Up until 2011, the NWT government’s 16th Assembly was going to be remembered for a lot of things. None of it would have been flattering.
Floyd Roland’s government had spent more time bickering, infighting and doing its damnedest to topple itself than it had doing anything even remotely visionary.
In January 2011, that changed with the stroke of a pen.
On January 26, Roland, with then-deputy premier Michael Miltenberger at his side, signed off on the highly controversial NWT Devolution deal with the federal government.
Whether the deal was a good one depends on your perspective. Many people (mainly Inuvialuit, Metis and non-Aboriginal) supported it. Many others (mostly Dene) did not. But the fact that it was a big deal, that may forever change the way the NWT operates, cannot be debated. Signing the devolution agreement was the most influential thing the 16th Assembly did, by far.
What the deal means for the NWT is pretty clear – 350 federal jobs transferred to the government of the NWT, including 175 currently based in Ottawa that will move North. Resource royalties up to $60 million a year will be divided between the GNWT and Aboriginal governments.
Plus devolution enables the GNWT to determine how and when development happens on Crown land within the territory, taking that decision-making authority out of Ottawa.
In the months following the signing, while debate over whether the deal was a good one for the NWT raged within the territory, both Yukon and Nunavut made their voices heard. Yukon announced it wanted to re-open its devolution agreement with a view to getting the same deal the NWT received. Nunavut, on the other hand, decried the fact that it is now the only jurisdiction within Canada without control over what happens on its own land.
Yet while Roland and his cabinet can be lauded for pushing through a process that had been in negotiation for decades, the way the deal was handled within the NWT, and the backlash following from Dene First Nations, exposed the deeply dysfunctional relationship between the territorial and First Nations governments.
That attitude was summed up by Deh Gah Got’ie First Nation Chief Joachim Bonnetrouge of Fort Providence, who classified the devolution deal as a “grab for power and authority” by a territorial government hungry for its own land to control.
“The battle comes down to the fight over our land and resources,” Bonnetrouge said. “We claim the GNWT is still not a legitimate government. Right now, the GNWT has no land. This attempted end run by GNWT on the devolution AIP is a grab for power and authority over Dene land and resources.”
Those sentiments were echoed by other Dene First Nations, particularly the Deh Cho and Akaitcho, who worry that devolution will affect their land claim negotiations with the federal government.
But the Aboriginal community was divided as well. The NWT Metis Nation and the Inuvialuit both stood behind the GNWT on the deal.
In the end, despite a lot of noise and some well-publicized protests from a number of Dene First Nations, Roland and his cabinet did what they wanted to do all along, signing the devolution agreement and in the process giving the 16th Assembly a lasting legacy.
Whether that legacy turns out to be positive or not depends on how conflicting governments within the territory manage to work out their differences and find common ground.