Nunatsiaq News
EDITORIAL: Nunavut October 09, 2014 - 2:59 pm

Is Valcourt serious about Nunavut devolution?

"Until this past Oct. 3, the federal government’s approach to Nunavut devolution was simple: rag the puck and keep stalling."


Do Ottawa officials now believe that Nunavut has recovered from the underfunded, understaffed mess that emerged in the years that followed the territory’s creation on April 1, 1999?

That’s one way to interpret Bernard Valcourt’s apparent conversion to the belief that it’s now desirable to transfer big new powers over Crown lands and natural resources from Ottawa to Nunavut, through devolution.

The word “devolution” has a long history in northern Canada, dating to the 1970s. It means the transfer of any power from the federal government to a territory. For the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, the last big one was for hospitals, nursing stations and health care, completed in 1988. Another, completed in 1995, put Arctic airports under territorial government control.

The next big wave of devolution in Nunavut would cover Crown lands — the 80 per cent of Nunavut’s land base not owned by Inuit — and a share of mining royalties should those lands be developed.

The NWT and Yukon are now implementing completed lands and resources agreements. But in Nunavut, devolution talks have never taken off.

Until this past Oct. 3, the federal government’s approach to Nunavut devolution was simple: rag the puck and keep stalling. Their approach was to make a big show of interest in devolution — but ensure the process led nowhere.

With its unanswered phones, its rows of empty desks and its financial management scandals, the Nunavut government that emerged after April 1, 1999 was bungling the responsibilities it already held. The polite term, favoured by bureaucrats, is “capacity issues.” For non-bureaucrats, it means you don’t employ enough people, and too many of those you do employ don’t know how to do their jobs.

“Already monumental, the challenge will only get worse in the field of land and resource management.” That’s from a 2007 report produced by Paul Mayer, who Jim Prentice, then the northern affairs minister, had hired in 2006 as his special representative on Nunavut devolution.

Mayer went on to say that “if the human resource capacity issue cannot be satisfactorily dealt with, then the right conditions will not be in place to transfer federal responsibilities.”

At the same time, he pointed out that the devolution train has left the station. That’s because of a political commitment that former prime minister Paul Martin’s Liberal government made in December 2004: a Nunavut devolution deal as quickly as possible — by 2008.

So Ottawa’s bait-and-switch approach to Nunavut devolution — make a pretence of commitment, then run out the clock — started within the Liberal government but continued under the Conservatives.

But now, if Valcourt is to be taken at his word, Ottawa’s attitude has changed. No more stalling. This past Oct. 3, he said, out loud and in public, that devolution talks could produce a agreement-in-principle within one year. “As fast as possible,” he said.

Is he serious? Only time will tell.

But here’s one way of testing Ottawa’s commitment. In September 2008, Ottawa, Nunavut and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. signed a protocol agreement. This document sets out what negotiators will talk about and what they will set aside for a second round of talks some time in the future.

In it, they agree to “develop and implement a human resources strategy parallel to the devolution negotiations.” This includes recruiting “a significant proportion of Inuit.”

In plain language, this means job training and lots of it. This is crucial — because the transfer of responsibility for lands and resources means the transfer of up to 200 jobs from the Government of Canada to the Government of Nunavut.

Past experience should tell us that without a big training and recruitment campaign, many of these jobs will go unfilled. And the federal government’s operations in Nunavut already suffer from the same kinds of staff shortages that plague the GN.

For example, 22 per cent of jobs at AAND’s Nunavut regional office were unfilled in 2007. More recently, the Auditor General of Canada revealed that in August 2013, only 15 of 32 positions at the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency’s Iqaluit office were occupied by warm bodies.

That then, is how you will be able to tell if Valcourt meant what he said last week. If a devolution-related human resources strategy doesn’t emerge some time soon, the bait-and-switch approach will continue. Count on it. JB

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