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Miltenberger: Who speaks for the caribou?

The Wildlife Act, caribou and co-drafting is a story of the political evolution of the NWT in the 156 years since Confederation.
Michael Miltenberger is a former longtime MLA and cabinet minister residing in Fort Smith.

The Wildlife Act, caribou and co-drafting is a story of the political evolution of the NWT in the 156 years since Confederation.

At the territorial level, any discussion of caribou cannot be done separately from the water, land, forests and environment that sustains them, nor without the full political involvement of

Indigenous governments.

At the territorial level, the full question is, “Who speaks for the wildlife and how is that best done?”

The political agreement between the Indigenous governments and the GNWT, made in Inuvik in 2005 answers that question: “All governments at the territorial level, with their respective jurisdictions, speak for the wildlife starting with the co-drafting of critical laws together.”

The Species at Risk Act (SARA) and the Wildlife Act (WLA) were the first bills written under this agreement for co-drafting, breaking trail for other laws to come, such as water, forests, the environment and parks.

All of us gathered for the meeting in Inuvik knew the critical political importance of this agreement. It was an explicit acknowledgement that the status quo of the day was not working and had led to the political gridlock the NWT was in at the time, with the GNWT insisting it was the government at the territorial level with full jurisdiction while the Indigenous governments disagreed when it came to critical matters like wildlife — or said another way: “Nothing about us without us.”

It was also an explicit acceptance that, at the territorial level, no one government can go it alone on issues of concern to all governments. This signalled a dramatic political improvement at the territorial level of the relationship between the Indigenous governments and the GNWT.

For the first time anywhere in Canada, it was agreed by the governments that co-drafting of critical legislation would be done with a process developed that fully respected the legislative process of the NWT Legislative Assembly and that did not fetter ministerial authority. That was the political plan agreed to in the 15th Assembly and honoured until the end of the 17th Assembly.

We knew at the time and over the years that within some quarters of the GNWT there was deep-seated resistance — by the protectors of the entrenched status quo — to the idea of co-drafting, holding instead to the old view that there can only be one hand on the pen — the GNWT. So they patiently waited for the political winds to change, which happened in the 18th Assembly. The GNWT unilaterally took back the legislative pen, turning their back on the success of the SARA and WLA. Going forward, the GNWT would speak for the water, forests, environment and parks, by upgrading old-style consultation and calling it co-development.

This approach was carried forward in the 19th Assembly. We are told that co-development is just as good as co-drafting, but it is not. Many hands on the pen means many wise voices talking about and writing good laws together speaking for the caribou, the forests, the water and the environment.

One hand on the pen means only one voice talking, trying to write laws without the wisdom of many hands on the pen, losing the ability to fully incorporate traditional practices and values.

There are two questions that need answering:

1. Why after 10 years, in the time of nation-to-nation, co-governance, UNDRIP and reconciliation, did the legislative assembly allow the GNWT to unilaterally take back the legislative pen with all this legislation, as critical as the SARA and the WLA, needing to be co-drafted?

2. Why have the Indigenous governments seemingly accepted the unilateral termination of the co-drafting of critical legislation their predecessors fought so long and hard for — the diminishment of their government-to-government relationship with the GNWT and their collective ability to be able to speak for the caribou, the forests, the water and the environment?

Governments in a territory that honours political agreements and can draft, write and pass laws together, are on a good road at a difficult time in our history where it is important for Northerners to know their governments are working together in a collaborative, co-governance way, for all of us.