Is Canada sidelining Inuit in its Arctic offshore sovereignty claims?

Lawyers commissioned by Sen. Charlie Watt study Canada’s UNCLOS bids


Montreal lawyer Robin Campbell of Hutchins Legal Inc., at a noon-hour gathering June 18 in Iqaluit, explaining legal research that she and Peter Hutchins have done on Inuit rights and Canada's offshore continental shelf extension sovereignty claims. (PHOTO BY JIM BELL)

Montreal lawyer Robin Campbell of Hutchins Legal Inc., at a noon-hour gathering June 18 in Iqaluit, explaining legal research that she and Peter Hutchins have done on Inuit rights and Canada’s offshore continental shelf extension sovereignty claims. (PHOTO BY JIM BELL)

The federal government must respect any Inuit rights that might overlap with Canada’s offshore sovereignty claims, two lawyers commissioned by Sen. Charlie Watt say in a recent paper.

“Inuit rights to these areas must be respected. If Canada wishes to claim sovereignty over areas covered by these rights, it must engage with Inuit for the purpose of obtaining their free, prior and informed consent,” their paper says.

The authors, Peter Hutchins and Robin Campbell, work for a Montreal firm called Hutchins Legal Inc., which specializes in aboriginal, constitutional and environmental law.

They’re visiting Iqaluit this week to attend the Canadian Bar Association’s aboriginal law conference June 19 and June 20.

On June 18, Campbell presented their ideas at a small noon-hour gathering inside an Iqaluit office building.

Campbell said new Inuit rights issues have arisen because of climate change, the evolving state of international law, and Canada’s continental shelf submissions under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In those submissions, the federal government will attempt to claim sovereign rights over seabed areas that extend beyond the long-recognized 200-nautical-mile zone where states enjoy economic rights.

To prove its claim, Canada must do scientific work aimed at measuring how far its continental shelf extends underneath the ocean.

To that end, Canada filed a claim with UNCLOS this past December — but only for the North Atlantic portion of its continental shelf extension.

That’s because Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants Canadian scientists to do more work on the Arctic portion of its claim to prove Canada owns rights extending to the North Pole.

The potential benefit to Canada? Exclusive rights to any oil and gas deposits beyond the 200-mile limit that lie beneath the country’s extended continental shelf — an area some people believe may become more accessible due to global warming.

But the problem with all this is that, so far, Canada has not included Inuit in its continental shelf offshore claim process.

Campbell and Hutchins say this may conflict with international legal principles that apply to indigenous peoples and rights that Inuit enjoy under land claims agreements and the constitution.

“The issue here is, will Inuit play a role in governing and benefiting from resource extraction in the Arctic coastal shelf?” Campbell said.

The Inuit case is strengthened by research contained in the recent Inuit trails project done by Dr. Claudio Aporta of Dalhousie University and other researchers.

This means that through their centuries-old use of Arctic sea ice to live, hunt and travel, Inuit have valid claims over Arctic seas.

“There is a whole organized society on top of the ocean,” Campbell said.

At the same time, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples acknowledges that indigenous people hold rights to traditional territories, as does Section 35 of Canada’s constitution.

“You can’t just run around planting flags and saying it’s mine anymore,” Campbell said.

The international legal prohibition against seizing territory without consent means Arctic coastal states must respect Inuit rights to those parts of the Arctic Ocean covered by Inuit Nunaat, the lawyers say.

For example, Canada’s partial submission on its Atlantic Ocean offshore claim includes areas covered by the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement.

But Canada makes no reference in that submission to the Labrador Inuit treaty or to any rights that Inuit may hold in the Atlantic Ocean, Campbell and Hutchins said.

At the same time, this does not necessarily mean that Inuit and Canada are headed for a big conflict.

If Canada were to engage with Inuit to obtain their free, prior and informed consent, the two sides, working together, could create a win-win solution, Campbell and Hutchins said.

For example, they point to the Inuvialuit Final Agreement, completed in 1984.

That deal covers an area of the Beaufort Sea affected by a long-term boundary dispute between Canada and the United States, which concerns about 21,000 square kilometres of disputed ocean territory.

Canada included that area within the boundaries of the Inuvialuit settlement area, which strengthened Canada’s sovereignty claim and also brought potential benefits to the Inuvialuit.

“The agreement allows Canada to ground its rights to the area to Inuit’s historical title (or Aboriginal title) of these portions of the Beaufort Sea…,” the two lawyers wrote.

But if Canada continues to sideline Inuit and fails to create a win-win solution, “it is open to Inuit to take Canada to court,” the lawyers said.

Campbell said she and Hutchins have already shared their ideas with lawyers from the Inuit Circumpolar Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

But she also said that she and Hutchins must do more work to tighten up their case.

You can find a copy of the Hutchins-Campbell report on the blog of Sen. Charlie Watt, at this location.

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