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Leave regional boards alone: witnesses
Participants in packed devolution, super board hearings tell federal government to keep two issues separate

Laura Busch
Northern News Services
Published Monday, February 3, 2014

Northerners had their chance to tell the federal government what they think of Bill C-15 on Jan. 27 and the consensus was strong opposition to eliminating regional land and water boards, and an unhappiness about the federal government's perceived failure to properly consult on the bill.

NNSL photo/graphic

Willard Hagen, chair of the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board, was the neutral island in the middle of the political storm during Bill C-15 hearings at the Explorer Hotel in Yellowknife on Jan. 27, where the federal government's decision to group devolution and regulatory reform together as a single bill was called everything from "insulting" to "colonial" to "visionary." - Laura Busch/NNSL photo

"Nothing is more important than this," said Tlicho Grand Chief Eddie Erasmus, who signed on to devolution in March 2013.

He called the bill - which will alter two of the territory's founding documents: the NWT Act and the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act -- unconstitutional and said that he is prepared to stand up to the proposed legislation in whatever way he can.

"Canada has returned to the old colonial ways of thinking they know what is best for us," he said. "They are silencing our voice. That is not the constitutional promise made in the Tlicho Agreement."

Members of the federal Special Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development were in Yellowknife for a marathon meeting where they heard from 33 witnesses over nine hours on Bill C-15, the act that would enact the devolution of lands and resources, and also make fundamental changes to the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act (MVRMA).

Every one of the 10 aboriginal government leaders who testified strongly opposed Bill C-15, most because of the proposed changed to the MVRMA.

Another contingent, including Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus and elder Francois Paulette, also opposed the devolution portion of the bill on the grounds that it does not honour the treaty agreements between the

Crown and First Nations.

Paulette railed against the federal government representatives present for participating in a public hearing that is unlikely to result in significant changes to the bill and "rubber stamping" the legislation, saying they were upholding the George Bush doctrine of "if you're not with us, you're against us," which he alleged has been adopted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"What you call democracy is not being followed," he said, suggesting the federal government's obligation to consult, as well as the UN conventions on indigenous rights were being violated.

"All the rules to protect us, our waters, have been lifted. Where is our protection? I am very embarrassed that we're letting this happen," he said.

Many of the same leaders who signed on to the devolution deal with the GNWT spoke against the bill because of the federal government's decision to group MVRMA changes in at the last minute.

Sahtu Secretariat Inc. (SSI) Chair Ethel Blondin-Andrew said GNWT devolution negotiators told the public that the two issues were completely separate - and that this played a major role in decisions to support the transfer of land and resource management.

Despite a request from the SSI to the federal government asking if devolution and MVRMA changes would be lumped together, the SSI only found out the two were when Bill C-15 was introduced in Parliament, she said.

Tlicho Grand Chief Eddie Erasmus, who signed on to devolution in March 2013, cautioned the federal government to prepare industry for delays, additional costs and opposition from settled groups.

Several witnesses also pointed to unsettled land claims as the cause of holdups in the regulatory process - not the board structure and not the regional land and water boards.

Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board chair Willard Hagen refused to wade in to the political debate

surrounding the proposed regulatory overhaul, saying it is the job of board members and staff to uphold the legislation, and that politics should be left up to politicians.

"We are a public body and we are neutral," he told News/North.

However, the fact remains that of the 61 referrals that have come to the board for approval, 53 were from the territory's unsettled regions.

Speaking on behalf of the NWT Treaty 8 Tribal Corporation, Chief Edward Sangris said the Akaitcho First Nations "cannot agree to the legislation as it now sits," because they have yet to settle a land claim.

Roughly $15 billion worth of resources have been extracted from Chief Drygeese territory (Akaitcho land) so far, and without a land claim the First Nation has not received the benefits it should, said chief negotiator Don Balsillie.

Since the mid-1930s, there have been more than a dozen mines built on Akaitcho Territory, including Giant, Con, Thompson Lunmar, Ruth, Ptarmigan, and Discovery gold mines. Yet the First Nation did not receive a penny until the first impact benefit agreement was signed with BHP Billiton's Ekati diamond mine in 1996 and to this day, there has been no resource revenue sharing between NWT aboriginal governments and industry or the Government of Canada.

"This Bill C-15 puts us in a real awkward position because ... the very authority that we seek for ourselves are the very things that are being transferred to the territorial government," said Dehcho First Nations Grand Chief Herb Norwegian, whose people also have yet to settle their land claim.

Throughout the day-long hearing, the roughly 130 chairs that had been set up in the Katimavik room were filled to capacity several times and for some of the panels there was standing room only.

At other times - such as during the sixth of seven panels featuring the NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines, the Northwest Territories Chamber of Commerce and the Northern Territories Federation of Labour - as few as a dozen members of the public were present.

A very animated Premier Bob McLeod started the day off at 8:30 a.m., voicing thunderous support for devolution, Bill C-15 and regulatory reform.

"Whatever their views on this specific legislation, I hope that everybody in the Northwest Territories supports its basic premise, that decisions about the North should be made as close to home as possible," he said.

Currently, the GNWT manages roughly one per cent of the NWT's landmass by overseeing Commissioner's Land. Once the transfer of Crown lands is complete, the territorial government will control most decision making on roughly 80 per cent of land in the territory.

McLeod urged both Northerners and the legislators present not to let the controversial changes to the regulatory system delay "the devolution we have been seeking for so long."

McLeod has not publicly criticized the federal government's proposed changes to the MVRMA, yet also hasn't outwardly supported it - instead spreading the message that devolution is essential to the territory's future and that regulatory reform is a national priority.

News/North sought to speak with McLeod about his thoughts of devolution and MVRMA changes being lumped together by the federal government, and on why he does not think the regulatory overhaul needs to be debated in the legislative assembly. However, this request was denied.

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