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Sheila Watt-Cloutier stands on a breakwater in Iqaluit. (CHRIS WINDEYER/Chris Windeyer / The Canadian Press)
Sheila Watt-Cloutier stands on a breakwater in Iqaluit. (CHRIS WINDEYER/Chris Windeyer / The Canadian Press)

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Make indigenous people stewards of the North Add to ...

I believe that Canada's responses to the many pressing concerns now facing the Arctic will be telling of the sort of democracy we will become in this still-new millennium. Canada is an Arctic nation, and the region serves as nexus to the rest of the world.

As the residents of this special place, Inuit occupy a unique position in Canadian and world affairs, and we have come to a turning point in our own development as a people. Today, I hope to walk you through our Arctic story, describing the challenges we have faced and continued to confront, along with the remarkable successes we have achieved. Lastly, I will speak on where I hope we as people and Canada as a democracy will go from here.

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I will begin with the Inuit story. We are a uniquely adaptable people. We have weathered the storm of modernization here in the North remarkably well, going from dog teams and igloos to snowmobiles, jumbo jets, permanent homes and even supermarket-like stores, all within the past 50 years. These enormous changes to our communities were often accompanied by a great imbalance, a loss of control over our lives from multiple historical traumas.

Many families were forcibly relocated to new communities in the name of sovereignty. Our children were uprooted from their families and culture to be reprogrammed. Children and family members were sent away for medical reasons never to be seen again. Our dogs, deeply central to our free movement and hunting, were slaughtered by southerners who did not understand this relationship and who hoped to keep us in place. Sexual abuse occurred from those in authority positions. Regulations and activism from actors who had never even visited our communities caused a collapse in our sealskin market.

All of these made up a serious failure of our democracy to advance the public good. Together, these traumatic events have deeply wounded and dispirited many, translating into a "collective pain" of families, communities and nations. Substance abuse, health problems and, most distressing, the loss of so many of our people to suicide have been among the saddest results.

But through all of this, we have had our land, our predictable environment and climate and the wisdom our hunters and elders have gained from it over millennia to help us adapt. However, things are not so predictable as they used to be, as climate change challenges even the most experienced hunters in our society.

'LAND IS A POWERFUL PLACE'

We remain a hunting people of the land, ice and snow. The process of the hunt teaches our young people to be patient, courageous, bold under pressure and reflective. The nature of the land is a powerful place that one learns to control one's impulses, to be reflective, to withstand stress, to have sound judgment and ultimately wisdom. In a world that has all too often become filled with noise and business, it gives you a sense of peace and well-being, connecting powerfully to one's identity and essence.

This culture, however, is not only used for survival on the land - these crucial life skills and wisdom are very transferable in the modern world. Many who have acquired these traditional skills and continue to practise them are the members of our community who in large part are also "making it" in the modern world. One way of life is not at a cost to the other. In fact, one who has and carries the values, principles, traditions and the wisdom of our culture are more able to balance more effectively the two worlds.

Our need to learn and live these skills and this culture is why, for us, environmental changes caused by faraway sources pose such a challenge to our success as an indigenous people.

Transboundary contaminants, the persistent organic pollutants and other compounds that are carried north on the winds and ocean currents from their sources of production in our globalizing economy far to the south came to accumulate here in the bodies of our animals and country food. Taken up through our traditional subsistence diet, the chemicals are found in the nursing milk of our mothers, and impact us far more than any other people in the world. For us Inuit, it is foremost a health issue, not just an environmental concern.

Climate change has also added a new layer of stress and uncertainty to our lives here as the nations of the world have turned their eyes north to the newly open shipping routes and vast resources appearing from beneath our melting lands and ice. Routine shipping through the Northwest Passage would be an environmental tragedy, both as clear evidence that climate change was allowed to go too far, and because of the constant possibility of oil spills and further contamination of our delicate ecosystems.

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