03/29/2012 04:30 EDT | Updated 05/28/2012 05:12 EDT

NWT aboriginals oppose feds' plan to streamline approvals for resource development

The Harper government's latest plan to streamline approvals for resource development is meeting a solid wall of aboriginal opposition at meetings this week in Yellowknife.

Federal politicians and industry spokesmen say creating one office for project approvals will help revive mining exploration in the Northwest Territories.

But a united front of aboriginal leaders down the Mackenzie Valley say downgrading hard-won local land and water boards strikes at the heart of aboriginal self-government. And they add the biggest delays to resource projects come from Ottawa, not the North.

"There's all-out warfare against aboriginal rights by this federal government," said Ethel Blondin-Andrew, a former Liberal MP, now head of the Sahtu Secretariat in the central N.W.T. "We really believe government is loading the dice in favour of industry."

Resource development in the N.W.T. is currently assessed by a different regulator in each land claim area. From north to south along the Mackenzie River, there's one for the Gwich'In, the Sahtu and the Tlicho regions. Projects proposed for areas without a settled claim are reviewed by the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board.

Resource companies have long complained that's too many boards with too many different rules.

"It's like several different territories within a territory," said Tom Hoefer of the N.W.T. and Nunavut Chamber of Mines.

He said those boards take too long to decide. And too often, small-scale plans with a few geologists drilling a couple exploratory holes receive too much scrutiny.

Hoefer compares exploration in the N.W.T. with neighbouring Yukon and Nunavut. The Conference Board of Canada reports 2011 spending was nearly $400 million in Nunavut, $309 million in Yukon and only $80 million in the N.W.T.

As part of sweeping changes to the way all development is assessed in Canada, the federal Tories have told northerners that changes are coming to them as well. A letter from federal negotiator John Pollard to northern aboriginal, government and environmental groups says legislation to replace those land claim-based regulators by a single board with an equal number of government and aboriginal members will be ready this spring.

The move is legal under the letter of the land claims. But those who fought for local control of lands and resources call it a betrayal of their spirit.

"They're overriding self-government," said Sam Gargan, Grand Chief of the Dehcho First Nation, which has signed an initial land claim agreement with Ottawa based on local control over development.

"It overrides regional authority, it undermines regional government."

Chief federal negotiator John Pollard declined comment until this week's meetings were complete.

But federal concerns are undercut by their own research. The 2010 environmental audit of the N.W.T., conducted every five years for the department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, found that approval times for land and water permits in the North are broadly similar to anywhere else in Canada.

"These data suggest a generally efficient approvals process," says the report.

The same report concluded that, while environmental assessments are getting longer, they're still being conducted within timelines comparable to those Ottawa is proposing for southern projects.

The report concludes the biggest delays to project approvals occur in Ottawa. It 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.

N.W.T. Premier Bob McLeod points out the whole process is likely to need another re-boot in two years, when the territory assumes province-like powers over its lands and resources. He acknowledges constantly changing regulatory regimes creates problems, too.

"It's not the best idea, but it's the reality," he said.

Blondin-Andrew said aboriginals aren't being consulted properly. Her office didn't get a look at the plans until mid-December. Documents presented to aboriginal leaders this week as part of consultation haven't even been translated into aboriginal languages.

"They don't care what we think," said Blondin-Andrew.

McLeod said the territory isn't crazy about how it has been treated by Ottawa on the issue, either.

"It's gotten better. Initially, we were treated like a stakeholder, like the local Ski-Doo club."

Blondin-Andrew said aboriginals don't oppose mining — they just want control over how it impacts them and their land.

"We're not anti-development. (But) if they think they're going to have a carte blanche like they have in Alberta or Yukon or B.C. — forget it."

McLeod said industry isn't willing to wait for devolution or settlement of land claims.

"We ask our kids to stay in school and I think we need to keep our end of the bargain so that they have jobs when they get out of school," he said.

"We need to find a way to work together."

"We ask our kids to stay in school