Bob McLeod: Presentation to the Special Senate Committee on the Arctic

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Delivered on February 26, 2018

Thank you for inviting me to appear before you today. I am pleased to be able to share the Northwest Territories’ perspective on the Arctic and some of the priorities of our government.

Our government wants to create a good, sustainable future for the people of the Northwest Territories. In our view, that has to be built on a foundation of a strong, diversified economy that provides residents with the jobs and economic opportunities they must have to support themselves and their families. It will also be built on a recognition that Northerners need to be the ones making decisions about the future of the North.

It is our hope that the Government of Canada understands and shares the priorities of Northerners and will be a partner with us in the transformative social and economic development of the North.

For decades, the source of the Northwest Territories’ wealth and opportunities for its residents has been the responsible development of its natural resources. We expect it will continue to be a major part of our economy, but we know that growing and diversifying our economy is essential to our long-term future and to providing our residents – particularly in our communities and regions outside of Yellowknife – with good middle class jobs and incomes. This is a priority for our government but one that cannot be met without some changes, and support from Canada.

Canada’s policies and the decisions it makes based on them – particularly around resource development and environmental protection – can have significant ramifications for the North and Northern economies. The same is true of Canada’s spending decisions, including infrastructure investment and investments in other priority areas like housing and health care.   Decisions that will affect the North must be made by Northerners according to our own priorities and needs.

We hope the federal government is looking closely at how its decisions will affect NWT residents and is taking Northern views and priorities into account. Part of this means making federal intentions towards the North clear. We need Canada to demonstrate that it shares Northerners’ interest in a strong and diversified economy as the foundation for a sustainable North with a clear plan and financial commitments moving forward.

In the Northwest Territories, we are committed to upholding Indigenous and treaty rights and have been involved in the negotiation and settling of multiple land, resources and self-government agreements over the past 30 years.

This commitment makes our territory a national leader and example of how real partnership with regional and community Indigenous governments based on mutual respect and recognition can lead to increased political self-determination and economic participation for the North’s Indigenous people.

We have taken great strides towards political self-determination in the past four decades, with a number of land, resources and self-government agreements having been settled and more in active negotiations.  Currently, the majority of the Members of our Legislative Assembly, including five of seven Cabinet Ministers are Indigenous, as am I.

The fact is, Indigenous leaders are the decision makers in the Northwest Territories, both in the public Government of the Northwest Territories and in regional and community Indigenous governments. We are setting public policies and creating programs and services that are informed by our own experiences and priorities as Indigenous people. We are not on the outside looking in, and we think Canada needs to keep that in mind as they look at their policies and decisions for the North. 

There is a lot of talk in Canada about reconciliation with Indigenous people right now, about how Canada has to do better for Indigenous people. I welcome that, as do the people of our territory and I am encouraged by the Prime Minister’s recent announcement to create an Indigenous rights recognition framework that will help create certainty for all Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

I do hope, though, that this framework accounts for and respects the diversity of Indigenous experience across this country. It must, for instance, recognize that the Northwest Territories is not southern Canada, that we do not experience the same reserve structure they do and that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people live and work together in the same communities, receiving programs and services from the same public government.

Canada’s new framework must also respect the fact that the Northwest Territories has been working on the issue of reconciliation and Indigenous governance for decades. We have been negotiating land claims in this territory since the 1980s and have settled several of these modern treaties.

Over the years, these negotiated agreements have led to the establishment of several governance and administrative structures that ensure Indigenous people have an opportunity to exercise their inherent rights and participate in decision making on matters they have identified as important to them.

I have said elsewhere that political self-determination requires economic self-determination, and that is one of the reasons why I feel it is so important to keep economic development in the North on the national agenda. A strong, thriving economy in the Northwest Territories is a crucial part of a successful model for Indigenous reconciliation that could serve as a guide for the rest of the country. The Northwest Territories deserves an equitable opportunity to be valued participants in the Canadian economy, and our people deserve the opportunity to achieve economic self-determination.

In the North, resource development has been the heart of our economy for decades. It has created jobs and economic opportunities that benefit Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents, governments and businesses. When our government negotiated the devolution of public lands and resources from Canada, we made a point of including all Indigenous governments that wanted to be signatories as parties to that agreement. We also made a commitment to share up to 25 percent of our share of resource royalty revenues with those Indigenous governments, without strings, to make sure that they and their people were receiving the benefits of development in our territory.

Since devolution took effect in 2014, we have shared over $20 million with our Indigenous government partners. We want to keep our economy strong, so we can continue to generate and share that kind of prosperity. In the Northwest Territories we have all the ingredients for strong economic growth, including abundant natural resources, and significant participation and support for economic development from Indigenous-owned businesses and governments. We expect resource development will continue to be a major part of the northern economy, but we also know we can’t take it for granted and that we need to grow and diversify the territorial economy.

All three northern territories face similar issues, including our reliance on responsible resource development to maintain our economies. We are united in finding a way to ensure a healthy economy for future generation and are in strong agreement that decisions about the north and its future should be made by northerners. Last August we issued a Pan-Territorial Vision for Sustainable Development, which I have shared with your Clerk for distribution.

This vision must form the basis for decision making about the North and we are united in hoping that Canada will incorporate it into its own thinking and policies. Specifically, it needs to be a key element in the emerging Arctic Policy Framework that is currently under development.

We will need more than policies to transform the North, though. Policies are about principles and intentions, they are not about actions. Transforming the North into a thriving, sustainable part of Confederation will take concrete action and investment.

With limited infrastructure, long distances and harsh climates, economic development in the North can be significantly more difficult than in other parts of the country. Other countries recognize the challenges of developing the Arctic and have clear plans for steps they will take and money they will invest. Canada needs a similar plan with similar ambitions and clear commitments.

Effective planning takes time and so it is imperative that developing a plan for our territory be a priority for Canada.

I’d like to thank you again for inviting me to speak to you this afternoon. I am optimistic that opportunities like this will help guide the Northwest Territories as we work to achieve our vision for a strong, sustainable North that all Canadians can be proud of. 

Thank you.