Time to test the new waters in Ottawa.
Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie and the rest of Canada’s provincial and territorial leaders met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Friday to discuss the Conservative government’s approach to national unity and regional disparity.
And on Saturday, Harper will meet with the three northern premiers — Fentie, Northwest Territories Premier Joe Handley and Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik — to discuss the particular challenges facing Canada’s North.
Fentie was pleased Harper wanted to meet with the northern premiers so early in his mandate.
“I will certainly want to raise Yukon issues, like territorial formula financing, land claims implementation, ANWR and economic related issues,” said Fentie in a release.
“More than anything, I expect to acquaint the prime minister with our core issues and to establish a strong working relationship with him.”
But of the three northern premiers, Handley has the most to offer Ottawa, and the most to take away, for three reasons: diamonds, gas and a pipeline.
The NWT diamond mines have boomed in recent years, and negotiations to build a $7.5-billion pipeline from natural gas in the Mackenzie Delta to the Alberta gas-line network are back on track.
Which means the NWT has some valuable chips to play in devolution negotiations with Ottawa.
Unlike the Yukon, the NWT and Nunavut do not yet wield all the powers bestowed to provinces, such as responsibility for natural resources.
In a letter sent to the leaders of Canada’s three mainstream political parties before the January 23 election, Handley explained that northerners should be the primary beneficiaries of revenues generated by resource development in the NWT.
“The people of the Northwest Territories not only want their governments to have a say over the nature and pace of resource development, but also expect their governments to have the fiscal capacity to make the necessary investments in northern infrastructure, people and businesses to enable them to seize the economic opportunities created through northern research development,” he said.
“They expect and deserve nothing less than to be the primary beneficiaries of northern resource development.”
Take the Mackenzie Valley pipeline, for instance.
In his letter, Handley cited a July 2005 agreement between Ottawa and NWT for a 10-year, $500-million fund to mitigate socio-economic impacts of the pipeline that he expects Harper to honour.
“For aboriginal organizations, this commitment by the federal government was an important factor in the resolution of access and benefits agreements with the project proponents,” said Handley.
“Unfortunately, legislation to implement this fund was not introduced or passed by Parliament prior to the election call.”
There’s not enough steel in North America to build the Mackenzie pipeline and the proposed Alaska Highway pipeline at the same time.
Pressure is mounting to begin construction of the Mackenzie pipeline, possibly as early as 2008.
“I want to make sure the Mackenzie pipeline goes ahead on an environmentally and socially sustainable track, as it has,” said Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, who was recently named the Liberal Party’s Northern Affairs critic.
“Land claim implementation is a high priority. You need to get land claim implementation in place before you can get other things, social and economic development in place.”
How the resource revenue cake will be split between NWT and Ottawa will likely be a focal point on Saturday’s conversation between the leaders.
“I think what the Northwest Territories might be looking for is a bigger share of resource revenues, a different sharing of the resource revenue taxation levels,” said Bagnell.
“It’s not more power, but it’s a different percentage of resource taxation and revenues that would go to the Northwest Territories so that they would become less of a burden on the federal government and become more self-sufficient.”
Bagnell “wouldn’t be surprised” if the NWT is looking for a larger cut of resource revenue than the Yukon receives.
“That’s one of the problems with the northern strategy, because we’re still negotiating this issue,” he said.
The Yukon government has already raised concerns with the devolution transfer agreement that came into effect in 2003, said deputy Premier Elaine Taylor.
“We’re always looking at ways of improving devolution,” said Taylor.
“I’m certain that (Fentie) will be raising the issues of devolution as well, in conjunction with (Handley).
“Resource sharing, given the tremendous opportunities in the Yukon, will be an area of importance for us as well.”
The “northern strategy” focused the efforts of various government departments on resource sharing and economic development, said Bagnell.
Other issues, such as opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, were forced during the election campaign.
Training and capacity building are essential in order for northerners, especially aboriginals, to get jobs on mega projects, like diamond mines and pipeline construction, said Bagnell.
“In the last government there was unprecedented attention on the North, and a number of initiatives were started or about to start,” he said.
“I’ll be giving the government and (Indian Affairs and Northern Development minister Jim) Prentice the benefit of the doubt, but I’ll be watching these areas, to see if they start to not show up in throne speeches and budgets.”
As a party critic, Bagnell will ask questions of Prentice in the House of Commons.
There are 41 Liberal critics and 28 from the New Democratic Party for 31 government departments.
Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington is NDP critic for Northern Affairs.
The NDP don’t have a specific critic for Indian Affairs, but the Liberals appointed Winnipeg South Centre MP Anita Neville.