Northern premiers accuse PM of failing to consult on drilling issue

Two territorial premiers are upset the prime minister announced a moratorium on oil and gas development in the Arctic without their knowledge or input.

Nunavut premier says federal government is quashing economic potential, negotiating in bad faith

Premiers from left, Sandy Silver, Yukon, Peter Taptuna, Nunavut, and Bob McLeod, Northwest Territories, are standing together against a federal government decision to ban oil and gas development in the Arctic. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Two territorial premiers are accusing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of failing to consult northerners about his five-year moratorium on oil and gas development in the Arctic.

Premiers Bob McLeod and Peter Taptuna, from the Northwest Terroritories and Nunavut, sent a letter to two federal cabinet ministers last month about the ban.

McLeod said that, after the ban was announced late last December, he spoke with Trudeau, who assured him existing exploration licences would not be affected.

Since then, McLeod says, industry has told him the federal government wants those licences to expire during the moratorium, rather than be put on hold. 

Negotiating transfer of powers to Nunavut

The federal government is in the process of negotiating a devolution agreement with Nunavut, which will transfer control of Crown land and its resources from Ottawa to the territory. The Northwest Territories has had an agreement since 2014, which gives it province-like powers.

"We did in fact negotiate a devolution agreement, which part of that agreement was that we would negotiate co-management of the offshore. And all of these decisions are being made without our knowledge or input," McLeod said.

"When you're negotiating devolution you don't start taking stuff off the table where it can benefit our communities economically. All we ask for is negotiations in good faith. And we don't, as a territory, we don't feel that we're getting that," Taptuna said.

Taptuna points out that much of the oil and gas development in Nunavut happens on Inuit land.

A Supreme Court ruling in July halted seismic testing off the shores of Clyde River because of a lack of consultation. Taptuna says the federal government should take a lesson from that judgment.

"I don't believe the federal government has the right to make a unilateral decision for the people of the territory, the people of the North."

A united northern front

The two premiers argue that even though development was not imminent given the low price of oil, that price could rise within the next five years. 

In the meantime, McLeod says he's heard from other resource companies that are now reluctant to invest in the North.

"If we invest in properties, will it just be taken away at the whim of political opportunity to get votes in Toronto or Vancouver?" he said.

Even Liberal Yukon Premier Sandy Silver, whose territory isn't affected by the ban, is siding with his northern colleagues.

"I think it's more of the principle. When you have unilateral decisions being made in any topic on considerations that affect the North, you need to have northerners in those conversations. That's the bottom line for me," Silver said.

Federal government stands by moratorium

The letter was sent to Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr and Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett.

In a statement, Bennett's office said the Arctic ban was "the right thing to do for Canada."

Her office issued a statement saying it is committed to consulting with all parties during the five-year moratorium.

"Territories, Indigenous and northern communities, and industry will all be consulted within that process. We also committed to the Arctic policy framework process so northerners can lead the way for healthier, stronger communities and sustainable economic development," the statement said.

This week Bennett's department was divided into two new ministries, leaving her with the responsibility of moving the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous people forward.

Both McLeod and Taptuna hope this change will improve their relationship with Ottawa.

"The reorganization is an opportunity to honour the intent of devolution agreements, move decision making into the hands of northern governments," McLeod said.

Taptuna hopes it will mean more consultation with the North.

"As the two ministries are rolled out, we believe that our input is vital."

With files from Richard Gleeson