The Northwest Territories is about to take control of its own land, resources and water for the first time in its history, but a former premier of the territory says the transfer of power from Ottawa to Yellowknife could come at a cost.
Native leaders have been told that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will travel to the North on Monday to announce the completion of an agreement with the territorial government to hand over responsibility for approving resource development.
Called devolution, the transfer could mean hundred of millions of dollars in new resource revenues for the territory, and residents widely support the move.
But Stephen Kakfwi, who was premier from 2000 to 2003, said on Thursday that the deal has been negotiated without the input of the general public, and there are concerns that the environment and preservation of the land will take a back seat to the exploitation of energy and minerals.
“The fear is that in the future, the government will always be keenly interested in getting oil and gas activity and mining activity going with less concern for the socioeconomic impact and the environmental impact of these projects,” Mr. Kakfwi said in a telephone interview.
A prolonged period of public consultation will take place before the agreement goes into effect in March or April, 2014.
But Mr. Kakfwi questioned whether the consultation can be meaningful when the terms of the devolution have already been struck. And he said the territorial government has previously demonstrated a preference for development over environmental preservation.
“The federal government, from the point of view of first nations, has been more supportive of taking a balanced approach, having some areas set aside for conservation and ecologically sensitive sites, than the government of the Northwest Territories,” he said. “Hopefully, that will change, but you just have to take a leap of faith.”
The move to hand control of resources to the territory fits with the Harper government’s efforts to get Ottawa out of most environmental oversight. It comes at a time when mining output of the Northwest Territories is predicted to grow to $1.3-billion by 2020 from $732-million in 2011.
Bob McLeod, the Premier of the Northwest Territories, has said devolution will mean more resource revenues to invest in programs and infrastructure, and he has promised resource-revenue sharing with aboriginal governments.
But Monte Hummel, president emeritus of the World Wildlife Fund Canada, says it could jeopardize the land-use plans of the two native bands that have not not so far supported the agreement.
“Both of those first nations have initiated significant conservation plans on their lands and waters,” and Mr. Hummel. “And this new authority vested in the territorial government could cause it to review those conservation proposals.”