Resource-Rich Territories to Gain Control of Revenues
Devolution and the Northwest Territories

Devo-, devo-, devo-what? For many, devolution is a brand new word. For Northwest Territories (NWT) residents who have been eagerly looking forward to its manifestation for decades, it is part of everyday vocabulary. Devolution essentially means: delegation of power from a central government to a local government. In the case of NWT, devolution will give to northerners greater local control over and accountability for their future.

The process will be like passing a baton. On this relay team are the Government of Canada, the Government of the Northwest Territories, and Northwest Territory Aboriginal Governments (represented by the Aboriginal Summit). While these runners are all on the same team, until now the federal government has been in control of the baton. When the baton is passed, the territorial government will be in charge, with power over its land and resources.

Attached to the baton are the administration, control and management of land, water, mines, minerals, oil and gas, and archaeological resources in the Territory. That control now rests primarily with the Minister of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND). The transfer will mean that royalties and other natural resource revenues will flow directly to the Territory, promoting its self-sufficiency and prosperity. That means much to a resource-rich area like NWT which is home to Diavik - Canada’s second operating diamond mine.

The level of net fiscal benefits has yet to be negotiated with the Minister of Finance. The federal government had already transferred to the territory responsibility for the delivery of health care, social services, education, administration of airports, and forestry management. Federal departments in NWT, other than Indian Affairs and Northern Development, will not be involved in the transfer.

Don Morin, CEO of the NWT Aboriginal Summit says those he represents have distinct expectations. “Aboriginal governments have made it very clear, with the support of the territorial government, that we’re expecting a full role in the transfer of responsibilities and an equal share in the resource revenues that will flow from a Devolution agreement,” said Morin. “We’re talking about working in partnership with the Government of the Northwest Territories and creating a new governance in the NWT – a positive one that will really reflect Aboriginal governments’ needs.”

Don Morin, CEO NWT Aboriginal Summit
Photo courtesy of NWT Aboriginal Summit

Although the process of devolution may closely resemble a relay race, its tempo certainly does not. Some Aboriginal Summit members have expressed frustration at the lack of progress.

“We’ve seen very little movement from the federal government at the negotiations table,” said Morin. “Aboriginal government leaders met in December and decided that they would look at progress over the next 60 days to see whether the federal mandate has been adjusted to address Aboriginal governments’ interests and the needs of northerners generally. They will then decide what to do at that point. If we can get our issues addressed and the federal government has a decent mandate that reflects what the Aboriginal governments are saying, what the Prime Minister is saying and what the Premier of the Northwest Territories is saying, then we can see positive movement ahead.”

James Lawrance, Director of Aboriginal and Territorial Relations, Indian and Northern Affairs in NWT, says the current timeline is normal, all things considered.

“The process is well underway,” said Lawrance. “The parties are moving toward the time frames that they’ve set. . . . It does take some amount of time to negotiate – there [are] approvals and mandates and an AIP stage to complete, a final agreement and there are a lot of implementation issues . . . to work out. So the process, even at the best, would take several years. We’ve been at it a couple essentially.”

James Wah-Shee - President NWTAS
Photo courtesy of NWT Aboriginal Summit

Currently, the parties meet monthly but Lawrance says unforeseen events have slowed the progress somewhat. “There’s been a federal election, a couple of changes of Ministers, . . . a Territorial election . . . , the Aboriginal Summit took a hiatus in negotiations to do some of its internal work and get a new negotiator,” he said.

Lawrance says some parties may be more impatient about what decisions are being made rather than being impatient about the timeline itself. “From what I understand, their difficulties are not so much with the delay in the process as in [their] interest and positions and concerns with federal mandate and the territorial mandate,” he said. “We are attempting to address those [concerns].”

“Our Chief Negotiator has a very clear mandate to ensure that our rights are respected,” said Morin. “In our view, the federal mandate lacks any substance and does not seem open enough to transfer authority to Aboriginal governments as well as to the GNWT in the future so we can govern ourselves. The federal government appears to view devolution as simply a transfer of programs and services from its Northern Affairs Program,” he said.

Negotiations began in 2001 with a Memorandum of Intent. In 2003, a Framework Agreement was drafted; it was signed the next year. The Framework Agreement formalized the team’s intent and it set out clear instructions for reaching the final Devolution Agreement. In 2004, an Agreement-in-Principle (AIP) was reached on substantive matters; the AIP also set a tentative timeline for completion: to conclude the final Devolution Agreement by 2005 and to make the Agreement effective in 2006.

“The prime minister has made commitments that we will do our best to try and reach an agreement . . . in the spring,” said Lawrance.

Once in place, it will open the door to new investments. Some US investors in particular have been keeping a close eye on the negotiations. “Resource companies obviously look for stable investment climates and to be able to understand the regulatory regime so that they can make their investments in either exploration or production,” said Lawrance. “It’s certainly in the interest of all the parties – Aboriginal, territorial, federal – that devolution brings that stability – that predictability.”

In 2001, a similar devolution agreement was concluded with the Government of Yukon, allowing the passing of remaining province-like responsibilities from the federal to the territorial government. Like the Yukon, at the end of the day, NWT will have control of the baton, but the entire Canadian team will celebrate a race successfully run.

Created by: Shirley Collingridge, Wordsmith