Monday, March 11, 2013

Devolution for NWT -- a start

I cannot agree too much with PMS' agenda, but today he took a huge step forward in signing a tentative devolution agreement with the Northwest Territories and five of the region's First Nations.   It could come into effect as early as next year.  Basically speaking, the territory will be able to operate more or less like a province in everything but name.  I think that in some respects the charter doesn't quite go far enough -- unlike a province which gets to keep one hundred percent of royalties from resource extraction and power production the NWT will get only half.   Even more ominous, the feds are still refusing to give up its one-third interest in the Norman Wells gas and oil fields.

Still this is quite a long ways from the period 1905 to 1970, when the NWT was a police state directly governed from Ottawa and the elected "council" was a joke.   Other than electing an at-large MP to the Commons, the residents there really had no rights at all other than habeas corpus.   And it wasn't until 1975 that all MLAs were locally chosen, or until 1980 that all the members of the Cabinet were directly elected MLAs -- until then and in both cases Ottawa still appointed hacks to make sure things stayed its way.

Compare this to the Yukon which immediately won home rule back in 1898 upon its secession from the NWT and with it a real legislature, although devolution did not come there until 2003.   (Nunavut, created in 1999 when it itself was partitioned from the NWT is in the process of devolution talks at present.)

Still, the principle that people should govern locally and not be governed from afar appears to be entrenched in this agreement; and while the feds could theoretically recede those powers back to itself unilaterally, practically it will be even more impossible than the status quo is now.   And as I've mentioned before, the NWT's consensus form of government (i.e. no parties, and the Cabinet has to present legislation that can command broad agreement up front) is a model for the "South".

Why is it a model?   Because somehow, out of all the diversity in the region, they've figured out a way to maintain the kind of sanity that the increasingly polarized Commons and provincial legislatures don't even want to broach -- including the kind of respect that existed through the 1980s that ensured more than 80% of government bills got unanimous consent.   Good luck with that today!

Having seven First Nations and nine native languages, besides English and French, as official languages helps in that direction but so does the climate and a sparsely populated land mass twice the size of Texas.   It only makes sense to keep it local as well as to get along or try.   Besides, why should Ottawa unilateraly decide, for example, if a winter only ice road should be replaced by an all-weather one, especially if it will drive down the huge cost of living up North?   Shouldn't that be a local choice?  (In that vein, the NWT is saying some of the upfront money will likely go to extending the Dempster Highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, on top of $150 million Harper pledged earlier.)    Perhaps the agreement is in part a reward for having had make it work for so long.

I have never been able to figure out why we can't even try that.   Many local city councils in Canada, if not most, have no parties -- although councillors' affiliations are not really a state secret.   Would it be so hard if say a quarter to a third of a legislature were composed of true independents (with no current or past affiliations with any party and therefore no axes to grind) elected at large by regions within a province, and who could set terms that make proposed laws more reasonable and acceptable to all?

Maybe it's because that provinces' positions are fixed in the Constitution there is nothing further to devolve.    That doesn't mean they can't develop better ways to have a democracy.   Our brothers and sisters up North didn't need devolution for that -- and thankfully today's agreement doesn't change that.    Maybe there's a lesson there -- especially as all the territories eventually move their way to becoming provinces which will now be a much faster process than before.

And it will be a good thing when they truly and finally become part of the sisterhood of the provinces, and not the colonies they still officially are now.

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