Fears of an irreparable break-down in relations with Aboriginal governments rose quickly to the surface during the first days of the Legislative Assembly’s winter session, which began last Tuesday, as MLAs came forward with concerns on the state of the NWT’s devolution talks.
Sahtu MLA Norman Yakelaya and MLA for the Deh Cho, Michael Nadli, both warned the recently-filed lawsuit by the Gwich’in may be the first in a series of moves that could cripple the successful evolution of the territory.
“The Gwich’in lawsuit is a sign that this government has a lot of work to do,” said Nadli. “It should put our government on notice that there could be more serious consequences for going ahead on its own. Even now fighting over devolution could hamper our government’s effectiveness in working with regional governments. It could trigger a larger debate about constitutional development.”
The Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC) launched a lawsuit against the government on Feb. 1, claiming it had not been properly consulted when the GNWT entered into devolution negotiations a year ago by signing the Agreement in Principle.
Premier Bob McLeod stated the negotiations with the federal government would move ahead anyway, leaving the door open for Aboriginal governments to jump on board as the process moves forward to a final agreement.
Nadli said such a move signals that there will be no attempt to reach consensus.
“It may be possible to go ahead, but it is a recipe for conflict between this government and many of the people that it is supposed to represent,” he said. “This is not the Dene way of doing things. We try to reach consensus and keep working at it until we can decide what needs to be done.”
McLeod maintained that devolution was named a priority of the 17th Assembly. He said the current economic climate cannot allow for any more money from land, water or natural resources to be syphoned out of the territory.
“It’s costing us $165,000 a day,” he told the House. “Over the past five years we’ve seen $300 million flowing to the Government of Canada, never to return. So we have a standing invitation to all of the Aboriginal governments to participate if they see fit to do so.”
Yakelaya admitted that the NWT was “an orphan of the federal government,” having to borrow money for most of its resources, but said the cost of losing the trust of Aboriginal governments outweighed the dollar figures.
“Money comes and money goes,” he said. “Look at the relationship, at a moral cost to us on a government-to-government relationship. Are we willing to pay that cost for some short-term gains for long-term damages?”
Winter session ends this week. This year’s session is considerably shorter than last year’s, lasting only seven days compared to six weeks in 2011. The Assembly had a late start due to the fall election.