Devolution talks restarted: Nunavut will be different, federal negotiator says
“I sense a very positive tone among all three parties to get at this again and work together”
Introductory talks to devolve responsibility for public lands and resources from Ottawa to Nunavut wrapped up this week, with Fred Caron, the federal negotiator, saying the uniqueness of Nunavut will “most definitely” play into how the negotiations unfold over the next three years.
“Having said that, there’s certain elements of devolution that are going to be common,” Caron told Nunatsiaq News from Ottawa, Oct. 26.
Flexibility is important because previous talks on devolution—a process of transferring federal powers to the territorial government—under the federal Conservatives allegedly stalled when Ottawa refused to deviate from devolution formulas created for the Yukon and Northwest Territories.
“The problem was the previous government practically said to the negotiators ‘Take it or leave it’,” Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. President Cathy Towtongie told Nunatsiaq News in July.
But Caron, who’s been on the job about three months, says the Government of Canada, NTI and the Government of Nunavut, have the time they need now to flesh out the details.
“The real change is that the previous federal offer was put out against the timeline of an election,” Caron noted, adding the timeframe “may not have had the best of results.”
“We’ll get there, there’s no question about it.”
The previous talks, led by former federal negotiator Brian Dominique, began late-2014 but ended less than a year later when Ottawa called the 2015 federal election.
Now, Caron says Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett has a three-year deadline to come up with an agreement-in-principle for Nunavut devolution.
“I’m very optimistic. I sense a very positive tone among all three parties to get at this again and work together to make sure we have the proper building blocks in place for devolution,” Caron said.
Caron, who, in the 1990s. served on the Privy Council Office, which supports the prime minister and cabinet, was responsible for territorial and provincial issues relating to Indigenous peoples and travelled to Nunavut on several occasions.
He also served as a negotiator for the federal government in an NTI lawsuit against Ottawa for alleged violations of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. That resulted in a $255.5 million out-of-court settlement in 2015.
The GN’s chief devolution negotiator, Simon Awa, told Nunatsiaq News in July that Caron’s experience with Nunavut was already an improvement over the previous negotiations.
“He knows the file. He knows Nunavut. That’s a positive thing,” Awa said at the time.
But Caron’s past service has not been without controversy.
In 2013, the Grand Chief for Kanesatake, a Mohawk community outside Montreal, alleged to APTN that Caron—then-federal representative in the community’s land claim negotiations—threatened to shut down talks and dissolve the band’s council in an effort to control the process.
But Caron says those accusations were a misunderstanding and he said Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon later apologized.
“The grand chief made a public apology to me about those comments,” Caron said, which occurred shortly after Otsi Simon was re-elected in June 2015.
“One of the first things he addressed was that he’d gotten [the allegations] wrong in terms of where he thought I was coming from. And I accepted that and we moved on.”
Caron says Nunavut devolution stakeholders will meet again in December to begin preliminary discussions.
“We’ll see where we can build on the work that has been done,” said Caron. He would not comment on exact discussion items.
But those talks will ultimately centre on the Crown land assets that would be transferred to Nunavut through devolution.
Sea and water assets—which would provide the largest boost in royalties diverted from the Crown—are reserved for a second phase of talks yet to be announced.
Any Crown transfer of land assets would be accompanied by federal staff positions that would need to be absorbed by the GN.
Based on the NWT’s devolution agreement, Premier Peter Taptuna speculated in March that about 138 positions would be created within the Government of Nunavut to administer the additional responsibilities.
Caron couldn’t speculate on an exact number but agreed that the number of positions would be “over a hundred people.”
“It’s the hope that they would be able to transfer over to the Government of Nunavut,” Caron said.