Bob McLeod: What We Can Learn from Governance and Reconciliation in the Northwest Territories - Simon Fraser University Centre for Dialogue Speech

Thank you for joining us today to learn about the Northwest Territories and some of the new developments in Indigenous relations and governance that are taking place there that we believe might be of interest to people across Canada.

Reconciliation and improved outcomes for Indigenous people are prominent themes in the national conversation these days and priorities for policy makers across the country.

As a Métis person and Premier of a territory where approximately half of the people are Indigenous, this new focus on Indigenous issues and priorities pleases me.

Our government believes that Indigenous Canadians deserve to be full members of Canadian society – on their own terms.

We also believe that Indigenous Canadians have the right to enjoy the same kind of benefits their fellow Canadians enjoy, including freedom from poverty, a first world standard of living, good physical and mental health, and access to middle class jobs and economic opportunities in their home communities and regions.

These are lofty goals, but I hope everybody here today would agree with me that they are necessary goals. The question Canada is grappling with is how do we achieve them?

In the Northwest Territories, we believe improved relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians and their governments is a significant part of the answer.

We believe true reconciliation and the path to improved outcomes for Indigenous people rests on political and economic self-determination. Indigenous people must have the power to make decisions for themselves, and they must have the financial and legal means to implement those decisions.

This is a core concept that has guided political and social development in the Northwest Territories for decades and which our government continues to pursue in its policies and decisions.

I said I wanted to talk to you about “new developments” in Indigenous relations and governance taking place in the Northwest Territories, but the irony is they aren’t really new. They may be new for people in southern Canada, but they are the way we have lived and worked together in the Northwest Territories for years.

Our government, and our territory, has a long history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people making decisions together that is often invisible to us in the North simply because it is such a normal part of how we get things done.

One thing that is normal to us, but which might be seen as unusual in southern Canada, is the high level of participation by Indigenous people in the public government and the leadership positions they occupy.

As I noted, I am Métis; my predecessor as Premier was Inuvialuit – the name for the Inuit of the western Arctic. Since the position of Premier had its beginnings in 1983, only two non-Indigenous people have ever led the Government of the Northwest Territories. In comparison, nine Indigenous people have held the position, including Canada’s first Indigenous female Premier, Nellie Cournoyea.

Indigenous participation on Cabinet has also been high throughout our history. Five of the seven Ministers currently serving on Cabinet are Indigenous, including Minister Schumann. On top of this, more than half of the Members of the Legislative Assembly are Indigenous, representing Inuvialuit, Dene and Métis residents from across the territory.

It is impossible to understate the significance of this Indigenous leadership and participation at the highest political levels. Simply put, Indigenous people in the Northwest Territories are decision makers and their views and priorities are represented at the very heart of the public government. They are not simply a special interest group to be consulted as part of a decision making process that they do not direct or participate in.

Another key fact that may not be well understood outside the North is that the Government of the Northwest Territories is not the only government in the territory, and we do not govern in isolation.

There are seven regional Indigenous governments in the Northwest Territories and our government has made it a priority to build effective partnerships with them for years.

One way we have done this is through our participation in the negotiations and implementation of land, resources and self-government agreements.

There have been six claims settled in the territory since the signing of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement in 1984. Most of these are land claims, which formally recognize the rights of Indigenous governments to manage and benefit from the ownership of land and resources in their region, including non-renewable resources and renewable resources like caribou.

Through their agreements, Indigenous governments are also major landholders, with their own authority to determine how large parts of the territory are managed and developed.

Two of the settled agreements recognize the inherent right of Indigenous people to govern themselves and provide constitutionally protected law making powers to their governments in a broad range of areas.

Danny Gaudet, who is here with us today, was Chief Negotiator for the Deline Final Self-Government Agreement and will be able to tell you more about the importance of this agreement to the people of his community.

There are currently over 14 active land, resources and self-government processes continuing in every region of the territory and our government continues to be committed to finalizing and implementing settled agreements in partnership with Indigenous governments.

I think it is important to understand that the Government of the Northwest Territories has evolved in the context of land claims and self-government. We have always understood that power and responsibility in the Northwest Territories is shared and our policies, programs and structures have been built with that reality in mind.

For more than ten years, it has been our policy to maintain formal government-to-government relations with Indigenous governments in the Northwest Territories. That policy is reflected in our formal approach to engaging with Indigenous governments, Respect, Recognition, Responsibility. It is also reflected in the intergovernmental MOUs we have with eight Indigenous governments and which provide for regular meetings between our Executives to discuss matters of shared interest and importance.

I said earlier that true reconciliation depends upon both political and economic self-determination. I would like to speak briefly now about the economic side of the equation.

It is not simply enough that Indigenous people make decisions, they must also be able to implement those decisions. That usually means being able to pay for them yourselves, rather than depending on some other government to agree to pay for them.

Economic measures are a significant component of every settled agreement in the Northwest Territories. A basic goal of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement, which Duane Smith, President and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation can speak more about, is to enable Inuvialuit to be equal and meaningful participants in the northern and national economy and society.

One of the ways the Inuvialuit see this happening is through the full Inuvialuit participation in the northern Canadian economy through the development of an adequate level of economic self-reliance and a solid economic base.

The Inuvialuit Final Agreement – and the other settled agreements in the territory – help to fulfill these goals by providing Indigenous people with monetary resources, ownership of significant tracts of land and resources that can be drawn upon to create economic opportunities, and a guaranteed role in the management of public resources in their region.

Several of the settled claims also provide signatory Indigenous governments with a share of royalties from the development of resources on public lands throughout the territory.

In April 2014, the Northwest Territories as a whole took what we hope is a final step towards economic self-determination with the devolution of responsibility for public lands, resources and water from Ottawa to the Government of the Northwest Territories.

Prior to this date, all the decisions about the management and development of Northwest Territories land and natural resources were being made by bureaucrats thousands of miles away.

As is still the case in much of Canada, including British Columbia, the economy and prosperity of the Northwest Territories is heavily dependent on its natural resource wealth. Not being able to make decisions about the responsible development and management of those resources meant that Northwest Territories residents were shut out from an important opportunity to direct and influence the future of the territory for themselves.

I am a former federal civil servant, and I know that the Government of Canada has good intentions, but I also know that it is difficult for people who do not live in the North to truly understand the priorities and values of us Northerners. That is why it was a priority for me to bring those decision making powers home to the Northwest Territories where they belong.

Our government believes that management of Northwest Territories land and resources matters to all our residents, and they all should benefit from the decisions made about it.

While this was a devolution of authority from one public government to another, our government always believed that Indigenous government participation was a necessary part of the negotiations and implementation.

Five regional Indigenous governments participated with the Government of the Northwest Territories in devolution negotiations with the Government of Canada and are signatories to the agreement with us.

An important feature of the final devolution agreement was the Government of the Northwest Territories’ decision to offer participating Indigenous governments up to 25 percent of its share of resource revenues from development of public resources.

This is an amount that is over and above any revenues Indigenous governments receive through their settled land claims or from development on settlement lands that they own. It is offered to them without any strings or conditions and governments are free to spend it on the priorities and purposes they and their members agree are most important to them.

Since devolution came into effect, the Government of the Northwest Territories has shared over $20 million in resource revenues with Indigenous governments as part of this innovative arrangement.

One final feature of the devolution agreement I’d like to mention that illustrates the Northwest Territories approach to governance and reconciliation is the Intergovernmental Council, or IGC.

The IGC was established pursuant to the devolution agreement as a forum where the Government of the Northwest Territories and Indigenous governments can share information and discuss the administration of land and resources they own and are responsible for, while still respecting each other’s jurisdiction and decision making authority.  

This body is still evolving, but we think it is another example of how Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments can work together to create the kind of cooperative and equitable society that Canadians value.

Thank you for joining us here today, I look forward to hearing from you and having a good discussion about the Northwest Territories partnership approach.