A court ruling that calls a halt to planned seismic testing in the Arctic rightly emphasizes the importance of consulting with northern aboriginal communities on research or development when their environment and culture are affected. That is a constitutional duty that reflects the government's obligation to deal honourably with aboriginal people, says Madam Justice Sue Cooper of the Nunavut Court of Justice. The wrinkle in this case is that Nunavut, along with the government of Canada, stood accused of ignoring the voices of the Inuit.
The ruling does not mean the Inuit or any other aboriginal group has (or should have) a veto over development. Nor does it mean a resolution must be reached with the Inuit. It means what it says. Consultation matters.
This was an attempt by an Inuit group to put the brakes on a research project it argued would harm the marine life - narwhal, beluga whales, seals, polar bears and walruses - on which traditional life and culture depend in five Arctic communities.
Was consultation in this case pro forma? The meetings held with aboriginals in the eastern Arctic were held in May and June; the research program was slated to begin this month. No wonder the Inuit of the area felt the program's approval was predetermined.
The study involves 65 days of underwater blasts in the Lancaster Sound, which the Canadian government says will add to the understanding of the geology of the North. The government presented scientific research that minimized the risks to wildlife, but Judge Cooper found mushy conclusions such as a claim that the research was "not anticipated to measurably impact" in the area. She noted that an appendix reported on how to mitigate the impact on wildlife, evidence that there could indeed be an impact.
Thus she ruled, reasonably, that the Inuit's irreparable loss would outweigh the costs to the country of delaying the project. "The loss extends not just to the loss of a food source, but to a loss of culture," she wrote. "No amount of money can compensate for such a loss."
Consultation that is merely pro forma may jeopardize the future of development or research projects in the North. Judge Cooper affirmed a worthy principle.