Senior fellow Ken Coates and Prof. Greg Poelzer reveal the surprising successes of governance in the territories, and the work left to be done

OTTAWA, April 16, 2014 – "Canada is an incomplete nation", according to the authors of a major paper by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute that analyses the successes and failures of major recent changes to how people in the territories – Nunavut, Yukon and the Northwest Territories –­ govern themselves.

"Canada is a better nation for having found the means of sharing power with Aboriginal people and northerners generally", write MLI senior fellow Ken Coates and University of Saskatchewan Professor Greg Poelzer. But they note that many people in the North "still lack the services, equality of opportunity, and political authority necessary to effect positive change".

The paper, titled "An Unfinished Nation: Completing the devolution revolution in Canada's North" demonstrates that the key to successful governance of Canada's vast Arctic is the process of devolution. That is, the transfer of government power, authority, and resources from the national government to sub-national governments. National governments, in Canada and around the world, have sought to improve efficiency and responsiveness in service delivery and program development by decentralizing government offices to regions or, as in the case of the territorial North in Canada, transferring government responsibilities to regional governments.

The northern devolution process has been underway since the early 1970s and has accelerated in recent years, highlighted by the creation of Nunavut and the 2013 agreement on resource management with the Government of the Northwest Territories which just came into effect on April 1, 2014. When combined with the signing of modern treaties across much of the North and the expansion of Aboriginal self-government, devolution is an integral part of an extensive process of regional empowerment and local control.

"The process has been surprisingly smooth and without controversy, despite the complex financial, human resource, and other issues that have to be addressed when transferring authority to another jurisdiction", write Coates and Poelzer. "Problems remain, however, particularly in terms of capacity of northern governments to absorb the rapid transitions, disagreements about the appropriate levels of funding for devolved responsibilities, and the complex challenges of delivering government services in the Far North".

Understanding the devolution revolution in the Canadian North is vital for several reasons:

  • First, external drivers – particularly climate change, which has the potential to open Arctic waters and create global demand for energy, mineral, and biological resources located in the North – have drawn international attention to the Arctic region. The world is now on the doorstep of the Canadian North.
  • Second, the recognition of the legal and political rights of Aboriginal peoples in Canada has had enormous consequences for governance for over 40 percent of Canada's land mass. The federal government is no longer the only or the most important level of government to the First Nations, Métis, Inuit, and non-Aboriginal peoples in the Canadian North.
  • Third, the natural resources that have been identified in the Canadian North have potentially enormous consequences for Canada's economic and fiscal future. Good governance creates investment certainty. Good regulatory processes are essential for industry to thrive and the environment to be properly stewarded. Appropriate governance changes will also mean that the territories are better able to develop and capture their own sources of revenues, lessening fiscal dependence on the rest of Canada.

Remaining issues with respect to ensuring effective governance of the North include:

  • weaknesses in northern infrastructure;
  • the absence of a North-focused innovation system;
  • the lack of a concerted effort to build a sustainable economy in the region;
  • and an inadequate education system for the broader Canadian North.

"Our ancestors built a nation from coast to coast", write Coates and Poelzer. "It falls to this generation of political leaders and Canadians to rise to the challenges and opportunities of the new North, to create a country from coast to coast to coast".

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Ken Coates is the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, as well as the Director of the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development at the University of Saskatchewan. In 2013 he was named the Macdonald-Laurier Institute's Senior Fellow in Aboriginal and Northern Canadian Issues.

Greg Poelzer is the Founding Director and Executive Chair of the University of Saskatchewan International Centre for Northern Governance and Development (ICNGD). He is an Associate Professor of Political Studies and an Associate Member of the schools of Public Policy and Environment and Sustainability at the university. He is widely known as a builder and innovator who has success pulling together Aboriginal organizations, government, and the private sector to develop innovative approaches to education, research, and capacity building.

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute is the only non-partisan, independent national public policy think tank in Ottawa focusing on the full range of issues that fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

For more information, please contact David Watson, managing editor and communications director, at 613-482-8327 x. 103 or email at david.watson@macdonaldlaurier.ca. On Twitter @MLInstitute