YELLOWKNIFE - A stroke of the pen has brought the Northwest Territories closer to control over its own land and resources.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and N.W.T. Premier Bob McLeod signed a draft agreement at the legislature Monday that marks the end of talks to loosen the territory's ties with Ottawa.
"The heavy lifting is done," Harper told a legislature full of politicians and members of the public. "The issues are resolved and negotiators have reached consensus on the terms of a final devolution agreement."
Harper said the day was "historic."
"Our government believes that the opportunities and challenges here would be better handled by the people who understand them best, that is to say, you who live here in the Northwest Territories.
"Whenever possible you should be making the decisions about regional matters. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what devolution is all about."
The deal, which is still subject to public input, would put control over its resources in the hands of the territory's northerners for the first time. It would also give them a big chunk of the royalties those resources produce — money that would be shared with the five of seven N.W.T. aboriginal governments that have signed on.
The signed draft isn't the final version of the deal — just the final text reached by negotiators.
Devolution, which does not mean full provincial status for the territories, is expected to come into force on April 1, 2014.
Harper and McLeod said the deal must still go before the territory's aboriginal groups to ensure its doesn't breach any of their constitutionally guaranteed treaty rights.
"We cannot rule out changes," Harper told reporters. "But what we witnessed this morning will certainly get us a long way to what we'll eventually approve."
The public will have a chance to look at it as well, but McLeod said there isn't much room to move.
"My expectation is that it's a done deal. I don't expect it to change very much."
A vote is also expected in the legislature, but the premier has the legal right to sign intergovernmental deals on his own, so a vote in the legislature wouldn't necessarily be binding.
Monday's development was welcomed by Nellie Cournoyea, director of the Inuviauit Regional Corp., one of the first aboriginal groups to sign on to the deal.
"There will be more responsibility for (the territory) to really work with us, to make what we have and what they have really bring some economic opportunities," she said.
Cournoyea warned that many of the details still need to be worked out — notably, how the territory will work with the aboriginal governments.
MLA Bob Bromley, who represents a Yellowknife riding, suggested that a deal that will make such a difference to the N.W.T. should have received more public scrutiny.
"It's not consultation at all," he said. "I think we have an obligation to be transparent and inclusive on major issues such as this."
He pointed out that the only members of the public who have had any input or a chance to comment are those represented by aboriginal governments, who were at the table.
Bromley has called for a plebiscite on the deal.
McLeod has said he does not support such a vote. He said no public consultation was held in the past when the federal government devolved other functions to the territory.
Of the three northern territories, only the Yukon controls its own resources. Negotiations with Nunavut have begun, but have a long way to go.
Under the agreement in principle, 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 would go onto the N.W.T. payroll.
The concept of devolution was originally agreed to in October 2010. When then-premier Floyd Roland and John Duncan, federal aboriginal affairs and northern development minister at the time, signed it about four months later, only three of the N.W.T.'s seven major aboriginal groups supported it.
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