'Let's see if we can clear the air'

Nunavik senator questions Nunavik agreement


Senator Charlie Watt said last week the Nunavik Inuit Land Claims Agreement could create "significant and negative consequences" for the Inuit of Nunavik, and he wants answers to a long list of questions before he'll support it.

Watt, the founding president of the Northern Quebec Inuit Association and a negotiator on the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, set out those questions in a May 8 letter to Pita Aatami, president of Makivik Corp.

"I have serious concerns about the impact of the bill and of the agreement. I see in these pieces of legislation important and negative consequences for the Inuit of Nunavik," Watt said in his seven-page letter.

In it, Watt says he has four big fears:

  • Because of differences between the English and French versions of the bill, it's not clear if the agreement actually prevails over existing federal and provincial legislation;
  • The agreement may surrender Inuit rights guaranteed by section 35 of the constitution, replacing them with weaker rights listed in the agreement;
  • The agreement may give the minister of Indian and Northern Affairs too much governance power over the Nunavik marine region, especially in the appointment of management board members;
  • The benefits to Nunavik Inuit are far less than expected.

"Remember that many generations have worked very hard for the recognition and the protection of our aboriginal rights. I could never have imagined that our rights would have been set aside in the way that they are by this agreement," Watt said.

The agreement, signed in Kuujjuaq last December by a platoon of VIPs that included Jim Prentice, Paul Okalik and Pita Aatami, was approved by 78 per cent of eligible Nunavik beneficiaries in a vote held Oct. 16-20, 2006.

Under it, Nunavik Inuit surrender their aboriginal claim to Nunavik's offshore waters and islands, which was not dealt with in the 1975 James Bay agreement.

In exchange, the Inuit of Nunavik will gain ownership of 80 per cent of their offshore islands, plus $39.8 million to implement the deal and another $54.8 million for Nunavik Inuit Trust.

The deal would also create a set of environmental management boards similar to those in Nunavut: the Nunavik Marine Region Wildlife Management Board, the Nunavik Marine Region Planning Commission, and the Nunavik Marine Region Impact Review Board.

But it won't become law until it passes the the House of Commons and Senate, and then receives royal assent. On March 28, the agreement, in the form of Bill C-51, received first reading in the House of Commons, but has yet to move into second reading.

So although it will be some time before Watt will be required to take a position on the deal in the Senate, he said now is a good time to probe the agreement for weaknesses.

"Let's see if we can clear the air," Watt said.

Watt, who is a Liberal, said that because the governing Conservatives are in a minority, opposition members of the Commons and Senate are now well-placed to slow the process and take a close look at the Nunavik deal.

For example, Watt questions a clause that says current wildlife quotas and restrictions will remain in force for 20 years, and would be deemed to have been established by the Nunavut Marine Wildlife Board, which hasn't been appointed yet.

Since Nunavik hunters are already rebelling against recent beluga quotas imposed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, this provision doesn't appear to give Nunavik any new power over wildlife management, Watt said.

He also fears a provision that would have all management board members appointed by the minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, and that Nunavik-appointed members will form a minority on them.

"Governance of the Nunavik Marine Region will not be in the hands of the Inuit of Nunavik and new problems may arise," Watt said in his letter.

As for what it means for aboriginal rights, he objects to a phrase that he believes would surrender aboriginal rights now guaranteed by the Constitution: "the Inuit of Nunavik agree not to exercise or assert any ancestral or treaty rights other than those stipulated by the agreement."

"This is unbelievable," Watt said.

He said he even doubts that Makivik, which represents Inuit as a collectivity, has the legal right to surrender aboriginal rights on behalf of Inuit individuals.

And he points out that the 1993 Nunavut land claims agreement is similar to to the one signed by the Makivik Corp. – but that implementation of that deal is now bogged down in a billion-dollar lawsuit launched last December by Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.

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