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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 ...

As nations speak of developing the North, many, including our own, have begun to posture and threaten, asserting their claims to Arctic sovereignty. Too often, these claims lose sight of the fact that the Arctic is not some frozen barren wasteland but a rich, warm world full of life, people and culture.

Perhaps more than any of these other problems for our people, climate change and its many effects threatens the memory of where we were, who we are, and all that we wish to become. If we protect the environment and climate of the Arctic, keep our Inuit hunting culture alive and stay connected to the rhythms and cycles of nature, we will as a people, and as Canadians, prevail and thrive.

When I speak of these many traumas and challenges, I do so not to say that we as a people have a right to continue to struggle to fulfill our great potential, or that we need government to support us as a wounded or dependent people. I say these things merely to help you to understand our situation and to appreciate all the more the remarkable successes we have enjoyed despite these challenges as a proud and resilient people. We do not need our government to support us as dependents, but Canada must work with us to develop our potential for the good of our communities, our region and our world.


Our successes have not only been among developing our own young people, but also in reaching out to the rest of the world. Our organizations, particularly the Inuit Council, have had remarkable successes in sharing our institutional knowledge with other indigenous peoples around the world. Just as our Inuit culture is based on sharing, we shared our experience from our land-claims negotiating days, developing and running our own businesses, working with government of co-management regimes, administrative skills, fundraising etc., and we share all this with indigenous peoples from Russia to Belize with remarkable results.

As well, as responsible sentinels of rapid environmental change that we so often observe in the Arctic, we have reached out to warn the world and spur peoples and nations to action.

When the problem of contaminants became apparent, our organizations took strong, co-ordinated action. I was honoured to serve as the spokesperson for a coalition of Northern indigenous peoples at the forefront of advocacy for the Stockholm Convention that addressed these transboundary contaminants. In that process, we shared our knowledge, combined with the best science, and together we showed the world the human face of a devastating problem. Our coalition built partnerships with environmental and conservation groups as well as less likely allies like government agencies and industry; met with leaders of foreign governments; and lobbied our own governments at all levels. We actively engaged in the international negotiations as well, putting the human face of the issue front and centre and using our deep familiarity with the problem and unique voice from a unique vantage point to help lead the negotiations toward a successful resolution.

As well, we have taken strong action on climate change, working to shift the paradigm of the world's thinking on these issues from one of economics and technical science to human impacts, human rights and human development.

As many of you remember, in December, 2005, we submitted a climate-change-related petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. To prepare the petition, we engaged a team that spanned North America, with our own counsel and advisers in the North and legal scholars from the U.S. We sought a declaration that the destruction of the Arctic environment and the culture and economy of Inuit as a result of virtually unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases by the United States was violating our human rights as guaranteed by the 1948 American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, including the rights to subsistence, to use our traditional lands, to our culture and environment.

The purpose of the petition was to educate and encourage the government of the United States to join the community of nations in a global campaign to combat climate change. It was not aggressive or confrontational. We were reaching out, not striking out. In a very real sense our petition was a "gift" from Inuit hunters and elders to the world. It was an act of generosity from an ancient culture deeply tied to the natural environment and still in tune with its wisdom, to an urban, industrial, and "modern" culture that has largely lost its sense of place and position in the natural world.


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