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Politics New Inuit leader seeks to guard development of resources

Terry Audla taken at the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami Annual General Meeting in Kuujjuaq on Wednesday June 6, 2012.

Stephen Hendrie/(Stephen Hendrie/ITK)

The new leader of the organization that is the voice of Canada's 53,000 Inuit grew up in Resolute Bay at a time when the tiny Inuit hamlet had the busiest airport north of the Arctic Circle.

Planes supporting the burgeoning oil and gas industries were constantly landing and taking off again for Edmonton, Winnipeg and Montreal. But the people of Resolute Bay, who had been transplanted to the barren stretch of gravel as part of a plan by Canada to assert its sovereignty in the High Arctic, did not share in the wealth from the resources that were being extracted, Terry Audla says.

His desire to ensure that future development in the North does not only include the Inuit but is driven by them is what propelled Mr. Audla to seek the presidency of the Inuit Tapirit Kanatami (ITK), the group that represents Inuit living in 53 communities in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Northern Quebec and Northern Labrador.

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Mr. Audla, 42, won the job this week at the ITK's annual general meeting in Kuujjuaq, Que. He had the support of 12 out of 13 voting board members and replaces Mary Simon, who had held the post for six years.

With the world looking to the Arctic as the last frontier of untapped resource wealth, the Inuit have made it clear that all development in their territory will have to be done through them. And Mr. Audla, who promised while campaigning to foster economic opportunities in Inuit homelands, says that will be the focus of his tenure.

"There are capped wells in the High Arctic and there are oil and gas reserves in the High Arctic as well," Mr. Audla said this week in a telephone interview on the day after his victory. "And the Inuit will definitely be involved in the development of that when the decision is made to do so."

Mr. Audla said the roots of the ITK go back to a time when the Inuit watched the riches of their land being harvested without them. That cannot happen going forward, he said, especially now that the land claims have been settled. It's a matter of "making sure that the implementation of each of those land claims is being carried out and that actual economic development is being steered by the Inuit."

Mr. Audla is the former executive director of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., a corporation established to ensure that the promises made to the Inuit under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement are fulfilled.

He is not in favour of development at any cost. Two years ago, he helped with a successful campaign to obtain a court injunction to prevent seismic testing in Lancaster Sound, part of the Northwest Passage that is the breeding ground for large numbers of marine mammals.

But he said he understands the need for resource wealth in northern communities where the incidence of diabetes, obesity and heart disease is unacceptably high, where suicide rates are 11 times the national average, and where just 25 per cent of Inuit teenagers graduate from high school.

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Education is also a key to prosperity, Mr. Audla said. "If the Inuit are able to take control of that and actually start developing their child's education towards their employment, at the end of the day there's a way to put food on the table."

But it is the resources that he believes hold the promise for the future of his people. The Inuit own 50 million hectares of land, which is about the size of Spain, Mr. Audla said. "If you have that much land and control, there's no reason why you can't have the economic development based on what you want to do and how you want to do it. And, if you can control that, it certainly would go towards improving the lives of the Inuit."

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