Devolution deal only open to changes for Aboriginal, treaty rights

Devolution deal only open to changes for Aboriginal, treaty rights
Everyone is on their feet during the historic devolution signing in Yellowknife in March.Photo: GNWT Executive.

Though in his words the devolution deal may be “essentially done,” NWT Premier Bob McLeod wants the world to know there is room to make accommodations, but only if Aboriginal governments say the deal impacts treaty or Aboriginal rights.

McLeod responded last week to what he said was incorrect information being spouted by Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington in a recent conversation with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt during a meeting in Ottawa.

Bevington said residents of the NWT had been told by the premier that devolution was a “done deal” and that no changes would be made when Valcourt said consultation – and the potential for accommodation – was still taking place with First Nations.

“He’s saying that I said the deal was done, when in actual fact I said that the negotiators had completed their negotiations and reached the end of their mandate, so it was unlikely that we would change anything unless we missed something that was major or significant,” McLeod said in an interview.

“If an Aboriginal government comes back and points out something that would significantly affect their Aboriginal or treaty rights, that we didn’t take into consideration, and show that we were wrong in taking the approach that devolution would not negatively impact their treaty or Aboriginal rights, then we would look at that,” he said.

McLeod recently told The Journal that changes to the devolution agreement could be made if “significant issues” had arisen during these consultations with Aboriginal governments, as is legally required within the Crown’s duty to consult.

He said though neither government expected changes to be made, they are covering their legal bases.

“We don’t think devolution will negatively impact or affect treaty or Aboriginal rights in any way, and the Aboriginal governments have been involved in devolution discussions for over 12 years,” McLeod said. “We have written to every Aboriginal government to ask them if they feel that devolution is negatively impacting their treaty rights, if they would tell us what their concerns are, tell us what they believe is infringing on their rights.”

Premier ‘didn’t want to raise expectations’

McLeod had previously referred to the deal as “take it or leave it” during debate in the Legislative Assembly over whether or not a plebiscite or referendum should be held to give all residents of the territory a chance to vote on the consensus draft version of the agreement.

He said those words were meant to convey the government’s lack of intention to renegotiate the terms of the deal rather than frame it as final.

“When I said those words, it was on the basis of there’s no appetite to go back and start re-negotiating a deal. I didn’t want to raise the public’s expectation that we were going to go and get a shopping list of all the things that we wanted to go back and renegotiate, because there’s no appetite to do that,” he said.

Issues raised by the rest of NWT residents during the ongoing public information sessions on devolution being held across the territory will not directly change the agreement.

“That’s what we’re doing through the Legislative Assembly,” he said. “If the MLAs, with the feedback that they’re getting, feel it’s significant enough that we shouldn’t go ahead with devolution, then the deal is off. We’re filing a report of what we heard, and I understand that probably some of the MLAs will be using whatever they believe will contribute to the process.”

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