by Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

NNSL (Feb 07/97) - The federal government will have to fast-track the western constitution if it is to become law by division.

James Antoine"The window of opportunity is very narrow and it's closing very quickly," Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Jim Antoine said Tuesday in the legislature.

Stalled by wrangling between the territorial and federal governments over funding, the process is now four months behind schedule, with less than 27 months remaining.

If a new constitution is not law by March 1, 1999, amendments to the NWT Act will have to be in place.

"Realistically, we're going to have to take a look at that as well," said Antoine of the prospect of amending the Act.

Responding to questions from Nunakput MLA Vince Steen and Yellowknife MLA Jake Ootes during question period Tuesday, the co-chair of the constitutional working group said time may already have passed.

"Considering a federal election may be coming up, perhaps we've already gone past the time we need to have it enacted before 1999."

Steen asked when the constitution would have to be presented to the government for it to become law by division. The constitutional working group had earlier said two years would be required.

"If the feds agree to speed up the legislation, then I think they have the capability of doing that," responded Antoine. "But if it goes through the normal process, I'm told it will take 22 months or two years."

Antoine said federal apprehension about the working group's proposed model, which allowed aboriginal people two representatives and non-aboriginals one, were at the root of funding delays.

"There is support for the principles of the document from federal officials. They are concerned about the model we put forward, but we've said all along this package is for public consultation, and once it's out people will have an opportunity to comment."

He later added federal alarm bells were triggered by the rude reception the model received at public meetings hosted by Yellowknife and Hay River MLAs.

Antoine said the constitutional working group is currently developing a plan to take the process through consultation and into revision, and is hopeful it will be completed in late summer or early fall.

The federal government has made a conditional commitment of $175,000 for public consultation. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs has assigned another $122,000 in 1997-98 budget, yet to be approved by the assembly.

"One of the conditions is they want (public consultation) done by the end of March, the end of the fiscal year," said Antoine. "We're saying that's impossible."

The plan is to give MLAs a chance to present Partners to their communities and gather feedback. But current line-by-line review of the 1997-98 budget could well continue into March.

Antoine said at meetings on Monday that federal officials indicated they are flexible on the deadline. Responding to Ootes, Antoine said public meetings will likely be held during March, April and May.

As bureaucrats attempt to iron out the bugs of the funding agreement, the constitutional working group is formulating a working plan for the consultation.