Control over resources — and the $65 million in revenues those mineral and energy projects create — has been long-awaited in the North and Tuesday's bill was greeted as "historic" by N.W.T. Premier Bob McLeod.
"With devolution, we see it as transforming our economy that will provide for substantial jobs and opportunities coupled with an efficient and effective regulatory framework," said McLeod, who was in Ottawa for the ceremony.
But that regulatory reform part of the bill isn't as popular.
While five out of the seven major aboriginal groups in the N.W.T. have signed on to the devolution agreement and the remaining two are in negotiations, opposition to changing the way the territory reviews new projects is widespread up and down the Mackenzie Valley.
The bill would bring local regulatory boards under one single board for the whole territory, a move intended to streamline and standardize a process that has been called slow and needlessly complex.
But those boards form part of all self-government agreements that have been signed in the North, hard-won and much-valued by local people.
Aboriginal governments from the Gwich'In in the north to the Tli Cho in the south say that eliminating them in favour of one central board violates the spirit, if not the letter, of those self-government agreements.
Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said the changes are in line with the self-government agreements.
"The restructured board is in full compliance with the settled land claim agreements and will continue the co-management approach."
He said it was always contemplated that the regional boards could eventually be collapsed into a single board. He added the current system would have gotten even more complex when other groups finish their settlement talks.
"Maintaining the current structure would add to the complexity and uncertainty and the cost of the regulatory regime," Valcourt said.
New Democrat MP Dennis Bevington, who represents the Western Arctic, pointed out that the head of the new board will still be appointed by the federal minister, who no longer even has to accept nominations for that post from the N.W.T.
Bevington also said the bill extends the number of agencies, such as land-use planning boards, that are obliged to take policy direction from Ottawa.
"The bill keeps the larger decision-making power still in the hands of the federal government," he said.
Promised safeguards, such as a five-year review, aren't in the bill before Parliament, said Bevington.
The 2010 environmental audit of the N.W.T., conducted for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, found approval times for land and water permits in the North are broadly similar to anywhere else in Canada.
The audit also found about half the total time it takes to get a project approved comes as it awaits a final decision from the federal cabinet. Some projects wait years, long after northern regulators have made their recommendation.
The other factor slowing down approvals is the number of unsettled land claims in the N.W.T. The environmental audit found approvals in unsettled areas took two or three times as long as in settled areas.
Valcourt said the government hopes the current bill will be in effect for the N.W.T. to assume its new duties by April 1, 2014.
Under the deal, the N.W.T. would keep half its resource royalties without losing federal transfers, up to a total of five per cent of its total budget expenditures.
The territory is expected to reap about $65 million a year from those royalties. About 18 per cent of that will be transferred to the five aboriginal governments who have signed on.
The feds will send another $65 million to the territory to compensate it for the cost of those responsibilities, including the salaries of federal bureaucrats who will now work for the N.W.T.
— By Bob Weber in Edmonton
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