Why devolution could harsh some people’s mellow

On EDGE: Opinion

Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox

Before I tell you why the devolution deal being penned between the territorial government and Canada is bad for Yellowknife — and everywhere else in the NWT — let me first explain where I’m coming from when I write. I have lived in Yellowknife off and on for the past 20 years, but I grew up in Inuvik. “Stephanie, she’s a Delta girl,” is how people like Willard Hagen, the legendary Northern aviator and former Gwich’in Tribal Council president, introduce me. That’s Mackenzie Delta, ah? Most of the work I do as a governance and political advisor is with organizations and people located in communities outside of Yellowknife, so when I critique political developments — like devolution — naturally I take into account what is good for all of us. My Yellowknifer edge has been sharpened and oriented by my life in the regions.

Devolution in and of itself is not a bad idea. Who could be against wanting administrative control of lands and resources to shift from Canada to northern governments? Depending on what changes are eventually made to our regulatory regime, devolution could lead to control over staking or decisions on mining permits being made by a government that lives here. But if we take into account the bigger picture, we might start to see why some of our fellow Northerners — the ones who live in shacks and just off gravel roads with minimal services; or off the grid, without any sort of self-conscious, self-congratulatory intent — are feeling like devolution is sort of harshing their mellow. Their concerns would be ones like: will devolution concentrate power in Yellowknife and not the regions? Will it result in an impetus to increase resource extraction that could threaten the very important food sources and cultural practices that are the economic mainstays of many small indigenous communities, communities enveloped in poverty that would be unimaginable in places like Yellowknife? How will devolution change the way things are done?

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A problematic aspect of the devolution deal is the Resource Revenue “Sharing” Agreement, in which Canada will do way more keeping than sharing. According to a GNWT website, Canada will only provide the territories with maximum revenues equal to 5 per cent of the territorial government’s annual budget – about $65 million – from the resource royalties generated by resource extraction projects in the NWT. To reach that cap, many resource extraction projects will have to be approved (because the NWT is burdened with a 19th century, archaic resource royalty regime that sells resources far too cheaply). The revenue-sharing formula is a crazy kind of accounting where the cap is literally dreamed up — it bears no relation at all to the federal–provincial equalization formula or any other rational basis. Should the GNWT start authorizing resource-extraction projects with a view to maximizing royalties, it will quickly become evident that $65 million per year will not be nearly enough to cover real expenses that are not the responsibility of industry: things like roads and public infrastructure, and social and environmental costs.

It is likely that Yellowknife will not bear many of the environmental or cultural impacts — those will be the scourge of the smaller, faraway places (a reality requiring a more in-depth future article). But Yellowknife will bear social and economic impacts that all resource-boom-economy centres encounter, such as rising housing costs, food prices and demands on social and educational programs. Government will have to respond to these realities – through political and institutional change, taxation, rethinking the resource royalty regime and considering moving forward with measures like a permanent fund (where you live off its interest) or an economic stabilization fund (that you use to smooth out the booms and busts). Fundamentally, devolution impacts on Yellowknife will be felt around the territory. Mitigating negative impacts will require solutions that are not only right for Yellowknife, but right for all of us.

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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