Devolution a nation-building project for Canada
”Governance and capacity issues facing the Government of Nunavut are a significant impediment”
Last month, the federal government announced that it had signed a historic devolution deal with the Northwest Territories government.
Under this agreement, the federal government will transfer its jurisdiction and administrative responsibilities over territorial lands and onshore resources to the territorial government. Decisions over land use and mining will now be in the hands of territorial officials and the territorial government — as well as the five Aboriginal groups that signed the agreement — will now receive a significant share of the natural resource revenues generated in the region.
In short, this agreement, should it be ratified, will radically transform the political and economic landscape of the territory by providing northerners with the tools to pursue economic development more efficiently and effectively.
Yet this agreement isn’t simply about improving the economic and political life of northerners; lost in some of the initial analysis is the symbolic importance of this agreement for Canada.
Indeed, devolution with the NWT is the latest development in Canada’s nation-building project, in which the federal government seeks to devolve jurisdiction over lands and resources to provincial and territorial governments as a means of strengthening Canada’s sovereignty across the nation.
In 1905, for instance, the federal government created the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan out of the Northwest Territories, eventually devolving lands and resources to these provinces in 1930. The devolution agreements with Yukon in 2001 and the NWT in 2013 are simply extensions of this larger nation-building project.
The next stage of this project is Nunavut, which has yet to complete a devolution agreement. The federal and Nunavut governments both want to complete a devolution agreement, but negotiations have yet to begin.
Why? Although commentators have offered many reasons, most of which have focused on the idiosyncratic nature of Nunavut, the real answer lies in understanding why the Yukon and NWT governments were able to achieve devolution.
In a paper I recently published in the journal, Polar Record, I examined the devolutionary experiences of the three territories and found that three factors mattered for explaining why Yukon completed an agreement in 2001, why the NWT had to wait until 2013 to complete its deal, and why Nunavut has yet to complete an agreement.
First, the federal government will only negotiate a devolution agreement that protects its economic interests. The Yukon deal was facilitated by the territorial government’s willingness to accept a $3 million cap on oil and gas revenues, after which federal transfers to the territory would be reduced on a dollar for dollar basis for every dollar generated above the cap.
In NWT, which has substantially more natural resources, a devolution agreement only came about after territorial officials were willing to accept a similar revenue sharing formula, albeit with a much larger cap.
Second, the federal government will only negotiate a devolution agreement if a “critical mass” of Aboriginal support for devolution can be achieved.
In Yukon’s case, devolution proceeded only after the federal and Yukon governments were able to settle most of the land claims in the territory. In the NWT, devolution negotiations finally produced an agreement only after the territorial government was able to convince four Aboriginal groups to formally support the agreement.
Third, the federal government will only negotiate devolution with those governments it sees as mature and capable enough to take on the responsibilities of land and resource management.
Archival documents and interviewees suggest that federal officials over the years viewed the political development of the different territories quite differently, seeing Yukon as being more political and constitutionally advanced than the NWT.
More recent data suggests that the well-documented governance and capacity issues facing the Government of Nunavut are a significant impediment to the initiation of devolution negotiations in that territory.
Devolution is an important achievement not only for the territories, but also for Canada. As other countries become more interested in the Arctic region, the political and constitutional development of the territorial governments will be an important asset for strengthening Canada’s capacity to govern and protect its interests in the region.
Although Nunavut is already a crucial player in the North, its lack of jurisdiction over its territorial lands is a major weakness to Canada’s interests and capabilities in the North.
Devolution will require a concerted effort by the federal and Nunavut governments to conquer the many governance and capacity challenges facing the government of Nunavut. Only once these challenges are addressed will devolution negotiations proceed.
Christopher Alcantara is associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University. His new book, Negotiating the Deal: Comprehensive Land Claims Agreements in Canada, is now available from University of Toronto Press.