Nunavik leaders sign $55-million preliminary fishing deal

Okalik wants constitutional guarantee of similar rights for Nunavut



After nine years of negotiations, Makivik Corp. and the federal government signed the Nunavik Marine Region Agreement-in-Principle this week, forging ahead with the historic deal despite continued protests from the Nunavut government that it unfairly guarantees Quebec Inuit fishing rights in Nunavut’s traditional waters.

Pita Aatami, the president of Makivik, and Robert Nault, the federal minister of Indian affairs and northern development, signed the agreement-in-principle, or AIP, on Friday in Montreal.

In exchange for Nunavik’s aboriginal claim to water and land off Northern Quebec’s coast, the agreement establishes a Nunavik Marine Region whose resources will be primarily managed by Nunavik Inuit.

The boundaries for the marine region stretch from the Button Islands near the Labrador Sea through the Hudson Strait and down the Hudson Bay Coast.

The deal also gives Nunavik $50 million in capital transfer payments over 25 years, $5 million to develop a wildlife management board, and control over 80 per cent of the region’s islands.

Johnny Peters, Makivik’s vice-president and the organization’s chief negotiator for the AIP, said in an interview this week he is happy the harvesting rights of Nunavimmiut will soon be guaranteed.

“The major work has now been done. Now it’s just a matter of the details being worked out,” he said. “It’s been a long time. Negotiations have been in place since 1993. But we didn’t give up. We kept at it.”

An AIP, though not enforceable by law, is the draft upon which a final agreement is based.

Nunavimmiut came out in favour of the AIP when Makivik toured the agreement around Nunavik in February, Peters said.

The final agreement, should be completed within a year, after Makivik and the federal government settle its finer points.

But Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik believes it is not only the finer points the federal government must address before any final agreement is signed.

According to Okalik, the federal government must also appease Nunavut’s concern that the AIP, as the document was presented in March, constitutionally guarantees Nunavimmiut commercial fishing rights in Nunavut waters.

“From what I understand, there have been no changes to the text that was first initialed in March,” Premier Paul Okalik said in an interview this week.

“The AIP enshrines a set percentage of 10 per cent of commercial fisheries in Nunavut waters [to Makivik] whether they be around here or all the way up to Grise Fjord … it will have constitutional status. So our rights as they stand today are not constitutionally protected here in Nunavut.”

Okalik has spoken with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien about the issue and he is optimistic the prime minister will address his concern.

But Okalik warned if the federal government does not ensure Nunavut receives a similar constitutionally enshrined guarantee, his government would act.

“If at some point in the future that doesn’t develop we will consider our options and I’m sure we can raise quite a few eyebrows down South,” he said.

If the Government of Nunavut were to act against the agreement, it would be the latest in a series of debates that have stalled the agreement’s progress.

Since Makivik and the federal government first entered AIP negotiations in 1993 and set an original deadline of August 1996, conflicting aboriginal claims over the offshore area and the wide gulf between Makivik’s original demands and the federal government’s counter offers have delayed the negotiation process.

In 1994, Makivik sent its first offshore proposal to the federal government. The proposal reportedly asked for the same treaty status as the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and $500 million in compensation.

The current agreement is limited to $50 million in capital funding and deals primarily with Nunavik’s management of the region’s natural resources.

Overlapping claims have also stalled the talks over the years. In fact, Makivik had to drop a court case claiming overlapping rights to the Torngat Mountains of Labrador to secure the AIP with the federal government.

This summer, the AIP passed another hurdle when the James Bay Cree and Makivik finally settled overlapping claims to islands within the James Bay and Hudson Bay areas.

However, with the March initialing of the AIP and this week’s official signing, Peters hopes the agreement’s greatest controversies have been resolved.

Peters said there should not be competition between Nunavummiut and Nunavimmiut when southern companies currently take up such a large portion of the fishing quota in northern waters.

If anything, he said, he hopes Nunavut and Nunavik will be able to share the waters’ resources.

Okalik agrees and said he is only asking the federal government to offer Nunavik and Nunavut similar constitutional guarantees.

“What I think is the most probable solution is that expectations have been raised in Northern Quebec as a result of this agreement that that portion will be in the final text,” Okalik said. “So if that is the case we want Nunavut interests to be in the same instrument, a constitutional guarantee for the people of Nunavut that their allocations will be given the same status as any outside interest.”

In the meantime, Peters said he would enjoy the historic signing.

“We’ve been here for 4,000 years. This is our home. We were here first. We live off the land and its animals,” he said. “We want Inuit to continue the traditional use. This [agreement] will help future generations to continue what we have done,”

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