Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a final Northwest Territories devolution deal at the territory's legislature in Yellowknife Monday.
"Negotiators have reached a consensus on the terms of a final devolution agreement," Harper said.
The final agreement, as it stands, gives the Northwest Territories more control over its natural resources — it stands to get half the money collected from oil, minerals and diamonds. Based on last year's numbers, that would have added about $69 million to the territory's budget.
Five of the territory's seven aboriginal groups signed a consensus document, including Nellie Cournoyea, a former N.W.T. premier and the current chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation.
"Being part of the agreement, then we're able to ensure we can work together with what we received in our land claims agreement. So it gives us a parity with the territorial government," she said.
Harper called it a historic day and applauded the territorial government led by Premier Bob McLeod. He also made a note that the final agreement will not be signed just yet.
"Before this agreement is signed, our government will do its part to consult with all impacted aboriginal groups," he said.
Lastly, Harper said, "It is time for the people of the Northwest Territories to take control of their destiny."
Harper said that after the consultations are done, they can't rule out changes to the final agreement. He said the heavy lifting on the agreement is done, and hopes to have the final agreement signed by April 2014.
McLeod said he doesn't expect any major changes to the agreement.
"My expectation is that it's a done deal. And I don't expect it will change very much unless it's a major error that has been made on our part," he said.
McLeod called it a day of dreams, hopes and aspirations. He said the territory is poised to take the leap, take on more province-like responsibilities, and become less dependent on bureaucrats in Ottawa.
He said the territory is vast with small populations separated by large distances. On top of this, McLeod said the territory also experiences deep cold. These factors combine to increase food and transportation costs.
McLeod added that those challenges also make infrastructure spending more expensive and complex. He said devolution allows the territory to access more money for big projects.
McLeod thanked Harper for his interest in the North.
"We are the stewards of the North and you have placed your trust and your faith in us. I thank you for that trust and confidence in our people and I pledge that it is not misplaced. We will make Canada proud," said McLeod.
McLeod added that over the next few months, the territory will engage in community consultations on the final devolution agreement, and thanked members of the legislative assembly for their ongoing support.
"I know I can count on many of you for your support when we bring the final agreement to the floor of the assembly where the elected representatives of the people of the Northwest Territories can consider and vote on it."
Harper and McLeod were joined by Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt and a group of leaders from aboriginal governments which have signed on to the devolution agreement-in-principle.
One of the big-ticket projects in the N.W.T. is the construction of an all-weather road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. The federal government has previously promised $150 million to help the territory build the road.
Today, Harper said his government will increase its contribution to the project by $50 million. "I’m optimistic that with this additional contribution that we’ll see that project get underway," said Harper.
With the extra funding, McLeod assured the PM that the project would be able to go ahead.
"Providing all-season access to the Arctic coast will further Canada's sovereignity interests, improve capabilities for search and recue and enhance economic opportunities," said McLeod.
A road between Tuktoyaktuk to Inuvik road would be the northernmost portion of the Mackenzie Valley Highway project, which would extend all-weather road access from Wrigley to Tuktoyaktuk.
The prime minister joked with McLeod earlier, telling the premier that he can't promise big announcements every time he visits the North.
The town of Norman Wells, N.W.T., in the Sahtu region of the territory is an oil and gas haven. The federal government owns one-third of the royalties from the gas field, and it's not giving that up.
Ethel Blondin-Andrew, the chairperson for the Sahtu secretariat, said she's not happy the federal government is not giving that control up.
"They say they're not talking about it within devolution, [they were] very plain with us. It didn't stop me from pursuing it, but maybe there's other forums where that will happen. Who knows," she said.
The Idle No More protest movement was back in action this afternoon.
About 30 protesters, young and old, came out to show their opposition to the N.W.T. devolution agreement with the federal government.
Protesters waved signs and drum-danced in front of the territory’s legislature.
Keira Dawn Kolson, an aboriginal rights advocate, said she doesn't think the devolution agreement is good for aboriginal people in the territory.
“I respect my leaders and I respect what they have done for us, but I really believe now more than ever we need to assert these inherent rights as the Dene and show the world. You know, 35 years ago, we did it with the Berger inquiry. I don't see why it is we're selling ourselves short now,” she said.