What does the future hold for the Inuit people of Baffin Island?

As climate change makes the Canadian Arctic more accessible, it's not only the rich natural resources that are at risk of exploitation. Stanley Johnson fears for its Inuit people

For three days this month, Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, one of Canada's Arctic territories, was the venue for this year's Canada-UK Colloquium. The Colloquium, involving politicians, diplomats, civil servants, academics and experts of various kinds depending on the subject under discussion, meets each year in an appropriate location to discuss matters of common interest. Because this year's theme has been "The Arctic", the choice fell on Iqaluit.

It's not an easy place to get to. Iqaluit is located on Baffin Island. It used to be called Frobisher after Sir Martin Frobisher, the Elizabethan buccaneer who – in 1576 – sailed into the sound now known as Frobisher Bay believing he had found the fabled "Northwest Passage" and a new route to China.

By air, it is 1,300 miles from Ottawa. You cannot reach Iqaluit by car. There are some roads, and cars, in town. The longest, indeed the only significant stretch of tarmac, serves to connect Iqaluit with a settlement a couple of miles away where the Hudson's Bay Company once had a trading post.

The population of Iqaluit is just over 7,000 and 60 per cent are Inuit. Their ancestors, the Thule people, are thought to have migrated to the region a thousand years ago from Alaska. With 770,000 square miles, Nunavut is one-fifth of Canada, and half the size of Western Europe. Nunavut's total population is around 33,000 people, with 84 per cent of them being Inuit. That works out at one person every 23 square miles.

In some ways, the very existence of Nunavut as an Inuit homeland is a miracle. The tale of official dealings with Canada's indigenous peoples over the past 250 years makes for sorry reading. Although King George III's Royal Proclamation of 1763 asserted that the Crown would in future obtain lands required for settlement only through treaties negotiated in public with Indian nations, these guarantees were honoured more in the breach than the observance. In the 1776 Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson raged against the Royal Proclamation, the English and the Indians.

"The English King has excited domestic insurrections among us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."

The Canada-UK Colloquium is fortunate in having as its chairman Tony Penikett, a former premier of Yukon, who had been intimately involved in the negotiation of Yukon's land claims. In his view, it is vital for all those engaged in Arctic matters in Canada to have a clear understanding of the issues of sovereignty and "ownership". He explains: "In the US, in the 1820s and the 1830s, the Cherokees went three times to the Supreme Court. The Court concluded that the Royal Proclamation of 1763 had force and that the US government had an obligation to make treaties. George Washington thought that the requirement wouldn't endure. And in Canada, treaty-making was largely forgotten until British Columbia's Thomas Berger went to court on behalf of the Nisga'a in 1969-1971."

The Nisga'a, Penikett continues, won their battle. The Court's verdict took the establishment by surprise. The then prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, is reputed to have said: "Your people have a lot more rights than I thought you did."

Following the Nisga'a victory, the three Canadian Arctic territories (Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut) have – after years of negotiation – all settled their land claims, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, for example, finally having been ratified in 1993. The legal certainty which has followed has been immensely important in assuring Canadian and international business that the Arctic is a place they can invest in without facing years of litigation. Over the next decades, we are likely to witness a scramble for Arctic resources equal to any seen in the past.

It is estimated that, of the world's undiscovered hydrocarbon resources, 13 per cent of oil, 30 per cent of natural gas and 20 per cent of natural gas liquids could lie in the Arctic. Okalik Eegeesiak, the president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), explains that "the Sverdrup Basin is entirely within the area under QIA jurisdiction in the Nunavut land claim. The Basin is estimated to contain 17.4 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas and 334 million barrels of oil."

There is another factor which makes the prospect of a new Arctic "resources rush" a near-certainty: the impact of climate change. In the past 50 years, average annual temperatures in some Arctic regions have risen by up to 3C. As temperatures rise, and waters become free of ice, opening up areas so far hard to reach, the practical possibilities of exploiting Arctic wealth are significantly increased.

Inuit leaders such as Eegeesiak are aware of the inherent ironies. If global warming has opened up the Arctic, it has also made the Inuit's traditional daily life that much more difficult. Those difficulties will increase. How will the seals pop up through a hole in the ice as the hunter waits and watches, when all the ice has gone? And what is happening to the caribou herds?

"This new interest in the Arctic contains contradictions," Eegeesiak says. "Contradictions like the fear of climate change on the one hand and on the other hand a keen desire to exploit oil and gas resources that up to now have not been reached."

Even assuming the Inuit had both the will and the authority to say "no" to a new wave of Arctic exploration, why should they? It could be argued that for many of them, particularly the younger generation, it may already be too late to return to the traditional way of life exemplified by Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty filmed this famous documentary in the Canadian Arctic in 1920-21). It could also be argued that equally noxious (in climate terms) developments would anyway simply take place elsewhere. Unless some scheme could be put in place to compensate for the "non-exploited energy resources" (such as those currently under discussion to compensate communities and countries for "forests not cut down"), it is hard to see how Inuit and other native peoples could afford to forgo benefits that the development of Arctic resources will bring.

These benefits are real, not notional. They include jobs, obviously, particularly jobs in the Arctic energy sector as it opens up. They include vitally needed improvements in housing, health and social welfare. Some of the most disturbing statistics we heard were those which related to suicide. It is above all the young who are "suiciding". With suicides occurring at rates around 120 per 100,000, Nunavut is possibly the suicide capital of the world.

One thing that struck me in Iqaluit is how non-pushy our Inuit hosts were. Perhaps it is a cultural thing. Or perhaps they have just been beaten down by centuries of colonialism, including domestic colonialism. As Eegeesiak says: "At a policy level, Inuit need to be included as equals in any dialogue about developing our lands and around our waters."

Why do these people, who have learnt over hundreds of years to live in harmony with nature and to manage their own resources (as we have not), have to ask to be "included as equals" in discussions about developing their own lands? Surely the snowshoe should be on the other foot?

Unless the land claims agreements are fully and correctly implemented, the Inuit may, I fear, turn out to have sold their birthright for a mess of potage. I pick up a local newspaper as the Colloquium ends. It is printed both in English and Inuktitut. The lead story is about the federal government's plans to carry out seismic testing in Lancaster Sound, located between Devon Island and Baffin Island, and forming the eastern portion of the Northwest Passage. The QIA has sought an injunction on the basis that the testing would cause irreparable damage to wildlife and impair the Inuit's ability to hunt in the area. (The area is a habitat for narwhal, beluga and bowhead whales, as well as for seals, walrus and polar bears. Seabirds flock to Lancaster Sound in the hundreds of thousands.)

But the real shocker, as far as I'm concerned, is that apparently the Inuit hadn't even been consulted. Maybe we need another Royal Proclamation to set matters straight. The Queen is, after all, still Queen of Canada!

Stanley Johnson's latest book (with Robert Vagg) is 'Survival: Saving Endangered Migratory Species' (published by Stacey International).

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