Inuit View on Canada’s Arctic Sovereignty


    May/June 2012 by Whit Fraser

    Canada’s current Prime Minister frequently advances Canada’s position on Arctic sovereignty with the words “use it or lose it” and just as frequently demonstrates Canada’s “use” by dramatically increasing the levels of military activity in the North. Under the present government’s watch, the North has seen a robust increase in military-related exercises, some unprecedented in their size and scope. Plans are also in place to deliver new ice-strengthened patrol vessels (the first ready by 2014) as well as a costly program to purchase new fighter ets to replace our aging CF-18’s, a plan hat is today still very much a hot topic in national media.

    Still, there are also those who criticize the Prime Minister and his Government for not doing more. But the simple fact remains this government, comparatively speaking, has been far more assertive on northern sovereignty in terms of posture, tone and implementation than any that came before.

    Across the Arctic Regions however, particularly among Inuit, whether it is the Government of Nunavut, or the National Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), or “distinguished citizens,” the Prime Minister’s “use it or lose it” words might seem to unintentionally widen the historic gulf between an Ottawa-entrenched government mentality and those in fact living the northern reality.

    “It’s insulting,” is the blunt response from John Amagoalik,who comes as close as one will find to an elder statesman in the Inuit community. When he was barely 10 years old he was moved with his family and others from their community in Northern Quebec more than 2,000 kilometres north to Resolute Bay.

    “The relocation was and remains very painful,” says Amagoalik, adding the Prime Minister’s statements “do little to acknowledge the contribution Inuit have made and continue to make in the High Arctic.” Amagoalik has said that painful and cruel relocation helped shape him to work tirelessly and successfully on confirming Inuit rights in Canada’s Constitution, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and the creation of Nunavut as Canada’s newest territory in 1999.

    He believes Inuit are among the Government’s strongest Sovereignty assets. “It is we Inuit that are using the Northwest Passage as an inland waterway that is also surrounded by our settlements. It is a homeland!” Neither does Amagoalik agree with the massive military spending because“our communities are in such need.The cost of living is so high and our people are prisoners in their own communities.”

    The President of ITK, Mary Simon, also believes Canada’s strongest sovereignty argument is in the very existence of Inuit communities across the North.

    “Sovereignty Begins at Home,” is the message she and the organization have been carrying across Canada tomajor newspapers, Boards of Trade and Universities in major cities, including Vancouver and Toronto. The ITK position is profoundly basic and clear — Inuit are the strongest sovereignty card Canada has, but it doesn’t use it effectively.

    “The bedrock of Canada’s status as an Arctic nation is the history of use and occupation of Arctic lands and waters by Inuit for thousands of years. Inuit are, and expect to remain, the permanent majority population of the Arctic.Our Arctic homeland comprises one-third of Canada’s land mass and 50 per cent of its shoreline.

    Simon always reminds and provides southern Canadians with a lesson in basic Canadian geography. “It’s an area roughly one-third of all Canada, where 55,000 Inuit live, but now spread across two provinces and two territories in communities ranging in population of more than 3,000 to as small as 200.” She then adds,“Inuit lived here long before there were provinces and territories.”

    Both ITK and the Government of Nunavut, representing a Territory that comprises the largest of the four Inuit regions in Canada, are clear in their view that Canada’s sovereignty position internationally is weakened and compromised by the unacceptable social and economic imbalance that exists between southern Canada and Inuit regions.

    “For Canada to legitimately assert its sovereignty in the Arctic it must also ensure that Inuit are treated as all other Canadians are — with the same standards of education, healthcare and infrastructure that is the foundation of healthy communities across Canada,” says Simon.

    Many southern Canadians are shocked by the contrasts in the social statistics between the Arctic and the South, beginning with a life expectancy that is 10 years shorter for Inuit, suicide rates 11 times higher than the rest of Canada and overall health conditions. “Inuit do not want to be in the headlines for our tuberculosis rate which is 14 times the overall Canadian rate,” Simon told a supportive Vancouver audience in the autumn of 2011.

    Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak agrees “the human dimension” is an essential element to the overall sovereignty debate as well as “Inuit Land Claim agreements” that can strengthen Canada’s overall position.

    “There is an ancient and on-going connection between the people of our territory and the lands and waters within our boundaries. The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement acknowledges this and is a strong demonstration of Canada’s sovereignty. The land claim also makes clear that, as people of the Arctic,we have the right to make the decisions about how the land, waters and resources within our boundaries will be managed, developed and protected. If ‘Sovereignty’ is based on‘use’ as the Prime Minister says, then look at the Inuit reality,” says Premier Aariak.

    “Look at all the wonderful Inuit place names that are being documented. There are literally thousands of them. They identify everything from waterways to rock formations to areas where you can find certain resources or wildlife. They speak to how people have used the land and water over the centuries.And they fill the map—from Kugluktuk in the west to the tip of Qikiqtaaluk in the east.”

    Premier Aariak adds that Canada’s overall sovereignty position is strengthened by Inuit internationally through Canadian Inuit involvement in the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. Inuit in Greenland, the United States and Russia adopted aDeclaration on ResourceDevelopment. This declaration“is neither pro-development, nor is it pro-conservation. More than anything it says that Inuit – and the public governments that represent them in the Arctic – have the right to make the big decisions.”

    In the Nunavut Premier’s view, “the declaration establishes our right to continue to use our resources to improve the quality of life in our communities and contribute to the wealth of the nation. It answers the questions, who gets to decide, and, who benefits from those decisions?”

    The issue is far more complex than Canada asserting its sovereignty internationally, because key domestic sovereignty questions remain unresolved.“Nunavut is about to become the only jurisdiction in Canada that is not in control of its land and resources. This is about much more than how we draw the lines between countries on amap; the future of our communities hangs in the balance.”

    At the core of the domestic sovereignty question is “devolution,” the term that describes the negotiations between the Territory and the Federal Government over dividing the responsibilities and royalties from non-renewable resources.

    “This is why as Premier, a top priority is to negotiate an agreement to devolve control over Nunavut’s lands, waters and resources from the federal government to Nunavummiut.We support Canada’s position on Arctic sovereignty. But, by the same token,we expect Canada to recognize Nunavut’s sovereignty over the lands, waters and resources within our boundaries.”

    Premier Aariak says the traditional economy will remain key to the future economy. “We will do our utmost to protect it but we won’t be put in a box or turned into a giant international park just tomake people living in the developed world feel better about the damaged environment.” The Premier and the Government of Nunavut are well in tune with today’s economic reality and recognize that their Territory’s economic future and the future of Inuit depends on resource development that must be managed with extreme care. “It is our communities that face the greatest risks from development and so it follows that we should also receive the greatest benefit.”

    Similar views, though not specifically related to Inuit issues, are echoed in the Northwest Territories. Premier Bob MacLeod is already closer to a devolution agreement with the Federal Government, an agreement that he expects will be completed by September of this year, but adds, “there are a number of critical domestic sovereignty issues that Ottawa needs to resolve with the territories in order to enhance its overall sovereignty position.

    Asked to name the three most important, he quickly responds, “healthy sustainable communities, an action plan on climate change in northern areas and moving forward on governance issues.”

    Constitutional experts would agree that control over resources comes with becoming a Province but the Northwest Territories Premier notes that, “when the complex Federal Territorial or Federal Provincial funding arrangements are factored into the size of the NWT population and its vast geography, the economics of province-hood doesn’t work in the best interests of the Territory and the people who live here”. He also suggests there is a constitutional or jurisdictional middle ground that in the end would strengthen Canada’s overall position nationally and internationally.

    He also shares the view with Amagoalik, Simon and Aariak that Ottawa puts too much emphasis on military activities, because they come “at the expense of larger nation building projects,” such as highways, pipelines or large renewable hydro projects.

    Increasingly, academics, diplomats, legal observers and constitutional experts continue to focus on the large international Arctic sovereignty debate,most often at major national or international conferences.One of the most recent was in February 2012 at the Northern Lights trade show and conference held in Ottawa where Canada’s Arctic sovereignty was arguably the most highly attended session on the jam-packed five-day agenda. However, discussions about the extent of Canada’s sovereignty position, as influenced by the complex social, economic and constitutional domestic questions, are rarely discussed.

    It is clear that Inuit leadership supports Canada’s sovereignty position but at present it remains “a qualified support” tied to positive moves and signs of tangible and honest recognition of the Inuit presence and contribution in Canada’s Arctic.

    Whit Fraser is a freelance writer living in Ottawa and Kuujjuaq and can be contacted by email at

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