Saskatchewan and Alberta joined Confederation 108 years ago this week, on July 20, 1905. They did so as junior partners; neither attained the full privileges of provincehood until 1930, when Parliament ratified the Natural Resource Transfer Agreements, which permit the western provinces to profit from the provisions of section 109 of the Constitution Act, 1867: “All Lands, Mines, Minerals, and Royalties belonging to the several Provinces...shall belong to the several Provinces.”
Were it not for these provincial powers, further entrenched in section 92A of the Constitution Act, 1982, neither Saskatchewan’s potash nor Alberta’s oil would be subject to the ultimate authority of their respective provincial governments. Decisions about what gets pulled out of the ground, when, by whom, and for how much would all be made in Ottawa, not in Edmonton or Regina. After decades of interprovincial resource politics – epitomized most recently by Alberta’s spat with British Columbia over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline – it is all but impossible to imagine this parallel universe, in which the federal government, not the provinces, has exclusive jurisdiction over natural resources.
Yet, in Nunavut, that is precisely the way it works. Canadians who live in Canada’s Inuit homeland – the vast majority of whom are indigenous – are our country’s last batch of second-class citizens, the result of a colonial hangover that is long past time to cure.
Canada’s newest territory came into existence in 1999, as a result of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement between the Inuit and Canada. Like Yukon and the Northwest Territories, Nunavut is less than a province; it owes its existence to a mere statute, the Nunavut Act, and not to the Constitution, and its government may exercise only such powers as Parliament permits it to possess. Like Alberta and Saskatchewan before 1930, full control of lands and resources is not yet one of them. Though resource projects require the agreement of Inuit representatives and the approval of the Nunavut Impact Review Board, all final decisions still rest with the federal Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. Nowhere else in Canada – not even in the other two territories, both of which have entered into agreements with Ottawa to devolve province-like (or, more accurately, “province-lite”) powers over lands and resources – is this the case.
Every single province – with the exception of Manitoba, whose population in 1870 was mostly Métis – entered Confederation with a settler majority. Before 1999, Parliament had never granted any meaningful semblance of self-government to any jurisdiction in Canada until its indigenous inhabitants had been sufficiently outnumbered. Nunavut broke that mould, but only in part; Canada’s only majority-indigenous jurisdiction remains the only place in Canada where citizens – more than 80 per cent of whom are Inuit – do not elect provincial or territorial representatives with authority over the “Lands, Mines, Minerals, and Royalties” in their midst.
Why? Canada has dragged its feet in negotiating a devolution deal with Nunavut similar to those concluded with Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Ottawa has argued that Nunavut and its people are, in the words of then-minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development John Duncan, “not at the stage of readiness” to assume quasi-provincial powers over resource development. True, after decades of federal control – during which Ottawa trained exactly zero Inuit exploration geologists, mining engineers or chartered accountants – the Government of Nunavut now has a dearth of Inuit exploration geologists, mining engineers or chartered accountants to fill its ranks. But devolution has never required total separation; when Yukon assumed jurisdiction over its own oil and gas developments, in 2001, the territorial government immediately signed a contract with the National Energy Board to provide additional administrative capacity while the territory built up its own. But the power to approve or reject projects shifted from Ottawa to Whitehorse, and Yukoners, for the first time in their history, were put in the same position as their fellow citizens to the south with respect to the lands and resources beneath their feet. Nunavummiut are entitled to the same equality.
This week, Canada’s premiers are meeting at the Council of the Federation’s summer session in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. When they see their territorial colleagues across the table, the southern premiers should recognize that they are not among equals. Until Canadians in Saskatoon or Moose Jaw or Swift Current have the same powers of democratic decision-making as their fellow citizens in Iqaluit or Arviat or Cambridge Bay – until Canada finally finishes decolonizing our empire within – our federation will be incomplete.
Speaking in Charlottetown in 2009, Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak asked, “should the people who have lived on this land, as the stewards of the land for generations not have the same power to make decisions as other Canadians?”
Neither the federal government nor the provinces – which all but vetoed any path to provincehood for the territories at Meech Lake in 1987 – has ever provided a satisfactory answer. Until they do, we will yet fall short of Confederation’s most central challenge: achieving equal citizenship for every Canadian citizen.
Adam Goldenberg (@adamgoldenberg) is a Kirby Simon Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School, a former Liberal speechwriter, and a contributor to CBC News: The National. Tony Penikett was the NDP Premier of Yukon from 1985 to 1992, and the Government of Nunavut’s chief devolution negotiator until 2012. Both are affiliates of the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation’s Arctic Security Program.
Editor's Note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that every province entered Confederation with a settler majority. In fact, Manitoba had a Metis majority when it entered. The text has been altered to reflect this correction.