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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 propose revitalizing an old idea with a "made-in-Canada" notion that was born in our Northern land claims. Recognizing the importance of the Arctic for the planet, and the historical stewardship of indigenous peoples over the Arctic ecosystem, consider an Arctic treaty that charges circumpolar indigenous people with the stewardship of the Arctic for the continued benefit of humankind. International co-management boards would integrate traditional and scientific knowledge to ensure sound and peaceful management of the Arctic's natural resources.

This model would represent a significant change from our nation's current "use it or lose it" philosophy to Arctic development, and instead embrace the vision of a sustainable Arctic economy in partnership with a carefully managed Arctic ecosystem. This vision has been embraced at a UN gathering of nations in Iceland, which found that the Arctic nations either need to begin fulfilling their stewardship obligations, or that a whole new treaty system may be necessary for Arctic preservation. Inuit have much to offer or fellow Canadians, and are ideally positioned to show the world a model of sustainable development and environmental management in the region that connects all nations around the globe.


As wise stewards of our land, my own people must refuse the dangerous compromises between our principles and our development that may diminish our own moral high ground. As we call on the world to change its ecologically degrading practices, we must not accept those practices at home no matter how desperate our need for short-term jobs or economic development. Economic gain must not override the existence and well-being of a whole people whose way of life is already monumentally taxed. We must not let the prospect of development in the Arctic diminish our ability and our region's ability to teach the "life-centred sustainability" that Arctic people have practised for millennia. The people whose lives depend upon the ice and snow for cultural survival must be factored into all our plans, and this must not become a discussion only in terms of sovereignty, resources, and economics.

I want to stress here that I am not saying we ought to halt economic development. Rather, we must retake real control over that development by insisting that every opportunity and program be analyzed against its impact on our world; meaning the greenhouse gases it will emit, the unsustainable cycles it will feed and the lasting impact it will make on our delicate landscape and the health of our people.

This mature innovation, which recognizes the full costs and benefits behind our actions, can still produce healthy profits for our companies, industries and economies, but will do so in a manner far more sustainable than the thoughtless development of our past. Whenever we make development decisions, we should consider the implications of what we are doing, not only for ourselves and our future generations, but for all of those to whom we are connected by the world's common air and sea.

As we do so, we will ask those around the world, making similar decisions, to do the same for us. The balance, then, is really in understanding our interconnection with all of humanity, and working to ensure all of humanity understands that connection with us.

We cannot separate political and economic development in our communities from individual education and development. Every level of the systems here in the North must be directed to ensuring that indigenous wisdom along with global access and knowledge are the foundations of any sustainable endeavour. Inuit were once highly independent people with our own education, justice, health and social systems based upon indigenous knowledge and wisdom. Historically, our sustainable way of life was based upon developing the wisdom to see what needs to be done and then doing it. I believe we can return to this sustainable system, but we must do so by stepping away from dependency on our government; I hope that the rest of Canada will aid us in this effort.

This is Canada's moment to lead by example in all of these weighty efforts - to take a principled stance on the global stage. All Canadians must realize that it's only by thinking and acting globally that we'll be able to address these changes here at home. By setting an example at home, adhering to our principles and becoming wise stewards of our vast natural resources, we can motivate others.

I hope that our story from the North, and an awareness of the challenges ahead, give you some insights into how you might contribute to the public good through our democracy in your own way. I urge you each to take courageous, principled leadership to move our nation, and our world, forward as a shared humanity.

About the lecturer

Sheila (or Siila) Watt-Cloutier is an Officer of the Order of Canada and the first recipient of Canada's Northern Medal and was nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. From 1995 to 1998, she served as president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. From 2002 to 2006, she was the international chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. Most recently, she has focused on the impact of persistent organic pollutants and global climate change in the North.

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