North Water polynya must be managed by Inuit: ICC commission

Pikialasorsuaq Commission completes tour of six Greenland communities


The Pikialaorsuaq Commission, comprising the ICC's international chair, Okalik Eegeesiak, former Nunavut premier Eva Aariak and former Greenland premier Kuupik Kleist, say the North Water polynya should be managed by Inuit. (PEW TRUST MAP)

The Pikialaorsuaq Commission, comprising the ICC’s international chair, Okalik Eegeesiak, former Nunavut premier Eva Aariak and former Greenland premier Kuupik Kleist, say the North Water polynya should be managed by Inuit. (PEW TRUST MAP)

Pikialasorsuaq, the biologically rich North Water polynya that lies between Canada and Greenland, must be managed by Inuit, a special commission set up by the Inuit Circumpolar Council commission said Sept. 13.

The Pikialasorsuaq Commission, which ICC created in January 2016 to consult Inuit in Greenland and Nunavut, has just completed a boat trip to six communities in northwest Greenland, where they heard from hunters and other local residents

“Inuit in Canada and Greenland are expressing a strong desire for free movement, once again, of Inuit across Pikialasorsuaq and increased cooperation to arrive at a common vision for shared resources and Inuit-led management of Pikialasorsuaq,” said Kuupik Kleist, a former premier of Greenland, in an ICC news release.

“Most emphatically, Inuit want to build a caretaking regime for the polynya together as Inuit living, though divided by country, from one sea,” Kleist said.

The other two members of the commission are the former Nunavut premier, Eva Arreak, and Okalik Eegeesiak, the international chair of ICC.

“We’ve heard anxious stories of open water where there should be ice, and of the implications this may have on the harvesting of wildlife, which remains the most important food source to people of this region,” Eegeesiak said in the release.

The huge, 85,000-square-kilometre North Water polynya is an ecologically rich zone of open water at the northern end of Baffin Bay between Greenland and Ellesmere Island that feeds numerous marine mammals and birds within its unusually warm microclimate.

A polynya is an area of open water that remains ice-free all year round. Pikialasorsuaq, which means “the great upwelling,” is the largest polynya in the northern hemisphere and the most biologically productive ecosystem north of the Arctic Circle.

But the ICC fears the area is threatened by climate change and by the possibility of increased shipping, tourism, fishing and non-renewable resource development.

“Inuit from the two countries are in the best position to steward this incredibly rich and productive region as unprecedented changes are being brought by a warming climate,” Eegeesiak said.

The commission also wants Inuit to be able to move freely across the international boundary between Canada and Greenland.

That’s because Inuit have used the ice surrounding the polynya to travel between the two regions. Many Inughuit in northwest Greenland are descended from Thule people who migrated from Canada with Qillarsuaq, a charismatic shaman from Baffin Island who brought a large group of people with him to Greenland in the 1860s.

And in the early 20th century, the RCMP would sometimes arrest Greenland Inuit who travelled to Ellesmere Island to hunt polar bears.

“People in this region remember a recent past when they could still travel across the polynya’s great ice arch that links Umimmat Nunaat [Ellesmere Island] and Greenland. These communities of the Pikialasorsuaq have long felt connected to the hunting grounds on Ellesmere,” Eegeesiak said.

To form a united Inuit position on the future of the area, the ICC created the commission in January 2016, with financial help from Oceans North Canada, the World Wildlife Fund Canada and an international philanthropic organization called the Oak Foundation.

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