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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 we helped to influence what was already starting in the U.S. - a real shift in the public debate on climate change. Our message has resonated with the rest of the world as well; the United Nations Human Rights Council has recognized climate change as a human-rights issue for all indigenous peoples. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has taken up our call and now argues that, as we address climate change over the coming decades, we must use a human-rights approach to empower individuals and communities, and give all those affected active participation in the decision-making that affects their lives. It appears that the wisdom of the land, once heard, strikes a universal chord on a planet where many are searching for a balance in sustainability.

All of these successes remind us just how far Inuit have come as a people in this new world, and of the vast potential that remains among us as Northerners, as Inuit, as Canadians and as global citizens.

I see several important roles for Northerners, and for all of our Canadian democracy, in securing the future of our Arctic and for retaking a principled path. First, we must now demand that our government take bold, courageous, principled action both on the international stage, and on balanced, sustainable development at home in the Arctic. Our politicians, both in their domestic decisions and their role in global negotiations, are who we need to count on to represent us in the most focused and ethical way.

As a wealthy nation with a privileged history, we have an obligation to lead on the global stage. Our government must return to the international negotiating table that it left years ago when we turned our back on the Kyoto Protocol. We must retake the moral high ground if we have any hope of convincing other nations to reduce their own emissions.

As part of this process, we must encourage our government to make use of the voices of indigenous and vulnerable communities the world around, the human faces of climate change, in the negotiations for a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol that will hopefully conclude this December in Copenhagen. This treaty may well offer the last best hope for us to come together to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions before the changes spiral beyond our control.


In this effort, Northern cultures must be more than simply window dressing for the interests that too often control our development decisions and international negotiating positions. Rather, informing these decisions and positions with the wisdom of Northern cultures must be part of a broad-based, principled rethinking on our national approach.

Within Canada, our government must follow a different path in responding to climate change in the Arctic. As the world is once again attracted to the Arctic's resources, again our government's decisions are affecting Inuit. As the Northwest Passage sea-ice coverage is lost, Canada is pressed to defend its sovereignty over the fabled passage. As Inuit know, the sea ice, including the land-fast ice that covers much of the passage, has offered our hunting culture a stable platform for untold generations. That ice also offers the best defence against ships attempting the faster route.

Slowing down climate change would be the best long-term solution to enforcing Canada's Arctic sovereignty. Instead of aggressively facing climate change and becoming an international leader, however, Canada has decided that the best way to defend its sovereignty from foreign ships running the passage is with our military and a new fleet of armed icebreakers. Canada, a peaceful nation, will now "defend" the Arctic. We will posture and even threaten those who attempt a free passage through our islands.

Canada should take another approach - a more principled and human-centred approach. As my good friend and a great Canadian Lloyd Axworthy has advocated, and as I have suggested before, Canada should take the lead in the peaceful, co-operative management of the Arctic, perhaps by means of new multilateral institutions, or a greatly expanded role for the Arctic Council.

I believe we must work hard to avoid creating yet another region where relationships between nations are tense with strife and fear. The Arctic is one of the last peaceful and pristine places in the world. We all must realize that thriving, human communities will speak more strongly to our Arctic sovereignty than any fleet of icebreakers or barracks full of soldiers.

While I acknowledge our government's new campaign abroad to show that we Inuit have an ancient and established culture already in place here in the Arctic, this campaign abroad must be matched by real action here at home to empower us as the best possible stewards of this land. How can Canada ensure the peaceful use of the Arctic and respect of human rights in the circumpolar North?

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