Northern environmentalists say a deal between the Northwest Territories and a federal economic development agency could water down how proposed resource projects are reviewed.
"It's hard to read where this is coming from, but it would appear to be to grease the skids for further economic development almost at any cost," Kevin O'Reilly of the Yellowknife-based group Alternatives North said Monday.
Late Friday, the federal government released news of a memorandum of understanding between the Northwest Territories and CanNor, the federal agency charged with facilitating economic development in the North.
It's part of a long-standing effort to ease the complexity of the territory's regulatory system, which is complicated by aboriginal land-claim and self-government agreements.
CanNor – charged specifically with promoting economic development – is to lead efforts to rewrite the way resource projects are reviewed and assessed in the NWT, including environmental considerations.
"The framework would also seek to co-ordinate efforts in relation to environmental assessment/impact review and regulatory permitting and develop strategies to advance positive economic outcomes in relation to projects," the agreement says.
The document does include a commitment to "effective and transparent" environmental review. Its focus, however, remains on resource development.
Although it contains references to co-operation and collaboration, it makes no mention of guarantees for public input or aboriginal consultation.
"It's being left to a small part of the federal government that is obviously very pro-development to develop this framework,"Mr. O'Reilly said. "Is there going to be an opportunity for public review?"
He suggested the CanNor-led process will lead to the similar kinds of changes made by Ottawa in the south, which many say have weakened environmental reviews.
Officials from CanNor or the NWT weren't immediately available for comment.
In the spring of 2012, the federal Conservatives angered northern aboriginals when it told them to expect legislation that would replace land-claim-based regulatory boards with a single body made up of an equal number of government and aboriginal members.
Many considered that a weakening of local control and a betrayal of the spirit of hard-won land claims.
Those proposals were first broached in a 2008 report authored by former Alberta regulator Neil McCrank, who concluded that too many regulatory bodies up and down the Mackenzie River Valley were slowing development needlessly.
Contradictory evidence came in 2010, when another federal report found approval times in the NWT weren't substantially longer than elsewhere in Canada. It concluded the longest delays came in Ottawa, where approved projects sat on ministers' desks waiting for the final okay.
Those delays should now be gone with the recent devolution of control over public lands to the territorial government.