Inuk rep prods academics to recognize Inuit righs

A comfy seat among Arctic power brokers


When Aaju Peter sat down in Ottawa with well-connected academics from Canada and the United States earlier this month, she picked out a seat for herself right at the head of the table.

Her choice of seating was noticed by Michael Byers, an international law professor at the University of British Columbia, who organized the event to hammer out a simulated agreement on rules governing the Northwest Passage.

Byers said admiringly that Peter was "very clever" to have made herself so visible. He said that Peter, who graduated from the Akitsiraq law school in 2005, was positioned to be noticed by U.S. and Canadian officials alike. "She realized very quickly that she needed to be seen by the Canadian team also."

Peter chuckles at Byers' assessment of her move and says it was strictly to take a better seat. "I'm Inuk, I have to sit comfortably. I'm not going to suck it up like everybody else."

There's a lesson in this for Inuit as interest intensifies once again in the Canadian Arctic.

For Peter, it's vital that Inuit are comfortable with the way the Arctic, and the especially the Northwest Passage, are opened up to the world. Powerful people will decide in coming years who controls the passage and what goes through it, and Peter says Inuit need to be part of the process.

"My concern was what about the Inuit and [ensuring] this is not another South Pole," she says. "In the South Pole, countries decided to come to an agreement and there were no people they had to take into consideration."

In the North, Peter says, Inuit rights under land claim agreements add strength to Canadian claims to sove­reignty.

This exercise was designed as a simulation by Byers and Paul Cellucci, the former U.S. ambassador to Canada, who has suggested Canadian authority over the passage is the best way for the United States to protect itself from terrorism or environmental catastrophe.

Peter, Byers and other Canadian thinkers, including military expert Rob Huebert and retired colonel Pierre Leblanc, the former commander of Canadian forces in the North, lined up against a team of U.S. academics.

The U.S. team included Cellucci, a well-connected Republican, and academics from the Council on Foreign Relations and the University of Chicago, two institutions that are influential with the Republican Party and President George W. Bush.

Over the course of two days in Ottawa, the teams hammered out a nine-point list urging the two governments to establish common rules governing shipping though Arctic waters and work together to increase surveillance and search and rescue capability in the region.

"We didn't solve the underlying legal dispute," Byers says of the exercise, "but that would be a lot to expect from two days of negotiations. But we did… identify a whole range of areas where both governments could constructively act and cooperate."

Arctic nations, especially Canada, the U.S., Russia and Denmark are busy mapping the polar sea floor, eager to establish claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that could give them control over territory that's home to vast troves of oil, natural gas and minerals.

Meanwhile, Canada is desperately trying to assert sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, which it claims as an internal waterway. The U.S., and other countries, disagree, saying it's an international strait that should be open to shipping without need for Canada's permission.

Caught in the middle are Inuit, who face the prospect of environmental disaster on their territory. Peter says governments need to plan for the environmental impact of shipping through the passage the same way they do with mining projects.

"You need to study how it's going to affect the people and what kind of benefits it's giving to the communities that are affected…how come we don't apply the same kind of thinking to Northwest Passage?"

For Peter, the greatest success was convincing the group to include language in the agreement recognizing obligations under land claims agreements to aboriginal peoples in the region.

The final point calls on the two governments to establish a joint Arctic navigation commission that would make recommendations on navigation, environmental protection and security, that would formally include aboriginal representatives.

"It's really urgent that we educate our people to take part" in discussions on the Northwest Passage to avoid a repeat of the Cold War military buildup in the Arctic, Peter says.

Then, military bases were built on Inuit land without consultation, and Inuit from Nunavik were lured to newly-built settlements in the high Arctic with false promises of good hunting.

"We cannot have another situation where the army comes in, the Americans come in and we are just onlookers in our own territory," Peter said. "That would be totally unacceptable."

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