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Oil in the family


Celebrating our similarities and our differences: Canadian and Alaskan dancers perform during the Inuit Circumpolar Council General Assembly in Inuvik in July.

By Terry Audla
The late Eben Hopson had a grand vision for circumpolar Inuit relationship-building back in the 1970s, and it had a lot to do with oil. Alaska’s North Slope Borough was engaged in a multimillion-dollar exploration project adjacent to Inupiat lands, and at the same time, Inuvialuit in Canada’s Western Arctic were examining a proposal to pipe oil and gas through the Mackenzie River Valley.

Forty years later, the organization Hopson kick started, now known as the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), is still talking about oil. Today there isn’t a circumpolar nation that isn’t heavily involved in some form of resource exploration or extraction, and it seems it has never been more important for Inuit to come together to talk frankly about how to move forward in this increasingly complex space.

When we meet every four years with the Inuit of Kalaallit Nunaat, the Iñupiat and Yup’ik of the North Slope Borough of Alaska and the Yupik of Russia’s Chuchki Peninsula — as we did this past July in Inuvik for ICC’s 12th General Assembly — it’s easy to see how much we have in common. But it’s equally apparent that we are different in many ways, from the cut of our atigluit to our modern-day governance structures.

We are at different stages of political and economic development, and it should come as no surprise that we sometimes disagree on the best path to prosperity forward for Inuit. It gives us the opportunity to learn from one another about our differing experiences with, for example, offshore partnerships at one end of the scale, and moratoria on the other. That’s just one of the reasons why ICC matters, why it was created and why it continues to exist.

And reasons for continuing collaboration among circumpolar Inuit abound. The European Union, one of the most powerful trading blocs on the planet, has been developing an Arctic Policy to set out a path for its increased engagement in the Arctic. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Arctic coastal states are making submissions to establish their sovereignty over large portions of the Arctic Ocean seabed. Large swaths of ice and water identified in those submissions include areas of Inuit Nunaat, our circumpolar homeland, in which Inuit exist and have rights relating to the use of resources situated there.

In Canada, as the Supreme Court recently explained in its Tsilhqot’in Nation decision, establishment of title — and the rights that it bestows — does not require a people to piece together intensive use of well-defined tracts of land. It takes a territorial approach that reflects the different sustainable uses to which lands and waters have been put.

It is still remarkably common for Arctic policies and strategies to be designed for the people of the Arctic rather than by us. Yet over many decades, organizations like ICC and ITK have gone to great lengths to repatriate such decision-making. As outgoing ICC chair Aqqaluk Lynge observed some years ago, Inuit are no longer “the cartoon character Eskimos of 300 years ago.” Neither are the lands, ice and waters of Inuit Nunaat considered an empty space belonging to no one. That we have populated our territories and creatively harnessed its many renewable and nonrenewable resources for a long time is nearly universally acknowledged.

We are here. We use and know this land and the resources it offers to us. It is as much in us as we are in it. As stewards of the Arctic and custodians of its wealth for future generations, we are moving with caution toward a future of unleashed potential. We are a family that crosses borders and time zones, but under the northern lights or the midnight sun, we are Inuit.