Northern political observers suggest the Northwest Territories election Oct. 3 will be a crucial crossroad for a territory nearly broke and facing increasingly confident aboriginal governments that threaten a deal over province-like powers.
“The (territorial government's) role is continually more and more marginalized,” said Joe Handley, a former premier of the N.W.T.
“Unless a fair devolution deal is worked out ... you may see (the territory) managing the health program, the education program and the existing infrastructure, but the really big policy decisions will be made either by the federal government or jointly with aboriginal governments.”
The N.W.T. has nearly reached a federal borrowing cap that limits the territory's capacity for running deficits. At the same time, it's trying to build roads, bridges and hydro developments to help take advantage of abundant mineral wealth and bring down the high cost of living.
That's on top of ongoing needs for upgraded education and health.
For now, all the royalties from the N.W.T.’s resources go to the federal government. Ottawa has offered Yellowknife a deal that would allow the territory to keep that money, but the deal is widely opposed by aboriginal governments unhappy with the role it would leave for them.
They hold significant power because nearly the entire territory is either covered by an aboriginal self-government agreement or under negotiation for one.
The Tli Cho government, covering a Belgium-sized chunk of lake, river and tundra between Great Slave and Great Bear lakes, is able to levy royalties and has power over everything from family law to licences for native healers.
Aboriginal leadership prefers to work with Ottawa and has had little time for Yellowknife, said Bill Erasmus, grand chief of the Dene Nation.
“The Dene do not regard the (territorial government) as their government,” he said.
Mr. Erasmus has urged Dene people to run in the territorial vote with the hope of electing enough members to the legislature to sink the devolution deal.
Some balance of power between the legislature and aboriginal governments will need to be worked out, suggested Brendan Bell, a former N.W.T. cabinet minister.
“Devolution is going to be the first issue that this new legislature has to grapple with,” he said.
“It's pretty much a consensus in the (legislature) and the Northwest Territories that we'd like to look and act and feel a lot more like a province, with more responsibility and authority over lands and resources.
“But how that's undertaken and exactly the manner it's done, how much of the responsibility is transferred to the public government and how much to aboriginal governments, is a point of debate and a point of contention.”
Northern residents may be concluding that Yellowknife's legislature dome isn't where the action is.
Candidates for the territory's 19 ridings have declined in every election since 1999, when 65 hopefuls sought seats. This time, the total is down to 47. There was only one acclamation in 1999, compared with three this year.
Long-time legislature member Jane Groenewegen, contesting her fourth campaign, said the western Arctic will continue to need some sort of central government.
“I think the relevance of a strong, central, public, elected government in the N.W.T. is as strong as it has ever been.”
But she laments how hard it is to get the territory to speak with a single voice.
“We don't need a fight. We need leadership. That seems to be the challenge. I don't know what kind of leadership it would take.
“It seems at some point there's a lack of trust or a lack of confidence in each other.”