POLITICS
10/03/2011 04:00 EDT | Updated 12/02/2011 05:12 EST

Northwest Territories Election: Crucial Vote In Bid For Province-Like Powers

Flickr: savillent

YELLOWKNIFE - Voters in the Northwest Territories go to the polls today in an election crucial to a bid for province-like powers.

The new government will have to tackle a proposed deal with Ottawa to give the territory control over its own land and resources — and the rich royalties they generate.

The agreement took years of talks and is widely supported in Yellowknife and the business community.

But most aboriginal leaders are unhappy with the role it would leave for them and want the deal blocked in the 19-seat legislature.

No government will emerge directly from the vote.

There are no political parties in the territory's consensus-style approach — the premier is chosen by elected legislature members.

He then picks a cabinet and the remaining members act as a kind of opposition.

N.W.T. elections are generally fought on local issues. But this time it's different and some observers, including former premier Joe Handley, have said that unless the deal with Ottawa proceeds, the territorial government will become less and less relevant compared to aboriginal powers.

Nearly the entire territory is either covered by an aboriginal self-government agreement or under negotiation for one.

Without revenues from its resources, the territorial government will have less and less money to work with. The N.W.T. has nearly reached a federal borrowing cap that limits the territory's capacity for running deficits. At the same time, it's trying to build roads, bridges and hydro developments to take advantage of abundant mineral wealth and bring down the high cost of living.

That's on top of ongoing needs for upgraded education and health.

Northern residents may already be concluding that Yellowknife's legislature dome isn't where the action is.

Candidates have declined in every election since 1999, when 65 hopefuls sought seats. This time, the total is down to 47. There was one acclamation in 1999 compared with three this year.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton