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Devolution is in the details
Large delegation of NWT leaders in Ottawa for talks, cultural display

Laura Busch
Northern News Services
Published Friday, February 1, 2013

The NWT is in the national eye this week as many Northern leaders are in Ottawa to talk devolution and promote the territory.

A large delegation of representatives of the Northwest Territories numbering roughly 55 people, including all members of the GNWT cabinet, most MLAs, aboriginal leaders, industry leaders and youth ambassadors, are in Ottawa to promote the territory and participate in talks with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other federal leaders.

The series of high-level meetings, held Wednesday to Friday on Parliament Hill, focused on seven NWT priorities, with the devolution of land and resources topping that list, Premier Bob McLeod said Thursday.

"We're very close, we expect to have an agreement in the very near future," McLeod said about devolution talks.

If all goes to plan, devolution could take effect in April 2014.

"What that means is that Northerners will take more responsibility for making decisions on those things that affect us. We will take over responsibility for oil and gas, and for mining, and for managing our land in the Northwest Territories," McLeod said.

"Of course, we will collect the royalties and we will have more resource revenues to invest in our programs and our infrastructure for the people of the Northwest Territories," he continued. "Also, with our aboriginal government partners, we will be the first jurisdiction in Canada that will provide for resource-revenue sharing with aboriginal governments."

By 2020, the NWT's gross domestic product is expected to be double from what it is now, McLeod said. A large part of this boom relies on mining activity, with nine new mines expected in the territory by the end of this decade, promising 2,000 new Northern jobs.

Oil and gas development is also a large part of this projected growth. Development in the Sahtu is already underway and is expected to increase substantially in the next seven years.

The NWT delegation is also seeking federal partnerships on priorities other than devolution, such as the Inuvik-to-Tuktoyaktuk highway, a Mackenzie Valley highway and fibre optic link, housing improvements, regulatory improvements and environmental stewardship, said McLeod.

Aside from political meetings, the NWT hosted nightly galas on Wednesday and Thursday where Northern culture was on display and the territory was promoted to officials and dignitaries who attended the events.

Finally, NWT Days will be held in Ottawa from Friday to Sunday. The aim of this event is to promote tourism to the territory and generally raise the profile of the NWT in Ottawa, said McLeod.

"I guess we're new on the scene so there was a lot of excitement last night," he said about the reception the delegation has received in Ottawa so far.

While Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington supports NWT Days and the intent behind this trip, he would like to see the territory establish a full-time presence in Canada's capital.

Currently, the Yukon and Nunavut have permanent offices in Ottawa, yet the NWT does not have a full-time office in the nation's capital, he said.

"It's really important to have a presence in Ottawa," said Bevington. "Nunavut has great people here and the Yukon has had a large presence here for a number of years."

Bevington also raised concerns with the current devolution deal, saying that important issues such as the GNWT's control over resource royalties and the conditions of amending environmental policy remain unclear.

During Wednesday's question period in the House of Commons, Bevington asked Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister John Duncan to specify whether the GNWT will have the ability to amend environmental legislation under the devolution agreement.

"He then started a personal attack on me and wouldn't answer the question," Bevington told Yellowknifer about Duncan's response.

Under the devolution agreement, the GNWT will adopt mirror legislation in line with current federal legislation surrounding the management of land and resources. Bevington would like the federal government to make clear if and when the territory will assume the right to change this legislation as it sees fit.

"It's simply an administrative arrangement, and I'd say that's probably not good enough," Bevington said of the devolution deal as it stands now, after a dozen years of negotiations. "I just don't see this being adequate, and it certainly wouldn't be adequate enough for (the NWT) to become more independent."

However, McLeod said that the GNWT will look at changing legislation to meet the needs of Northerners a few years after the devolution deal comes into effect.

"That's normally the way it works," he said when asked if the territorial government would amend the mirror legislation. McLeod gave the example of Nunavut separating from the NWT in 1999. The new territory adopted mirror legislation based on NWT laws and then started making amendments to suit its needs a few years after the Government of Nunavut took control of its own their territory.

Bevington added he supports the devolution of lands and resources to the NWT in principle, it's the lack of transparency about the details of the arrangement that makes him uneasy.

When the fathers of the confederation created Canada, negotiations were conducted in a public way, as was the process of creating Canada's charter of human rights and freedoms in 1982, said Bevington.

"I don't see any need for secrecy on this," he said.

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