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Building trust in devolution
Public questions in Norman Wells focus on confusion over agreement to transfer power to territorial government

Chris Puglia
Northern News Services
Published Monday, May 20, 2013

Despite assurances from the territorial government, how devolution will affect land claims and aboriginal self-government remains a concern from some in the Sahtu.

NNSL photo/graphic

Ethel Blondin-Andrew, chairperson of Sahtu Secretariat Incorporated, deputy premier Jackson Lafferty and Premier Bob McLeod sign the agreement-in-principle in May 2012. - NNSL file photo

Approximately 15 people attended to listen to Martin Goldney, lead negotiator at the GNWT's devolution office, present the facts of the agreement the territory is looking to finalize with the federal government, and some residents were more impassioned with their questions.

Fort Good Hope's Jim Allard hammered Goldney with questions throughout the three-hour presentation. His focus was what the transfer of power will mean for the Government of Canada's and the territorial government's relationship with aboriginal governments.

"Canada will be still involved in the outstanding claims negotiations and treaty processes and self-government agreement negotiations. Canada's role doesn't really change at all in that respect," Goldney said during an interview following the meeting, echoing comments he made to Allard.

"The more we explain that devolution is not about taking power and authority away from aboriginal governments, it's about simply transferring the power that Canada has now and exercises now to a more local and accessible responsive government, I think that helps."

Goldney also, on multiple occasions, assured that devolution will not degrade the strength of aboriginal governments or the power and benefits enshrined in their land claim agreements. Canada will also have the power to reclaim transferred lands following devolution for future land claim settlements, Goldney added.

Sahtu Secretariat Inc. (SSI) signed on to the Devolution Agreement-in-Principle (AiP) in May 2012 - the Deh Cho and Akaitcho have yet to sign of the current aboriginal groups - and Ethel Blondin-Andrew, SSI chairperson, said the protection of self-government is an aspect of the agreement that is important to her people.

"The land claims and the self-government agreements have paramount over devolution," she said. "They have a strong constitutional and legal basis. I am not worried."

However, she recognizes that there are those who do worry, a fact that Goldney said he is conscious of, which is why he said the information meetings are so crucial.

"I think people do worry. History has taught them, and probably legitimately, to worry," said Blondin-Andrew. "But these are different times and the leadership is different and our understanding and involvement is at the highest level. We're trying to make really tough decisions for our people to move ahead and to be players in whatever is happening on their land."

Blondin-Andrew said the decision to sign the agreement came from a recognition that, from an economics standpoint, the NWT is at a crucial stage, especially when compared to the global economy.

"We are at the worst fiscal point in our government's life - the federal government. The economy is kind of shaky, the markets are kind of shaky. We need to really make sure that we do something before it gets any worse," she said. "If we have to redo this devolution agreement, I think we are going to do much worse. I think the economy is only going to get worse in the south and in the global markets.

"Here we seem to have hit a hot and sweet spot in the Sahtu that doesn't reflect the overall global market and the well-being of federal finances. If we don't do it now then $189,000 a day goes to Ottawa, it doesn't come back to the North, not even to the GNWT. That money that goes to the GNWT is not to prop up the government, it's to provide programs and services. So the well-being of our people in our communities is at stake."

Goldney said on top of the present resource revenue sharing agreements with aboriginal groups, devolution will mean up to 25 per cent of the spoils paid to the GNWT will be shared by participating aboriginal governments.

Added to the pot is $4 million in a one-time transition payment and up to $3 million to support aboriginal governments to participate in an intergovernmental council designed to co-ordinate land and resource management issues.

While the Deh Cho and Akaitcho remain undecided, Blondin-Andrew said signing the agreement was the best choice for the Sahtu.

"We're all in different phases in our human and political development," she said. "In the Sahtu Region we've cut those deals and we've made those concessions. We can't wait for people, we have to live for the kids and for the future of all people. We have to move on."

The ultimate decision to go forward with devolution is now in the hands of the legislative assembly and Blondin-Andrew says a lot of work has been done to garner support from the public.

"I am not a mind reader but if it depended on how much consultation and how much work we've done, we should have pretty good support like we did for the AiP," she said.

"But that remains to be seen. Being a former politician, I am not one to guess, but I think we would do very well."

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