Devolution has cleared its final – well, hurdle would put too fine a point on it, since the outcome of yesterday’s vote in the Legislative Assembly was never really in doubt. So let’s say rite of passage – like a baptism or a walk over hot coals.
For Premier Bob McLeod, yesterday’s affair appeared to resemble the latter. For months, he’s been wholly impatient with anyone who’s diverged from his full-steam-ahead line on the agreement, but reluctantly deigned to put the issue to a vote in the Legislative Assembly. In the end, the motion to support the devolution final agreement passed 18-1, with Deh Cho MLA Michael Nadli casting the lone vote against.
The Dehcho remain without a settled land claim, which is understandably a more pressing priority for them. Nadli also spoke for a lot of people inside the Legislative Assembly and out decrying the government’s approach to public consultation “as information sessions, not general consultation of seeking the public’s views on devolution, understanding that this is a take it or leave it deal.”
It still isn’t really clear if that was the case. Certainly in March, when he and the Prime Minister signed the consensus draft, McLeod said “it’s a done deal.” And the Yellowknifer reported Wednesday that the vote – it was a motion, remember, not a bill –wasn’t legally binding on the government. McLeod opened debate by insisting that the government would observe the will of the house. “This is not simply a symbolic motion,” he said. “We would not have brought forward this motion today if we did not want members’ support.”
A source close to the premier said the government wanted a clear mandate from the house and “would have respected [regular MLAs’] will if they said no.” And there’s the practical matter of passing some 27 pieces of so-called mirror legislation, representing responsibilities the GNWT inherits from Ottawa. “We can’t do it without them,” the source said.
Cabinet did as cabinets do, unreservedly supporting the premier, lavishing florid praise on the arrangement and vowing that it will help unlock the economic potential of the NWT while giving us the power to forge our own path, with fewer strings attached to Ottawa.
The two most vocal proponents of an assembly vote or a public plebiscite (flatly rejected by the government), MLAs Wendy Bisaro and Bob Bromley, both voted a grudging yes. Bromley went down swinging: There’s too little money to operate the government agencies the GNWT will be taking over. And he added the NWT is inheriting federal legislation that puts too much emphasis on resource extraction and not enough on conservation. “There seems to be no intention by this [territorial] government to protect the public interest as our resources are shipped out,” he said, ripping the whole process as a “paternal approach typical of colonizing governments” and dubbing the GNWT a “naive partner.”
The general feeling among other regular members was that this deal is not perfect, but that it makes little sense to hold out for anything better. This is hardly a ringing endorsement – those were the responsibility of cabinet – but while the collective “meh” from MLAs could be interpreted as rolling over, it should rather be seen as a pragmatic understanding of the NWT’s historic place within Canada. Paraphrasing MLAs Robert Hawkins, Norman Yakeleya and Kevin Menicoche, the NWT has always been made up of the administrative leftovers of the Canadian frontier. Over the years, new provinces and a territory were carved out, while for much of our history we were governed by distant fiat. What powers the GNWT has are the result of the feds so graciously allowing us to have them.
The devolution agreement is yet another example of that. It’s a paternalistic, demeaning exercise, certainly. But without a clear alternative, what else is there? As I wrote back in March, this is the end of one process and the beginning of another. Or as Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger put it yesterday, “This is not an event, it’s a process.” The slate is, in a sense, blank. In March, Ethel Blondin-Andrew wondered aloud about an NWT that is a “confederacy of governments” with its own constitution. That’s just one possible option.
The immediate worries about devolution – whether the GNWT will have enough money, enough control over resource development, to name but two – won’t go away. And citizens should be concerned that the GNWT, a child of Ottawa’s historic rule-by-technocrat approach, may simply replace one opaque, inflexible bureaucracy with another.
But power now resides closer to home. It’s hard not to consider that a good thing, given the iron-fisted control emanating from the Prime Minister’s Office these days. If we find our local mandarins hiding the process behind closed doors, we’ve a much shorter distance to travel to break the doors down.