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Despite lack of mention, Throne Speech signals change for the North

The Liberal government made no specific promises to the North in Friday’s Speech from the Throne, but Northerners will still be directly impacted by some of its key commitments.

Governor General David Johnston delivered the Speech from the Throne on Friday, Dec. 4. The brief speech opened the new session of Parliament and highlights the Liberal government’s legislative priorities.

Neither the North nor the Arctic were mentioned once. However, the Liberals made it clear that a major priority continues to be reconciling relations with Indigenous peoples, who make up the majority of the population in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, and about a quarter of Yukon’s population, according to Statistics Canada.

“This is a very exciting opportunity for Northern communities,” Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett told Northern Public Affairs.

Though she acknowledged the lack of a Northern mention, Bennett said the throne speech sets out “broad parameters,” which will be working together in “co-operation and partnership.”

In the speech, Johnston said the government would “renew” nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous peoples, work to implement recommendations set out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and launch an inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, among other things.

Sheryl Lightfoot is based out of the University of British Columbia and is the Canada Research Chair in Global Indigenous Rights and Politics. She said the new rhetoric used by the government shows a recognition for the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples.

“The Canadian government is recognizing that Indigenous peoples, as nations, do have the right to look after their internal affairs and to determine their level of engagement with the state.”

Changes to assessment in Yukon

The throne speech also committed to having Indigenous peoples “more fully engaged in reviewing and monitoring major resource development projects.”

Yukon First Nations threatened to take the federal government to court after the Harper government changed the environmental assessment act that deals with such projects in the territory. First Nation governments said they were never consulted on four of the bill’s major amendments.

Larry Bagnell, Yukon’s Member of Parliament, said the government is committed to its promise of reversing these changes.

“We will do the honour of the Crown and do proper consultation on those big resource projects,” Bagnell said, “which in most cases are on traditional lands of Indigenous peoples.”

The Canadian government is recognizing that Indigenous peoples, as nations, do have the right to look after their internal affairs and to determine their level of engagement with the state.

Key for Nunavut devolution

Lightfoot said this focus on “partnership” with Indigenous peoples is a big step.

“[It] seems to indicate a seriousness of purpose in developing less hierarchical institutional structures, which is directly relevant to Nunavut, of course, especially in light of devolution.”

In 2011, Statistics Canada reported nearly half of Canada’s Inuit population lived in Nunavut. In a statement, the president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) said he’s optimistic about the government’s promises.

“We remain committed to working with the government on important matters that impact the lives of Inuit, like our Suicide Prevention Strategy, housing, food security, and education,” ITK president Natan Obed said. “All of these issues require a renewed relationship with the Crown, which was acknowledged in the Throne Speech.”

Devolution is a federal-territorial power transferring process that gives “Northerners more control over resources,” said Robert Huebert, a University of Calgary political science professor. He noted, however, that former governments began that devolution process.

“I don’t see what you do differently from what’s being started,” he said.

Huebert said he found the lack of mention about anything Arctic related particularly troubling because it could mean the Liberals see the North as a “Harper priority” rather than a Canadian priority. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government emphasized a strong focus on Arctic sovereignty.

But it is still too early to make that conclusion, Huebert said, adding that having only Liberal ridings in the North, and a Northern cabinet minister, looks to be a positive thing for getting the North on the government’s agenda.◉

Photo credit: joiseyshowaa (CC)

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