How Yellowknife sucks up most all of the juice of devolution

As of April first, a legal contract with Canada expands the Government of the Northwest Territories’ authority and its bureaucracy to manage public land, water and resources. It’s called devolution, and it’s no joke. More revenue from resources such as mining, oil and gas will stay in the NWT instead of flowing directly to Ottawa. How will that affect Yellowknife? For starters, it makes the GNWT headquarters bigger: departments like Industry, Tourism and Investment are expanding, and a new Lands Department is being created. It will also increase the GNWT’s budget – all that expansion will cost. And most of the money, whether in royalties, salaries, services, or purchasing, will stay in Yellowknife.

Yellowknife will also see the lion’s share of jobs that result from devolution. Recruiting skilled workers, mostly from southern Canada, will boost the local economy. As well, when the Lands and Resources Devolution Agreement was passed in Parliament, it was bundled into a bill that also changed the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act. That’s the law that set up public boards to oversee use of land and water along the valley, negotiated through land-claim agreements. So now, land-claim-created jobs that were once in the regions will also move to Yellowknife, or be eliminated. The Premier himself has said that those jobs lost by the regions will be replaced by expanding GNWT operations in those same places. So the increased power and authority of the GNWT will also be felt in the regional centers. That expansion will further decrease the power and influence of Indigenous governments on their own lands. That was the price of devolution, when it was bundled with MVRMA changes in Bill C15.

One of the branding mantras for the devolution agreement was Northern control of Northern resources. Based on this government’s track record, we certainly cannot assume that decisions will reflect the will of, or the values of Northerners. Decisions will instead reflect the will of the current Cabinet, which is in turn influenced by senior Yellowknife-based bureaucrats – or outsiders they have chosen as technical advisors, such as the Alberta Energy Regulator, widely criticized for being captured by industry. So in that sense we can really read it as: Yellowknife control of Northern resources. And we all know that most of the resources are not in our backyard: they are in the regions. This further unbalances the power relations with Aboriginal governments, some of which have promised to fight back on the MVRMA changes, possibly in the courts or in various other venues such as the intergovernmental resource management mechanism being created under devolution, which will very much need Aboriginal governments to participate, willingly.

No one can say that anyone is losing anything as a result of the Devolution Agreement because they live in Yellowknife. However, the GNWT legislature’s increasingly undemocratic governing practices began to emerge within the context of devolution, specifically when the agreement was signed despite significant legitimate concerns brought forward by Aboriginal governments.


Since then, this legislature has denied Yellowknife equitable representation in the Electoral Boundary discussions, denied NWT residents having a vote on devolution, supported bundling devolution and MVRMA changes together over a majority of representative organizations’ objections, and now has passed a motion asking Canada to allow MLAs to extend their own term by a year, using devolution as a partial rationale. In order to meet a deadline that the GNWT is clearly unprepared for, necessary legislation is being rushed through committee reviews in the legislative assembly, effectively preventing public scrutiny of the laws that will implement the GNWT’s new powers.

What distinguishes the devolution agreement is not its content. What distinguishes this devolution agreement is that any conceptual or substantive good it might have had began to be undermined and tainted long ago by the manner of its getting. We have all at some point in our lives, experienced the taste of an ill-gotten gain. And while this devolution might be good for Yellowknife, it sure don’t taste sweet.

A political advisor and analyst, Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox is a graduate of Samuel Hearne Secondary School in Inuvik and holds a PhD from Cambridge University. She is an advisory board member and political correspondent for Northern Public Affairs magazine, and lives in Yellowknife with her husband Andrew and their two boys.


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