Academic journal article IRPP Study

A Federation within a Federation? Devolution and Indigenous Government in the Northwest Territories

Academic journal article IRPP Study

A Federation within a Federation? Devolution and Indigenous Government in the Northwest Territories

Article excerpt

The Northwest Territories (NWT) is on the leading edge of political, constitutional and administrative changes that are fundamentally remaking the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state. Notable among these changes are the negotiation and settlement of modern treaties, the creation of Indigenous governments and a commitment by Canadian state actors to processes of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples (Newhouse 2016). Equally transformative is the development of formal and routine intergovernmental relations between subnational governments and those of Indigenous nations (Alcantara and Nelles 2016; Papillon and Juneau 2016). These new forms of intergovernmental relations are normative in that they recognize Indigenous rights and their concomitant institutions and pragmatic in that they provide a means for Indigenous and public governments to cooperate in the design and delivery of policy and programs.

The NWT, Yukon and Nunavut are Canada's three northern territories. They enjoy a similar set of jurisdictional powers to the provinces. However, unlike the provinces, the territories are not entrenched within Canada's constitutional order.1 Over the past four decades, legislative and policy-making responsibilities have increasingly been transferred to the territories by the federal government.

The latest of these transfers involves the devolution of land and resource management to the NWT. The Northwest Territories Land and Resources Devolution Agreement - signed by federal, territorial and nine Indigenous governments beginning in 2013 - was not a simple administrative transfer, but introduced new executive, fiscal and regulatory institutions to manage intergovernmental relations within the territory.2 These new institutions and practices were designed to mediate and regularize intergovernmental relations in what is becoming Canada's first federation within a federation.3 The development of federaltype executive, fiscal and regulatory systems reconciles the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) with Indigenous governments, and it embeds Indigenous and treaty rights in the NWT's public governance structure.

This study considers how the devolution process has balanced competing Indigenous and settler visions of autonomy and what the territory's governance framework can teach us about future directions in Canadian federalism. It examines three instances of federal institution building within the NWT that are the result of devolution: the creation of the Intergovernmental Council, the introduction of resource revenue sharing and attempts to harmonize regulatory oversight in the territory. This analysis relies on a review of government reports, court documents, budget materials and secondary sources, as well as key-participant interviews and communications with eight federal, territorial and Indigenous government officials and political observers.

These federal-type structures bridge the political and administrative divides between the GNWT - a public government rooted in the settler traditions of the Canadian state - and the constitutionally protected governments of Dene, Métis and Inuvialuit peoples. The changes occurring in the NWT - and, to a lesser extent, Yukon - are a significant departure from older patterns of constitutional development in northwest Canada. However, they are not revolutionary within the Canadian context. While the adoption of federal-type institutions at the subnational level in Canada is novel, the operation of those institutions relies on norms and practices similar to those at the national level.

Devolution, Indigenous Rights and Federalism in Northern Canada

The decentralization of political, policy and fiscal authority within states has become commonplace (Rodden 2004). It takes many forms, including the transfer of authority to subnational units, the delegation of decision-making authority from central agencies to departments and the introduction or expansion of federal institutions. …

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