we have balanced development."

The N.W.T. is following the path set by Yukon. Devolution of power took place in that territory 11 years ago today.

Nunavut continues to negotiate a devolution deal with the federal government. 

Land, water and resources

The N.W.T. has a long history of gold and diamond mining, as well as oil and gas extraction. Devolution means the N.W.T. will start regulating those resources and the effects their extraction has on land and water. It will be responsible for cleaning up any new contaminated sites if companies go bankrupt. 

The territory will collect revenues from mining and resource development, expected to be about $60 million this year. A quarter of those revenues will be shared directly with aboriginal governments. With hopes of nine new mining projects by 2020, that amount could grow, subject to a cap. 

Five of the territory's seven aboriginal groups have signed on to the devolution agreement. The Dehcho and Akaitcho First Nations can still collect a share of the resource revenues, if they decide to support the deal.

Not everybody in the N.W.T. is celebrating devolution, however. Bill C-15, the N.W.T. Devolution Act also includes changes to the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act. In one year's time, the four current regional land and water boards are set to be merged into one controversial superboard.

The Tlicho government, the governing authority in an area just northwest of Yellowknife, says the elimination of the Wek'eezhii Land and Water Board undermines the Tlicho Agreement and it has threatened to go to court. 

Act accordingly

Garth Wallbridge, an aboriginal lawyer in Yellowknife, says the Tlicho have a case. He says it rests on the government's constitutional "duty to consult" with aboriginal groups in regard to anything that may impact their land or treaty rights.

"You can't just consult, and the courts are very clear on this, you can't just have a bunch of meetings and be there and listen to what people are saying and then go do what you were going to do anyhow," Wallbridge says.

"You have to act accordingly to what the consultation, to what the results of that are. The argument in this case will be that consultation simply hasn't happened."

Peter Kulchyski, a professor of native studies at the University of Manitoba, says there could be serious consequences for aboriginal governments if the Tlicho government does not go to court.

"If it's not challenged you have the potential certainly for some disastrous things," Kulchyski says.

"If a majority of legislatures decide that they're particularly, so-called, open for business, and any kind of development in their view is good development, that puts the traditional cultures at risk."