Writing in the National Post, MLI senior fellow Ken Coates and Prof. Greg Poelzer argue that the transfer this month of control over resources from the federal government to the Northwest Territories was the most recent development in an important process of completing Confederation in the northern territories. Coates and Poelzer are co-authors of a recently released MLI paper titled “An Unfinished Nation: Completing the devolution revolution in Canada’s North”. They explain that greater autonomy for Nunavut, Yukon and the Northwest Territories is the key to improving life in the North. Coates and Poelzer write: “Completing Confederation in the Far North will be neither easy nor inexpensive. Canadians would, one hopes, believe that equality of opportunity is due to all Canadians, regardless of where they live”.
Ken Coates and Greg Poelzer, April 18, 2014
On April 1, 2014, Canada took a significant step toward becoming a more complete nation. The N.W.T. Devolution Act transferred control over land and natural resources from the government of Canada to the government of the Northwest Territories. With the implementation of this act, only Nunavut among Canadian jurisdictions is without regional control over land and resources. The measure has attracted little interest in southern Canada, getting more attention from the resource sector than the Canadian public at large.
Canada’s northern colonies have lived uneasily under the hand of the government of Canada for generations. When decades of neglect ended in the 1950s, federal decision-making became ever more influential in the economic and social life of the North. The territories, starting with the Yukon, wrestled with southern authority and demanded greater regional autonomy.
Though it came in dribs and drabs, the process of devolution of powers from the government of Canada to the governments of the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut is one of the most important political processes of the past half century. Devolution started in earnest in the 1960s and 1970s, beginning with education, health and highways. The Yukon got responsible government only in 1979, one of the few persistent legacies of the government of prime minister Joe Clark. Even that important step was not confirmed and entrenched until the passage of the revised Yukon Act in 2002.
For the last 30 years, the territories have been “favoured colonies,” recipients of generous financial grants and considerable special treatment from the government of Canada. Money was far from everything, as First Nations and Inuit communities, in particular, struggled with the expansion of the resource economy and the rapidly expanding influences of the contemporary age. The territories have, at the political and policy level, been among the most creative jurisdictions in the world, accommodating not just devolution but major land claims settlements, aboriginal self-government, the division of the Northwest Territories and the creation of Nunavut, and rapid shifts in jurisdictional responsibilities.
Devolution is now well advanced, with the three territories exercising most province-like powers despite being effectively barred from ever achieving full provincial status by the structures of the amending formula of the Constitution Act. What is most remarkable is that the transition has happened with little controversy or conflict. This is no mean feat. Hundreds of government of Canada employees transferred to territorial positions. Duties and responsibilities shifted from federal to territorial hands. In the process, the North secured greater control over the levers of government and gained the tools necessary to respond more directly and quickly to address the social and economic challenges of the territorial North.
The Far North is a fascinating political place. Canadians as a whole seem energized by threats, real and imagined, to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. Climate change has focused attention on the changes facing the fragile northern eco-system. Occasional crises — typically involving community-level violence or indigenous deaths — attract media attention, but real concern is fleeting and unsystematic. By the standards of the rest of the country, many of the basic government services, from housing, education and health care to roads and energy systems in the Far North are seriously inadequate.
Completing Confederation in the Far North will be neither easy nor inexpensive. Canadians would, one hopes, believe that equality of opportunity is due to all Canadians, regardless of where they live. At present, northerners make do with fewer services, poorer infrastructure and serious deficiencies in government programs. Canada’s challenge — with devolution representing an important step along the right path — is to bring the North fully into the country, with the political and legal power needed to determine the region’s future.
Devolution will not be completed without bumps along the way. The N.W.T. Devolution Act incorporates a major change in the land and water management regime in the territory, replacing four boards created by land claims agreements with a single “superboard.” Aboriginal groups have protested vigorously and may go to court to defend the current arrangements. Transforming the territorial North will take many more years to complete, earlier this month, the Northwest Territories took a major step toward controlling its destiny. Even if the struggle is difficult and time-consuming, this is a national effort of high priority, considerable achievement to date, and great promise for the country as a whole.
Ken Coates is Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy in Saskatchewan and director of the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development, and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI). Greg Poelzer is an Associate Professor, Department of Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan. They are co-authors of a recently released MLI paper titled “An Unfinished Nation: Completing the devolution revolution in Canada’s North.”