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Devolution deal 'within weeks'

Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Mar 07/05) - Premier Joe Handley says the territories may be only a few weeks away from a deal that will pave the way for more province-like powers.

The premier said the GNWT's negotiating team has one more meeting at the end of March, where it's expected the federal government will present an agreement-in-principle on devolution of powers and resource-revenue sharing.

"Next to a final agreement this is the most important achievement we can have as a territory in my view," said Handley, Wednesday.

A final agreement is expected next year. Handley said he was pleased by Ottawa's enthusiasm for getting a deal signed with the NWT, but wants to make sure nothing happens to draw their focus away.

"The prime minister has certainly bought on to the belief that the North is important to Canada," said Handley.

"There's a big difference in Ottawa now with a number of federal ministers and senior bureaucrats working on it. So it's important to him, and I want to keep it as one of his priorities."

Handley's announcement came just moments before the legislative assembly sat down to debate the Northern Strategy - a document that will serve as a template for what the territories will look like after devolution.

During debate, many MLAs expressed concerns about changes coming to the North through mining development and the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline.

Nahendeh MLA Kevin Menicoche wondered if a resource royalty agreement with Ottawa would actually provide a better deal.

"We're talking about resource royalty sharing but we're just going to get a percentage of three per cent royalties (Ottawa is) getting from our coffers," said Menicoche.

Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya said the government must do something to lower the cost of living if any gains through devolution may be felt on the ground.

"When you pay $16 for a 10-pound bag of potatoes in Norman Wells it's pretty hard to have a real healthy lifestyle," said Yakeleya.

After the debate, Handley said he was determined to have a Northern Strategy document in place this spring, although it won't likely be last we've heard of it.

"I very much see this as a living document," said Handley.

"I don't think we plan to prepare a strategy this spring, and it comes out in a nice, fancy bound copy and then that's the end of it."