03/07/2013 01:52 EST | Updated 05/07/2013 05:12 EDT

Northern aboriginals agree to province-like powers for Northwest Territories

YELLOWKNIFE - Province-like powers for the Northwest Territories are one step closer as another northern aboriginal group has agreed to join in the deal between the territory and the federal government.

Premier Bob McLeod and Tlicho Grand Chief Edward Erasmus will sign a deal Friday bringing the Tlicho government into the agreement in principle. That means all five aboriginal groups with settled land claims are now on-board with the agreement that would transfer control of northern resources to northerners.

It removes one of the last obstacles to a formal signing of the deal, which is expected to come into force April 1, 2014.

"It's a very good chance of (the deal) going ahead," said N.W.T. Premier Bob McLeod.

An agreement in principle on the deal, the result of more than 20 years of negotiation, was reached in October 2010. But when then-premier Floyd Roland and then Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister John Duncan signed it about four months later, only three of the N.W.T.'s seven major aboriginal groups supported it.

Although the deal is between the territory and Ottawa, McLeod acknowledged broad aboriginal support is a practical necessity in the North.

"The environment that we're in, I couldn't see ourselves going forward without having the majority of aboriginal governments' support," he said.

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 deal also transfers control over those royalties to Yellowknife from the federal government.

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.

But when the agreement in principle was signed, only three aboriginal governments agreed with it.

The others said not enough money would stay in the North. They also expressed concern about the future of their regulatory boards, hard-won features of their land claims.

McLeod said those concerns have been answered by a separate deal under negotiation which will define how aboriginal governments will be able to influence resource development on their lands.

"We're very close to finalizing it," he said.

The Tlicho signing brings on board a group of several thousand Dene in four communities who inhabit a Belgium-sized chunk of lake, river and tundra between Great Slave and Great Bear lakes.

Only two aboriginal groups —the Dehcho First Nation and the Akaitcho Dene First Nation — have yet to sign the agreement in principle. Both groups are also in the process of negotiating land claims.

McLeod said talks with both are continuing.

Of the three northern territories, only the Yukon controls its own resources. Negotiations with Nunavut have begun, but have a long way to go.

The final signing of the N.W.T. deal is expected to be soon.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton