Powering up
Deh Cho communities begin exploring empowerment options

by Ralph Plath
Northern News Services

FORT SIMPSON (Feb 27/97) - Deh Cho communities are gearing up to see if they want to take over ownership of various government programs.

The territorial government is giving Northern communities the opportunity to assume control over and deliver programs. The reasoning for undertaking community empowerment is that communities can become more self-reliant and accountable to their residents.

Though some community leaders are wondering whether it's a form of financial downloading, most say it's time has come.

"In some cases programs could be better handled by the community," said John McKee, Fort Liard's hamlet senior administration officer. "Some programs the government delivers are meant for the entire North and that doesn't always work."

Fort Liard has been trying to get control of social services programs for many years. A group has been set up to look at what services can be taken over by the community and whether they could do it effectively.

The territorial government is open to giving away responsibility for most of their programs and is willing to provide funding arrangements.

Leaders in Fort Liard will be sending out a questionnaire to residents to determine what programs they would like to see transferred.

"The government is open to anything," McKee said. "And they're not saying which organizations should take over responsibility."

Other communities such as Wrigley are waiting to see what the other communities will do.

"There's interest," said band manager Mike Canadian. "We're waiting to see what the community wants."

Like most Deh Cho communities, Wrigley is also undergoing a self-assessment and taking the process cautiously.

Dennis Bevington, president of the NWT Association of Municipalities, advises communities to make the move one step at a time.

"Communities should pick things that will succeed, things they already administer," he said.

Taking over NWT lottery licensing is one venture that's a win-win situation, he added.

But Bevington said community empowerment is a "pro-con" issue which provides constant debate in communities.

On the one hand, empowerment means more community decision-making, flexibility and more certainty in what a community is getting in terms of funding and services.

But the drive for self-government for First Nations confuses the issue of who will oversee programs, Bevington said.

"Multi-year program funding might be the answer so that organizations can get out after a certain period of time," he added.

Meanwhile, the territorial government will continue to hold orientation workshops in communities in the move to give them more control, something that could probably take years.