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North needs internal free-trade agreement, says prominent economist

The Canadian North needs its own free-trade agreement, says the editor of a new book on Arctic policy released this weekend.

The Canadian North needs its own free-trade agreement, says the editor of a new book on Arctic policy released this weekend.

Prominent economist Tom Courchene argues the myriad of boards, agencies and self-government councils created by treaty settlements have to learn to work together and sacrifice some of their individual power for the good of the region if northern development is to reach its potential.

“There’s so many players in there now that have constitutionalized rights,” said Courchene, co-editor of the book “Northern Exposure,” being released in the Nunavut capital of Iqaluit.

“It’s very hard to develop an overarching framework that will guarantee free movement because there’s a set of multiple vetoes there.”

Over the last couple decades, Ottawa has divvied up the North among different aboriginal groups with a whole series of land deals. Some include self-government, some don’t. All include a welter of management boards with considerable power over land use, water and wildlife, some of which work at cross-purposes to each other.

In the Thelon area of the central Barrens, for example, management boards on the Nunavut side are open to uranium development where across the line in the N.W.T., they don’t even allow exploration.

The Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline proposal has also been delayed in the regulatory process, due in part to legal tangles over how different aboriginal groups should be represented at public hearings.

“Right now, we’re close to balkanizing,” said Courchene.

He and several other authors argue in the book for a regulatory union — an overall agreement between different aboriginal groups on development.

“Aboriginal people should have an important say on what’s happening on their land,” Courchene said.

“On the other hand, there has to be some ability to have some powers on your land but also be part of a regulatory framework that has goals that are somewhat larger than your own goals, ways to enrich the overall territory.”

That proposal draws on a recent report on regulatory reform by Neil McCrank, which suggested aboriginal groups surrender some of the powers they negotiated in order to streamline decisions on development proposals. That suggestion was widely panned by aboriginal leaders, but Courchene said they may be more amenable if comprehensive land use plans were created for the Arctic.

“Ottawa should move quickly to establish these land use plans,” Courchene said.

“The whole can be greater than the sum of the parts, if they come to some common arrangement for development.”