"What they're doing is saying, 'We know what's better for you. We know what works best for you,' and we don't believe that," said Ethel Blondin-Andrew, head of the Sahtu Secretariat, which controls a big portion of the central Northwest Territories.
The secretariat has filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories over federal plans to collapse regulatory boards created by land claims along the Mackenzie Valley into a single superboard. It's similar to a previous lawsuit filed by the Tlicho government, which manages a claim on the south end of the valley.
Both the Sahtu and Tlicho land claims included regulatory boards that guaranteed half their positions to local people.
But under a clause appended to 2013 legislation that gave the territorial government province-like powers, Ottawa said it would replace those boards with a single "superboard'' headed by a federal appointee. That board is to take effect April 1.
Local representation on panels considering development are being reduced. Blondin-Andrew said Sahtu representation will shrink from a majority to one out of 11.
The government has argued that the previous system was complicated, confusing and slow.
However, a 2010 federal audit found approval times for permits in the North were broadly similar to other parts of Canada. It concluded the longest delays occurred when approved applications waited for ministerial signature or in areas with no settled land claim.
Government lawyers have argued that the land claims contain a provision allowing them to bring the boards together under one umbrella.
Both Tlicho and Sahtu lawsuits maintain that's too narrow an interpretation of the land claims and that the overall text says changes shouldn't reduce the amount of local representation.
Blondin-Andrew — a former Liberal MP — said that Ottawa had a duty to consult with affected groups before changing the regulatory regime. Although meetings were held, they had no influence on the government, she said.
"They would not consider anything we put forward, or anything anybody else put forward."
A federal spokeswoman has acknowledged in court that Ottawa had decided to axe regional boards even before consultations on regulatory reform began.
The federal government has not yet filed a statement of defence. No court date has been set.
Arguments in the Tlicho case were heard last December. No judgment has been rendered.
Critics have said the clause creating the superboard was the price the Harper Conservatives exacted from the territorial government in exchange for a long-sought deal on devolution, which gave the territory more control over resources and a share in the royalties they produce.
— By Bob Weber in Edmonton; follow him on Twitter at @row1960