Nunavut’s Holy Grail, devolution, may be a poisoned chalice, MLA warns

John Main says a bad deal would be worse than no deal at all


John Main, the MLA for Arviat North-Whale Cove, said March 7 that a bad devolution deal with Ottawa could leave the Nunavut government worse off than it is now. (PHOTO BY STEVE DUCHARME)

John Main, the MLA for Arviat North-Whale Cove, said March 7 that a bad devolution deal with Ottawa could leave the Nunavut government worse off than it is now. (PHOTO BY STEVE DUCHARME)

Referring to devolution as Nunavut’s “Holy Grail,” John Main, the MLA for Arviat North-Whale Cove, warned Premier Paul Quassa this week that the long-sought-after prize might turn out to be a poisoned chalice.

“My concern is that a bad devolution deal would be worse than no devolution deal for Nunavut,” Main said on Wednesday, March 7 in a series of questions.

That’s because the Government of Nunavut already suffers from serious capacity problems, and the most recent employment report shows about 25 per cent of all current jobs at the GN sit vacant, Main said.

At the same time, a devolution agreement would transfer many more federal government jobs to the Nunavut government—jobs that Nunavut may not be able to recruit for.

That, in turn, could hamper the GN’s attempts to increase Inuit employment in the government.

“We need to recognize that filling this capacity gap by transferring a significant number of current federal employees to the GN would likely have a negative impact on our own goals of achieving higher Inuit employment in the public service,” Main said.

The current phase of devolution would see Ottawa transfer responsibility for public lands and resources, the 80 per cent of Nunavut’s land base not covered by Inuit-owned lands, to the Nunavut government.

It’s likely that such an agreement would shift many federal positions to the Nunavut government that are now filled by federal civil servants working in places like Iqaluit, Ottawa and Yellowknife.

“There are so many issues that we have as a government, without additional responsibilities that would be given to us under a devolution agreement,” Main said.

Quassa said in his answers to Main’s questions that devolution talks continued this week in Ottawa, but that negotiators are a long way from reaching a deal.

And he said gaps between the two sides involve money and the extent of the area that will be covered in the agreement, or, in his words “financial requirements and the geographical scope of the agreement.”

“Certainly, the gap is significant and will involve difficult negotiations,” Quassa said.

The reference to “geographical scope” may refer to a demand that offshore resources, specifically oil and gas, be included in this current round of talks.

Offshore oil and gas resources, and the lucrative royalties that could come with their development are issues that, in the past, Ottawa has said should be dealt with only in a second phase of negotiations.

That’s the position set out in a devolution protocol signed in 2008.

But Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., which is also a party to the talks, wants marine resources added to the first phase, through “creative approaches.”

As late as 2016, the disagreement between NTI and Ottawa over the offshore issue appeared to be a stumbling block.

“The previous government adopted a take it or leave it approach to negotiations and appeared unwilling to consider creative approaches to issues like marine areas and revenue sharing,” NTI’s former president, Cathy Towtongie, said in statement issued in July 2016, after the Liberal government appointed Fred Caron as its chief negotiator.

And even now, there’s no agreement on that, and other issues, Quassa said.

For his part, Main said the GN should not rush into a devolution agreement.

“I favour an approach to devolution that is at a slower pace, not rushed or driven by artificial timetables,” Main said.

Quassa ended his remarks with a standard GN talking point on the issue.

“Securing a good deal is in the best interest of Canada and Nunavut and is the priority of the Government of Nunavut,” Quassa said.

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