POLITICS

NWT premier wraps up Ottawa meetings showing progress on expanded powers

01/31/2013 03:01 EST | Updated 04/02/2013 05:12 EDT
OTTAWA - The premier of the Northwest Territories says he and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have an understanding to do what it takes to formally expand territorial powers to near-provincial standards by April 2014.

But after a series of meetings with Harper, several ministers and top officials this week in Ottawa, Premier Bob McLeod also acknowledges that a final agreement on devolution is not a slam-dunk.

"We are moving forward. We are getting very close," McLeod said in an interview with The Canadian Press as his meetings drew to a close.

The deal would give the territorial government responsibility for public land, water and resources, generating revenue that would reduce — but not eliminate — its heavy dependence on federal transfers.

But McLeod pointed out that several issues remain outstanding on the devolution file, including how much leeway the territorial government will have to move away from federal legislation, how to share the wealth of the Norman Wells oilfield and how to deal with three regional aboriginal governments that have yet to agree in principle to the devolution agreement.

Talk of expanded powers has been going for the better part of three decades, and negotiations in earnest have spanned the past 11 years.

But it's still unclear exactly how much power the territorial government will have to take policy in its own direction once devolution occurs, the premier said. At first, most of the territory's legislation will "mirror" federal laws and then be subject to any changes the territorial government chooses.

Other legislation will remain firmly federal, with the territorial government as administrator, despite political pressure on the NWT government to negotiate full powers.

Exactly what legislation falls into which category is still a matter of negotiation, said McLeod.

"It's a combination of both."

Similarly, the territorial government has yet to agree to Ottawa's insistence on keeping the $100 million in annual federal revenue from the Norman Wells oilfield.

And discussions about who gets what share of the bounty from future off-shore developments won't be broached until after devolution actually takes place, McLeod added.

The territory has a population of just 41,000 people but covers 1.3 million square kilometres rich in energy, minerals and diamonds. Seven mines are poised to open by 2020, enabling the territory to double its economic output, McLeod said.

Ottawa and the territorial government signed an agreement in principle a year ago. But only four out of seven regional aboriginal groups support the deal. The others are caught up in land claims negotiations and are concerned that those talks would be derailed by devolution.

Devolution would mean that about 50 per cent of resource royalties would go directly to the territory, subject to a cap. The territory would have drawn in about $62 million in 2012. A quarter of that amount would have then been distributed to the seven regional aboriginal governments.

Despite the complex negotiations, McLeod says Northwest Territories are an example for the rest of Canada to study as provincial and federal governments figure out how best to divvy up natural resource revenues with aboriginal groups.

"We can be an example for the rest of Canada on how to deal with aboriginal governments, how we work together and they're our partners in everything we do," he said. "Once we achieve devolution, we will be the first jurisdiction in Canada to have resource revenue sharing with aboriginal governments."

About 50 per cent of the Northwest Territories population is aboriginal.

More control over resource extraction and revenue has been a key demand of many First Nations chiefs as well as aboriginal protesters who have filled the streets in recent weeks demonstrating for better conditions on reserves.

Chiefs and protesters alike have frequently reminded the government and the public that First Nations live on or next to many of the natural resources the country is depending on for its future prosperity and their support is a prerequisite for smooth development.

Earlier this month, Harper agreed to high-level talks to modernize treaty rights and speed up land claims, a process that would help clarify how to share the wealth and pave the way to more resource development on First Nations' terms.