Justice Karan Shaner of the N.W.T. Supreme Court has granted an injunction that prevents Ottawa from collapsing local oversight boards into one agency led by a federal appointee.
Shaner wrote there's a "reasonable" chance the Conservative government's overhaul violates hard-won treaty guarantees in an agreement that granted self-government to aboriginals inhabiting a section of the southern Mackenzie Valley about twice the size of New Brunswick.
"The Tlicho government has raised a reasonable possibility that Canada has overstepped the bounds of what it is permitted to do under the Tlicho Agreement," Shaner wrote.
Ottawa's new regulatory board was supposed to come into effect April 1. Shaner's decision means the status quo will remain until a Tlicho lawsuit can be heard.
Tlicho lawyer Jason Madden said the lawsuit — or perhaps even a possible appeal by Ottawa of the injunction— won't be heard until after a federal election expected this fall.
"There is no way we are going to get a trial this year."
Madden said the injunction makes it clear that modern land claims can't be swept aside by federal fiat.
"It sends a message to the government that the old way of doing things, that Ottawa always knows best, doesn't cut it any more. You have to work with your treaty partners."
The Tlicho lawsuit is one of two court actions opposing the Harper government's plans. The Sahtu Secretariat, which manages a land claim around Great Bear Lake, filed its own challenge last week.
Both actions are supported by the Gwich'In Tribal Council, which has a land claim north of the Sahtu.
The Tlicho and Sahtu negotiated hard for regulatory boards to oversee resource development on their lands. The deals also guaranteed half their positions to local people.
Under a clause appended to legislation that gave the territorial government province-like powers, Ottawa said it would replace those bodies with a single "superboard'' headed by a federal appointee.
Shaner noted the federal move would reduce Tlicho representation from half to one out of 10.
Federal lawyers have argued that a clause in the Tlicho Agreement allows for the possibility of rolling local boards into one.
The lawsuits claim Ottawa made no serious attempt to accommodate their concerns. A federal negotiator did hold talks, but another federal official has testified in court that Ottawa had already decided the superboard would go ahead.
A statement from the office of Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt wouldn't say if an appeal of the injunction would be filed.
"We are reviewing the court's decision," said the email. "We are clear that we will vigorously defend the new regulatory framework.
"The economic future of Canada's North, and in this case the Mackenzie Valley, requires a strong and efficient regulatory framework. The changes we enacted in 2014 provide that framework."
Madden said the federal attempts have just caused confusion.
"What they've done has created more uncertainty in the territories than spurred economic development."
— By Bob Weber in Edmonton. Follow him on Twitter at @row1960