Northern aboriginals start court fight with federal government over resources

The first shot against the federal government’s plan to centralize decision-making over northern resource development was to be fired Wednesday in a Yellowknife courtroom.

A northern aboriginal group that governs a New-Brunswick-sized area of the N.W.T. is asking the territory’s Supreme Court for an injunction against a new federal law that the group says violates its hard-won treaty.

It says the law, to take effect next April, would dilute local decision-making by replacing regulators created by land-claim settlements with a single board controlled from Ottawa.

“The Tli Cho get the rug pulled out from under them,” said Jason Madden, a lawyer representing the group.

The Tli Cho Agreement, signed in 2003, created a board to oversee development on 39,000 square kilometres between Great Bear Lake and Great Slave Lake and guaranteed half its positions to local people. Similar boards were created for other land claim-groups in the Northwest Territories.

But last December, Ottawa introduced legislation that would replace those local boards with a single “superboard” headed by a federal appointee. Local representation on panels considering development would be reduced.

The government has said the previous system was complicated, confusing and slow.

But a 2010 federal audit found approval times for permits in the North are broadly similar to elsewhere in Canada. It concluded the longest delays occur when approved applications await ministerial signature, or in areas with no settled land claim.

Critics said the superboard was the price the Harper Conservatives exacted from the territorial government in exchanges for rules transferring resource royalties to the territory, which are contained in the same legislation.

Last May, the Tli Cho filed a lawsuit challenging that legislation. They are supported by the Gwich’In Tribal Council and the Sahtu Secretariat, which will both lose regulatory boards if the new law takes effect

The federal government argues that the changes are allowed under the land claims and were contemplated all along. It points to a clause of the Tli Cho agreement that allows for the creation of a board with larger responsibilities than the Tli Cho area.

Madden argues that doesn’t allow Ottawa to disband the board altogether. Doing so, he said, strikes at the heart of the entire agreement.

A federal spokeswoman has acknowledged in court that Ottawa had decided to axe regional boards even before consultations on regulatory reform began.

Madden said the Tli Cho, who comprise 90 per cent of the population in their settlement area, shouldn’t have to accept even less control over land they’ve lived on for centuries.

“The compromise was done in reaching the Tli Cho Agreement,” he said. “The idea that Canada continues to whittle that down more and more and more to the point that they’re non-existent within their own territory in decision-making is an absurd result.”

Madden said the injunction against the law taking effect is needed to keep the current approach in place until the main case can be argued. If the regional boards are dismantled next April, he said, they’ll be hard to revive if the final decision goes against the federal government.