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Full speed on devolution

Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Mar 21/05) - Premier Joe Handley says his government has no intention of getting in the way of land claim negotiations while seeking a devolution agreement with Ottawa.

He said it was a topic of discussion at a meeting with Aboriginal Summit leaders and Andy Scott, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND), in Norman Wells last Wednesday.

He said there was general agreement that the two matters can be resolved without interfering with each other.

"How do we make this happen without somehow having the federal government pull back on some of its obligations with treaties?" said Handley.

"To me, it's an issue that can be resolved."

Last week, the Akaitcho and Dehcho First Nations insisted that the federal government must deal with their respective land claims first before allowing a devolution agreement to proceed. Otherwise, they would attempt to block the deal in court.

Handley responded by chiding Akaitcho negotiators for taking too long to settle their land claims, adding that he would seek a devolution agreement with or without them.

The premier said he understood their frustrations, but encouraged them to participate in the Aboriginal Summit - a partnership of aboriginal governments participating in devolution talks.

The Akaitcho have agreed to participate as observers, but the Deh Cho have stayed away so far.

"It's difficult to tell them they have to be there," said Handley. "If they're not at the table with everyone else they will find those discussions going on without them."

An agreement-in-principle - one that would give the territory province-like powers over its land and resources - is expected within a matter of weeks.

Another issue yet to be resolved is how to split resource royalties between the territory and the aboriginal governments, which are expected to approach $30 billion over the next 30 years.

Handley said the initial payout from devolution will total $68 million, with $50 million going to the GNWT and $18 million going to aboriginal governments. The premier said nothing has been decided yet on how to split ongoing resource royalties.

A lot of that will depend how land claim agreements are resolved with the Akaitcho and Dehcho First Nations.

Aboriginal Summit president James Washie said resource revenue sharing will ultimately be up to the federal government.

"The (DIAND) minister indicated that Finance Canada is going to begin participating in the negotiations, so they're the ones I assume that will come forward with a proposal," said Washie.