By Terry Audla
We were in Thailand — several hundred politicians, bureaucrats and scientists from all over the world, sitting at long tables in the ballroom of Bangkok’s Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre, facing forward like school children.
Ironically, it was an animal rights group, or <em>sirnaati,</em> one that defends unreasonably, that gave me the opening I needed. The guy intervened during debate on the US proposal to uplist polar bear on the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), a move that would essentially ban trade of pelts and other products.
Amid his diatribe of misinformation, he cited a figure to demonstrate his claim that the polar bear hunt was skyrocketing, saying that the quota in Western Hudson’s Bay had recently tripled.
Then it was my turn to speak and I just couldn’t let that one go by. I challenged the speaker, emphasizing that Inuit deal in science and the truth. To illustrate my point, I unpacked that Western Hudson’s Bay quota, telling delegates that the quota once stood at 52 animals. That number had been reduced to eight and then increased to 24 — a tripling for sure, but a figure less than half the original quota.
It’s funny how a slight change in perspective helps to shed a lot of light.
Tagak Curley, the Nunavut MLA for Rankin Inlet North, had spoken eloquently about hunting with his father on Southampton Island just moments earlier as a member of the Canadian delegation.
It held great significance for me that Tagak, ITK’s first president, and I, the current president, would bookend the Inuit intervention on this issue and represent our people at this international gathering.
The US proposal was not about taking action on climate change. A vote in favour of the proposal would have absolutely no effect on greenhouse gas emissions.
It was not about protecting polar bears. The proposal would not reduce our hunting quotas — one of the great misunderstandings perpetrated by animal rights groups in the lead up to the event.
Rather, the proposal was a direct attack on our livelihoods, our ability to earn a living, support our families and provide the necessities of life.
Now, something you have to understand about this meeting and others like it — because each country has one vote, most of the voting members represent small, hot countries. Many have never seen snow, much less a polar bear. But they understand the innate desire to remain self-reliant, to put food on the table.
Delegates spoke of the confusion they felt, and their longing for the truth. That was music to my ears, and I told those delegates to listen to international scientists, including the CITES Secretariat itself, TRAFFIC, the Polar Bear Specialists Group, WWF International, PEW Environmental Group, and others, who acknowledged that this proposal did not meet the criteria for uplisting.
I reminded them that they acknowledged this fact themselves at the last CITES conference three years prior in Qatar by voting to oppose this same proposal. I asked them to trust their own good judgment in making their decision again that day.
The integrity of CITES and its informed decision-making process was being challenged.
And we were its defenders. When I finished my intervention, there was applause, which I am told is quite rare in this forum. A little while later, the delegates voted.
Thirty-eight voted to support the US proposal to uplist. Forty-two chose to support Inuit livelihoods and reject the proposal. Another 46, including the members of the European Union, abstained. More on the European Union later.
The rest, as they say, is history. I didn’t stop shaking hands and speaking to international media until the wee hours of the morning. But clearly this fight isn’t over. And I’m ready for battle.