05/09/2014 12:59 EDT | Updated 07/09/2014 05:59 EDT

Lawsuit attacks Northwest Territories resource rules, devolution deal

YELLOWKNIFE - Northern aboriginals have filed a lawsuit against Ottawa that claims changes to rules on resource development violate recently signed self-government treaties.

The lawsuit comes after nearly a decade of simmering anger over what some call the federal government's desire to reduce local control over development in the Northwest Territories. It also strikes at the heart of federal legislation that resulted in the territory getting province-like control over its land and resources.

"(We) have filed this court case to protect the rights of the Tli Cho to have a real say over what happens in our territory," said Eddie Erasmus, Grand Chief of the First Nation, which controls a vast swath land between Great Slave and Great Bear lakes.

The Tli Cho signed a self-government treaty in Ottawa in 2003 that created a regulatory board to assess and issue development permits over a large part of the band's territory. Similar boards elsewhere in the N.W.T. were created by other treaties and self-government deals.

Industry complained about a confusing patchwork of agencies and, in 2008, former Alberta regulator Neil McCrank produced a report for the federal government recommending all those hard-won regulatory boards be subsumed into one superboard.

The proposal was widely unpopular in the North. Defenders of the regional boards pointed out the problems industry cited existed mostly in regions without settled land claims. They also said the longest delays often occurred in Ottawa as approved projects waited for a minister's signature.

A 2010 auditor general's report found the Tli Cho board had been functioning smoothly.

McCrank's suggestion for a superboard was tacked on to federal legislation passed last February that gave the N.W.T. province-like powers over its own lands and resources.

"By grouping them together, the federal government, I think, was hoping to limit opposition that has been widely known," said Shauna Morgan, a Yellowknife-based consultant with the environmental think-tank Pembina Institute. "It was hoping to limit that by packaging it together with devolution, take it or leave it."

The Tli Cho lawsuit attacks several aspects of the legislation.

It alleges the law undermines the First Nation's voice in managing resource development on its lands by reducing Tli Cho membership on the regulatory board to one in 11 from two in five under the old system. It also points out the new superboard is to be led by a chairman appointed in Ottawa.

None of the changes were made in consultation with the Tli Cho, the lawsuit claims.

"The government of Canada ignored our voice and made changes to the (legislation) without our consent and without meaningful consultation," said Erasmus. "This court case is about protecting our agreement and making Canada accountable for their broken promises."

Government officials have argued that the original Tli Cho agreement suggests that the work of regional boards could be conducted by a larger body. The lawsuit claims that provision only applied in the early, transitional years of the agreement.

Erasmus said the Tli Cho have support from the two other groups who have lost regional management boards under the new legislation: the Gwich 'In in the northwest corner of the territory and the Sahtu in the central Mackenzie.

"We have been in touch with them and we do have their support," Erasmus said.

"They know our reasons for this lawsuit — we've been on this issue for the last two years. It's very important."

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories. No statement of defence has yet been filed.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton