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Inuit in Canada, Greenland want joint control of Arctic Ocean area

Ice floes float in Baffin Bay above the Arctic circle on July 10, 2008.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Inuit in Canada and Greenland want to jointly control a unique area of Arctic Ocean to protect crucial hunting grounds and restore a travel corridor that allowed people to move freely between the two countries.

"The ultimate aim is to pave a way for joint management that is taken care of by Inuit," said Kuupik Kleist, the former prime minister of Greenland .

Kleist is on a three-member panel studying the North Water Polynya, an area of unfrozen sea within the ice pack, for the Inuit Circumpolar Commission.

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The North Water Polynya in Baffin Bay is an Arctic marine oasis, the largest in the world. Walrus, whales and polar bears depend on its warmer waters and rich food resources, as do millions of sea birds.

Ookalik Eegeesiak, a Canadian Inuk who leads the panel and the commission, said many Inuit from Greenland and Nunavut depend on the area for food on a near-daily basis. They are increasingly concerned about the impact of shipping, oil-and-gas exploration and climate change on the waters they have depended on for centuries, she said.

"It's like being a farmer — you have to work it every day to keep food on the table."

Inuit also want to restore the so-called "ice bridge," a route around the north edge of the polynya that allowed Inuit to casually travel between Ellesmere Island and Greenland in dogsleds, snowmobiles and even small planes.

In recent consultations in both countries, people said they want to be able to cross the border easily once again, Kleist said.

"Everywhere we went (in northern Greenland) we met people with relatives on the Canadian side. When we travelled in northern Nunavut, people were very eager to take up again the mutual exchange they have had."

Border controls tightened up after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2011, said Kleist.

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"You could say before that, authorities were kind of more relaxed about the exchanges that were going on amongst the Inuit. The loose way, the gentle way, they had with people going across borders became much more strict."

Eegeesiak said tougher border controls in the North have cut down on the spring trips people used to take to maintain family ties. Travelling south before they're allowed to cross the border and head north again just isn't possible for most.

"It's impossible for Inuit," she said. "They would like freer travel between the High Arctic communities."

Eegeesiak said the commission won't be happy with some form of shared authority. Inuit want control over area that's so important to them.

"We see it as Inuit management."

The commission, which also includes former Nunavut premier Eva Aariak, is to report to the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which represents Inuit internationally.

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That council is to make recommendations to the respective national governments.

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