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NWT premier has plans as grand as the North

Floyd Roland, Premier of the Northwest Territories, is pressing forward on plans for a new pipeline and deal on resource rights before his term expires this fall.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Floyd Roland is running out of time.

Come fall, the Premier of the Northwest Territories will be looking for work after just a single term in the big chair. It's a ticking clock at odds with his ambitious agenda as he scrambles to push several high-stakes projects to completion, each unfinished by premiers past. They include a new deal on resource rights, a pipeline and a key bridge.

Mr. Roland is taking his leave as Canada turns its attention to files - aboriginal affairs, Northern sovereignty, cross-border pipelines - in which the NWT is increasingly relevant. Several were on the agenda at last month's premiers meetings in Vancouver. While he hasn't shied away from national issues, Mr. Roland has focused his time on rewriting the book at home.

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"My goal has been: Let's make the right choices so we give the future a chance to happen," Mr. Roland says. "We can and are capable of taking control of our own destiny. We don't need a director of some position in Ottawa signing off on what is going to happen in the Northwest Territories."

However, it was that pursuit of province-like status that dug his own political grave. In a lengthy sit-down interview with The Globe and Mail in his Yellowknife office, Mr. Roland looked back on four tumultuous years - a period during which the towering hockey player and mechanic with the easy smile earned a damn-the-torpedoes reputation.

Mr. Roland, 49, nearly lost his first budget vote, found himself too inward-looking a leader at the start, failed to hit his targets for budget cuts, had an affair and made few friends in the NWT's co-operative governing style - all factors in why he is not running again.

The bridge, spanning the Mackenzie River and replacing an unreliable ferry, won't be done this year, as was recently pledged. The pipeline was finally given a federal green light, and Mr. Roland is now hoping companies will press ahead despite the low price of natural gas.

But Mr. Roland's biggest accomplishment - or failure - stands to be a deal on devolution, or the handing down of province-like authority and revenue from Ottawa to the territory. If finalized, it would add an estimated $60-million a year to territorial coffers (on a per-capita basis, that's equivalent to Ontario finding $18-billion a year) while transferring decision-making from Ottawa to Yellowknife with the goal of cutting red tape. An agreement-in-principle was signed early this year, but Mr. Roland now worries he may have been too heavy-handed in ramming it through.

Five of the territory's seven aboriginal groups have refused to sign on, saying Mr. Roland froze them out and was stingy on sharing cash.

"He [Mr. Roland]just completely ignored us," Chief Alfonz Nitsiza, one of the leaders of the NWT's Tlicho First Nation, told The Globe shortly after the signing. He called devolution Mr. Roland's "political suicide."

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"This is rogue government," he added. "They just do whatever they want to do at the expense of aboriginal government."

Such is the battle facing Mr. Roland, and his successor. He thinks things went off the rails last fall when he began pushing aboriginal groups for input. Deadlines were missed and Mr. Roland pressed again. When, in early January, the groups came forward with input on the agreement-in-principle, he accused them of jumping the gun - leaping into negotiations on the details before setting up the parameters of what was on the table.

"That's where we started to hit a bit of a wall. They didn't like my response," the Premier recalls, with a shrug.

Now, with time running out, Mr. Roland is challenging the holdout aboriginal groups to stop holding up the process - and pledging that if they don't, the territory legally can push on without them.

"Because if we decide not to proceed, let's not kid ourselves. Someone is at a table making a decision that's going to impact your life. How much more do we want of that? Talk another 10 years? Nah," Mr. Roland says. "Let's move on. Let's do what we've been talking about. You want to be a government? Be a government. Get to the table. Make decisions. The future's in their hands."

A new premier, he acknowledges, may be able to play peacemaker and seal a deal seen by many as a critical coming-of-age for the NWT.

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"In a sense, that's been the North's holy grail - the North's devolution package," Mr. Roland says. "We can't keep talking about the potential of the North. We have to start making decisions to create, to give that potential an opportunity to become reality. So, I'm hoping that during the life of this government we've been able to make enough decisions to give that future a chance of becoming real."

Where he goes next is unclear. It's long been rumoured he'll head to his hometown of Inuvik to take over the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation from Nellie Cournoyea, a friend of Mr. Roland and the North's political matriarch, but her term runs until early 2013.

"I will have to find work before that. … Let's go back to the second year of my term," he says with a smile, a reference to 2008, when it was revealed that he had had an affair with a legislative staffer. His marriage has since ended. "I've got some bills to pay, and I've got some boys still in school."

Once he's gone, he'll hand what could be a promising portfolio to his successor - a ribbon-cutting on the bridge, a potential Mackenzie Valley pipeline deal and, possibly, an agreement on devolution.

"I would say we've worked the ground and we've planted the seeds of change," Mr. Roland says. "It's going to be up to the next government to continue to work and water, and see the opportunity grow."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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