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Land claims regions aren't 'protected areas,' says former minister to Premier McLeod

A former N.W.T. environment minister says Premier Bob McLeod shouldn't classify land that's part of final or ongoing land claim agreements as unavailable for development.

Bob McLeod says when he said 'protected areas' he meant land unavailable for development

Premier Bob McLeod says 43 per cent of the N.W.T. is protected areas, meaning designated protected areas, conservation areas, proposed conservation areas, as well as land within settled and unsettled land claim boundaries. (Justin Tang/CP)

A former N.W.T. environment minister says Premier Bob McLeod shouldn't classify land that's part of final or ongoing land claim agreements as unavailable for development.

"You don't want to imply that it's a negative thing that you have settled claims and all of sudden that land is a wasteland and has no value to anybody," said Michael Miltenberger, who also served as finance minister for seven years and now owns North Raven Consulting.

Last week, McLeod issued a statement correcting a statistic related to his "red alert" about the future of the territory. He originally told CBC News "52 per cent of the Northwest Territories is protected area already," but later corrected that number to 43 per cent. 

However, the territorial government's 2016 State of the Conservation Network report, says only 9.2 per cent of the territory is designated "terrestrial protected areas."

Michael Miltenberger, former minister of environment and natural resources, says numbers referred to by Premier Bob McLeod are 'misleading.' (Handout)

McLeod says when qualifying protected areas, he meant land in the N.W.T. that is "unavailable to the GNWT for development." He says that includes designated protected areas, as well as conservation areas, proposed conservation areas, land within a settled land claim, and land within an area that hasn't reached a land claim agreement.

But land owned, or soon-to-be-owned, by Indigenous governments is not necessarily off limits to the territorial government; nor are conservation areas. 

"Conservation areas you have in the Northwest Territories are laid out, the intent being that they have some protection, but they're also potentially open for development if certain steps are followed, if certain criteria are met," Miltenberger said. 

He says clumping all that land together and calling them protected areas is "misleading." He said the premier should look into stats he receives from his staff.

"I know the premier, I served with him for two or three terms, and I know these numbers are there, but when you come forward you always have to have that challenge: the numbers you're receiving, are they accurate?" Miltenberger said.

"And if they're not, then you have to clarify them and usually the one left clarifying — even though it's given to them by staff — is going to be the politician that is using those numbers."

Tlicho gov't wants meeting with premier

The Tlicho government, which has had a land claim agreement since 2003, wouldn't comment directly on the numbers in McLeod's statements, but in a news release responding to the original red alert, said it's disappointed with the premier's comments about the federal government's relationship with northerners.

The Tlicho Government says it has also asked to meet with the premier, adding that the media shouldn't be used as the vehicle for discussion.

"These concerns should be raised and discussed with us, as treaty partners and neighbouring governments," the Tlicho government said in its statement. 

"We have created the forums through our intergovernmental agreements for these discussions.

"The respect that Premier McLeod asks of the Government of Canada, Tlicho Government expects of the Government of the Northwest Territories."

CBC News contacted Ethel Blondin-Andrew, chair of the Sahtu Secretariat Incorporated — a group that also has a settled land claim — but she declined to comment.
Duane Smith, chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, says his government has been open to development since its land claim was settled in 1984. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

Duane Smith, the chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, didn't want to comment on specific numbers, but says the Inuvialuit Settlement Region has had an agreement since 1984. Since then, the area has been open to development by the territorial government or any other interested party, as long as said party follows protocol outlined in the land claim agreement. 

"There's two national parks that you can't develop, obviously, and there's some bird sanctuaries," Smith said. "But the vast majority of the land is available.

"I think you know our history in dealing with oil and gas," Smith told CBC. "We have had periodical exploration for minerals in our region on occasion."

Leaders of the Akaitcho and Dehcho governments — those with unsettled land claim agreements — couldn't be reached and didn't want to comment, respectively.

With files from Joanne Stassen and Loren McGinnis

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