Signing with Harper in Yellowknife marks step toward new powers for NWT

YELLOWKNIFE – The stroke of a pen has brought the Northwest Territories a step closer to more province-like powers.

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. The issues are resolved and negotiators have reached consensus on the terms of a final devolution agreement,” Harper told those who were invited to the legislature to mark the occasion.

“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 document 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.

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 prime minister pointed to the Yukon’s experience with devolution as an example of what the N.W.T. can hope to achieve.

“We need only to look to the West to see how people flourish when they have power over their lives,” said Harper, who added that unemployment has gone down and investment has increased since the western-most territory was granted more power over itself over a decade ago.

A voice for northerners is paramount, McLeod said last week, when he promised the territorial legislature that the public will have unprecedented opportunities to comment on the deal.

McLeod has also promised that members of the legislative assembly will have a voice. Backbenchers, who function as a kind of opposition in the N.W.T.’s non-party consensus government, have complained that the talks have been consistently held behind closed doors.

It’s not clear how much scope northerners and their elected representatives will have to affect any changes to the draft signed Monday. Nor is it clear how those consultations will be carried out, or how the legislature will be involved.

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, aboriginal affairs and northern development minister for the federal government at the time, signed it about four months later, only three of the N.W.T.’s seven major aboriginal groups supported it.