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According to Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod — who, along with his cabinet, deputy ministers and a contingent of First Nations and business leaders, is in Ottawa for negotiations with the federal government — the N.W.T. is “on the verge of achieving” a historic agreement to gain control over its natural resources. If such an agreement is reached, it would be a significant marker in the long battle between Western Canadians and the federal government.
Of all the geographical divisions that make up this country, the Northwest Territories has been the most tortured. Historically used as a catch-all for large swaths of land Ottawa had no idea what to do with, the territory originally encompassed parts of modern-day British Columbia, the Yukon, Nunavut, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
When Ottawa purchased Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Co. (HBC) in 1870, the territory grew immensely, but would slowly be whittled down as time went on: Manitoba and B.C. would expand north, the Yukon was created in 1898, Alberta and Saskatchewan were carved out in 1905 and Nunavut was created in 1999.
If one thing has remained fairly constant throughout these expansions and contractions, it’s the fight of Western Canadians — including Northwest Territorians — to control their own resources.
Shortly after consuming much of HBC’s North American holdings, Frederick Haultain, the premier of what was known as the North-West Territories, would come to embody that struggle. At the time of his election in 1888, the Legislative Assembly had control only over monies raised within the territory, which constituted a mere 10% of its budget. The rest of the money came in the form of grants from the feds and were controlled by the lieutenant-governor.
Without the ability to control finances, the elected members could not be held accountable for the government’s actions — a fundamental tenant of our system of responsible government. Without control over resource revenues, the fledgling territory could not hope to raise the money needed to fund its own initiatives.
It’s the same basic problems that First Nations have to deal with, in other words, writ large.
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