Okalik: Devolution deal by next election

New INAC minister pledges action on devolution, Bathurst Inlet road-port project


Premier Paul Okalik told reporters this past Friday that he wants to finish negotiating a devolution deal with Ottawa before Nunavut’s next territorial election.

Okalik made the remarks after half a day of meetings in Iqaluit with the new minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), Andy Mitchell, along with the new president of Nunavut Tunngavik, Paul Kaludjak and Nunavut MP Nancy Karetak-Lindell.

“I think we’re on the right track. I know that a lot of people want it done tomorrow, but I know that it will take a bit of time,” Okalik said.

“Devolution” is the word used to describe the transfer of provincial-style responsibilities from the federal government to the territories.

In recent years, it’s come to mean the turnover of responsibility to the territory for management of oil, gas and mineral extraction on Crown land and offshore. A devolution agreement would also enrich the GN’s coffers, by giving the territorial government a share of the royalties and taxes that Ottawa would collect from non-renewable resource production.

Yukon is now implementing a devolution agreement, while the Northwest Territories has recently signed what’s called a “framework agreement” to guide its talks with Ottawa.

But much to Okalik’s chagrin during his first term as premier, devolution talks never got started with Nunavut.

Under Andy Mitchell, who made his first official visit to Nunavut’s capital last week, that appears to be changing.

Moments before Okalik spoke, Mitchell said his government is now “committed” to a devolution agreement with Nunavut, and that his officials are already working to get talks started.

“In discussions with the premier this morning, I made a number of suggestions on how we can proceed that are designed to see some progress being made on the file,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said that within 30 days, federal and territorial officials will take those suggestions and work out a “road-map” to guide where those talks should go.

“I think we can make significant progress. It’s my intent to make progress,” Mitchell said.

That represents a big change from the attitude displayed by Mitchell’s predecessor, Robert Nault, who was Jean Chrétien’s INAC minister from mid-1999 until December of 2003.

In November of 2002, Nault told reporters Nunavut isn’t ready to handle devolution, a comment that enraged Okalik and led him to call for Nault’s removal from the INAC portfolio.

But Okalik has nothing but praise for Mitchell, the man Paul Martin chose to replace Nault on Dec. 12, 2003, saying that in his short time in the INAC portfolio, Mitchell has already accomplished more than his predecessor.

“Ottawa is starting to listen a bit more,” Okalik said.

The only other concrete news to emerge from last week’s meetings was a commitment by Mitchell to make a decision soon on an environmental review for the stalled Bathurst Inlet Port and Road Project “in the not-too-distant future.”

Mitchell must choose between a “Part 5” review, which would be done by the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB), and a “Part 6” review, which would be done by a panel appointed by the federal Minister of the Environment.

The GN and most Nunavut organizations favour a “made-in-Nunavut” review by the NIRB, but environmentalists and project skeptics favour a wider review done by a federal panel. The file has languished inside the INAC minister’s office since last summer.

Mitchell and his new-found friends in Nunavut said little of substance about land claim implementation, job training, housing, economic development and other issues they discussed during the INAC minister’s visit to Nunavut.

“I wouldn’t say there were any specific ‘announcables,’” Mitchell admitted.

But they heaped much praise upon each other and all pledged to work together on Nunavut’s problems.

Paul Kaludjak, however, reminded Mitchell that Inuit want to play a role in setting up INAC’s new Inuit secretariat — a special office within INAC devoted exclusively to Inuit issues.

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