The Northwest Territories, over the objections of most of its aboriginal leaders, has moved a step closer to assuming the powers of a province.
"Much of what the provinces have today, northerners are asking for in a decision-making process around developments that occur in the North," Premier Floyd Roland said just before signing an agreement in principle to transfer control over northern land and resources from Ottawa to Yellowknife.
But while Mr. Roland and federal Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan savoured the result of more than two decades of negotiations, Dene leaders were appealing to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to block the deal.
"The aboriginal governments maintain that the secretive bilateral devolution negotiation between the NWT and Canada - without the aboriginal government's participation - is unconstitutional, politically flawed and insufficient to meet the requirements of contemporary northern governments," reads a letter to Mr. Harper signed by Chief Sam Gargan of the Dehcho and Richard Nerysoo of the Gwich'in.
Wednesday's agreement in principle would give Yellowknife control over resource development as well as a big chunk of the revenue generated by its oil, gas, diamonds and gold.
Currently, all resource royalties in the NWT go to Ottawa. The only benefit the territorial government receives is income taxes.
But even those taxes are deducted from transfers the territory gets from the federal government. Territorial officials have calculated that for every new dollar raised, 80 cents is lost in transfer payments.
As well, final approval for any resource development - from the smallest mining exploration camp to proposed megaprojects such as the Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline - has always had to come from the federal minister of Indian and Northern Affairs.
Under the new deal, the NWT would keep half of its resource royalties without losing federal transfers - up to a percentage of its overall budget. Decisions would be made in Yellowknife, not Ottawa. It also promises about $27-million in one-time transition costs and another $65-million annually to cover the territory's increased expenses.
The signing signals the start of talks toward a final legal text, which Mr. Duncan expects will take about a year.
"Now we've come to a place, through signing this agreement, [that]we can progress to a final set of negotiations where a final set of decisions will be made by northerners as to whether it's good enough to proceed with or not," Mr. Roland said.
Many aboriginal northerners have already made up their minds.
While the Métis and the Inuvialuit - whose land claim covers the gas-rich northwest corner of the territory - were on hand to sign the deal, no representatives of the NWT's 10,000 Dene yet support it.
Mr. Gargan said the deal doesn't give the NWT a big enough share of resource royalties. He also said Dene groups weren't given enough input and fear their land claim and self-government talks will be circumscribed by its provisions.
"You have a position by both governments that says that we've committed to this process and that's what I'm afraid of," he said. "It sort of locks a lot of the issues regarding self-government from the table."
Mr. Duncan said the agreement specifies that it won't infringe on the rights of aboriginal negotiators or governments. There's lots of time and opportunity for aboriginal groups to come on board, he added.
"We think that moving forward, there will be full participation. The agreement is predicated on that occurring."
Yukon signed a deal on controlling its resources in 2003. Mr. Duncan said the government is committed to beginning similar negotiations with Nunavut.
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