Skip to main content

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced last week plans to stake Canada's claims in the Arctic with a bold and expensive military campaign.

For many Canadians, Mr. Harper's Throne Speech pledge was a natural and welcome bid to defend Canada's ownership of the far north in the face of challenges from the U.S., the Scandinavian nations and especially Russia, which planted a Russian flag on the Arctic Ocean seabed beneath the North Pole in a much-publicized mission in August.

But some international law experts warn that Mr. Harper could turn Canada into the international bad guy by militarizing the situation.

What do you think? Should Canada expand its military presence in the Arctic? Is diplomacy the better way to settle sovereignty disputes? What questions do you have about the Arctic and Canada's role there?

Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national Inuit association, took questions Monday from 1-2 p.m. EDT.

Join the discussion at that time or send your questions in advance . Your questions and her answers will appear at the bottom of this page when the discussion begins.

On July 7, 2006, Ms. Simon was elected President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit organization representing approximately 55,000 Inuit in Canada.

Ms. Simon was also the ambassador for circumpolar affairs at Foreign Affairs from 1994 to 2003. She was the Canadian ambassador to Denmark from 1999 to 2001 and a member of the Joint Public Advisory Committee of NAFTA's Commission on Environmental Co-operation, where she served as chair from 1997-98. Ms. Simon was the Chancellor of Trent University from 1995 to 1999. In 2001, she was appointed Councillor for the International Council for Conflict Resolution with the Carter Center.

Ms. Simon was Special Advisor to the Labrador Inuit Association on the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement from 2004 to 2005.

Editor's Note: editors will read and allow or reject each question/comment. Comments/questions may be edited for length or clarity. We will not publish questions/comments that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions/comments that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

Christine Diemert, Ms. Simon, thank you for joining us online today.

In your comments following Stephen Harper's Throne Speech last week you suggested that it has some key strengths from the vantage point of Inuit -- and I'll quote from your news release:

"First of all, it accepts the importance of the Arctic at both the international and national levels. Secondly, it recognizes that coherent domestic policies for the Arctic have large economic and social development components, and the federal government must be an active player in those vital areas. Thirdly it proposes the development of a long overdue integrated northern strategy."

The speech also laid out plans to militarize Canada's claim on the Arctic, which, for wrong or right, will be one element of the government's plans that will attract attention. Do you have concerns that will overshadow other Arctic policies?

Mary Simon: Yes, Inuit do have concerns that the federal government will focus heavily on a narrow range of military measures. Inuit are patriotic Canadians, and we believe that Canada must have an adequate military presence and surveillance capacity in the Arctic. That said, an effective sovereignty and security program in the Arctic should be multi-pronged, and investments in that program, where possible, should be multi-purpose. For example, an Arctic based commercial fishing fleet, with appropriate port and harbour infrastructure, could bolster Canadian use of Arctic waters while creating stronger communities and badly needed jobs for Inuit. The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement calls for a Nunavut Marine Council to co-ordinate planning and regulation of waters within the Arctic archipelago -- implementing this feature of the Agreement would both enhance sovereignty at a practical level and show good faith in honouring land claims rights.

Similarly, the Arctic Rangers program announced in the Throne Speech to be expanded so as to give the program more overt sustainable development functions as well as a core military one … functions such as environmental monitoring, support for hunters, and bringing country food back to communities to share with those in need.

As many Inuit leaders have stated, coherent Arctic policies must put the long-term needs of Inuit communities and households squarely at the centre, and that means tackling honestly and creatively the major social and economic problems that we face.

Christine Diemert, Also, you indicated Inuit have a number of ideas to suggest to help deliver on the promised integrated northern strategy. Can you describe some those ideas here?

Mary Simon: As Inuit, we pride ourselves in being a practical people -- it is our very ability to adapt and take advantage of opportunities that has allowed us to survive in a very difficult environment for thousands of years.

We have put forward a wealth of practical suggestions, including:

-- early commitments on an extensive Inuit Action Plan that we have tabled with the federal government, that speaks to health, housing, environmental and other priorities;

-- implementation of the March 2006 Berger report that speaks to fundamental educational and training objectives;

-- new Treatment Centre's/Facilities for alcohol and substance abuse;

-- an Ombudsman for Inuit Youth and Children;

-- support for an Arctic based commercial fishing fleet;

-- investments in geological and other forms of base line research;

-- a model Inuit community climate change adaptation.

Globular Cluster from Canada writes: Hi, It seems very reasonable to me that Canada should invest more military manpower in defending its own territory. We are very far from where we need to be in patrolling our north. Why is this even a contentious issue when our presence in Afghanistan was hardly debated? I resent my taxes being used to fund a foreign war...

Mary Simon: Inuit agree that necessary investments in the Arctic should be a national priority.

Sibi Jeyarajan from Halifax Canada writes: In 1903, Canada lost costal land in British Columbia to the United States as a result of the Hay/Herbert Treaty. At present Canada's action to prevent over fishing in the Atlantic is not working. We are now under pressure to keep our northern land . My question Ms. Simon is: Where the difficulty arises with Canadian Government standing up for Our Country in the international arena?

Mary Simon: Inuit are proud Canadians. Nothing in our positions or remarks detract from the federal government standing up for Canada and Canadians in the international arena. We would like to see more done in the Arctic to make Canadians feel both proud and secure, not less.

Slippery Slope from Canada writes: Ms. Simon, You've been a leader with the Inuit for a long time. Do you actually see a big push on by the Conservative government for Arctic sovereignty and how does their stand compare with the Liberal governments?. Also, is it mostly talk or are there actual investments being seen in your communities that strengthen Canada's hold?

Mary Simon: The current government is giving greater profile to Arctic issues that a number of governments did in the past. That is, by itself, a good thing, but only really valuable if translated into concrete action. In my analysis of the Throne Speech, I indicated that the Speech opened up some new opportunities; like you, Inuit now await to see whether badly needed investments on the domestic side of sovereignty enhancement will be made soon. The other critical part of any new focus on the Arctic is working in partnership with Inuit, not over our heads.

Christine Diemert: Ms. Simon these next two posts are more comment then question, but I wondered if you wanted to comment on their strong sentiments?

Vic Ciampini from Canada writes: Diplomacy schlomacy. It won't work unless other countries know we're willing to back it up. Establish a credible military presence and THEN engage in diplomacy. Of course I can predict as surely as the sun rises in the east, the left wing hysterics that will erupt over such a plan to 'militarize' the Arctic. We don't need any justification to defend our sovereign territory.

Mary Simon: Inuit agree that asserting and defending Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic requires taking our military responsibilities seriously, as well as simultaneously addressing other priority areas.

Brendan Caron from Vancouver Canada writes: Canada is the country that has cared for the arctic since time immemorial. You don't want to wake the sleeping giant. Putin et al had better think twice about crossing this line. When it is a barren wasteland it is ours. When it is teeming with resources it is ours. I hate fighting but I will strive for what is mine and ours.

Mary Simon: Inuit believe that the Arctic can and should be governed and developed in constructive and creative ways that are, at the same time, good for Inuit who live there, good for Canada, and consistent with a more secure and co-operative international order.

Tecumseh 1 from utopia from Canada writes: Should the Arctic not belong to the people of the Arctic? The Inuit? I thought the days of dictators claiming people's lands for their own was part of the reason we have so much division in Canada already.

Mary Simon: Inuit welcome your support. We take pride in being both Inuit and Canadians, and believe that the federal government should try to work in close partnership with us, not around us. Further, Inuit across the Canadian Arctic now have modern day treaties clearly setting out our rights and interests.

Duncan Munro from Langley BC Canada writes: ... Our one and only defence of the Arctic is to try and stop global warming and thus preserve the arctic icecap.

Mary Simon: Any sensible and responsible Arctic policy must be built around action on global warming as it affects the whole planet.

Jim Drummond from Halifax Canada writes: Ms Simon: The Speech from the Throne made several references to the Arctic, one of which was: 'Our Government will build a world-class arctic research station that will be on the cutting edge of arctic issues, including environmental science and resource development.'

Bearing in mind the vast expanse of the Arctic, do you think that a single station in a single location can serve the needs of the Arctic? If a single location is preferred, what should be done with the current stations spread throughout the Arctic, many of which are in serious need of renewal and operating funds?

Mary Simon: I agree that no single research institution or facility could meet all the needs of Arctic research. Nor would we want one too … creativity requires diversity and an element of competition as well as ensuring that Inuit and other northerners are doing the research in partnership with others as well as making sure there are adequate training programs for Inuit in the research field. Bringing a new, well funded research station to the mix can help, if it is done wisely.

Bill Thompson from Calgary Canada writes: Good afternoon Ms. Simon. I am a very big fan of the north but was unfortunately driven out, after serving in the NWT Housing Corp and as a banker in Yellowknife, because of the taxing of northern benefits. Do you think the implementation of a tax free north of 60 policy (income and consumer taxes) would be beneficial to development in the north? Would this supplement the military thrust with long term by fostering sustainable development? Are the Inuit ready to be flexible and full participants in the development of the north; even if it will mean giving up their desire to roam the land at will and of course their traditional way of life? Thanks for taking my questions.

Mary Simon: Modifying the federal tax regime to encourage sustainable development in the Arctic is sensible. This might be particularly true in relation to any new carbon taxes to combat global warning that hit certain regions and communities disproportionately. We agree that military investments and sustainable development policies should work hand in hand. Inuit do not view the wage economy and traditional land based pursuits as mutually exclusive or hostile … indeed, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that they are now quite closely bound together.

harold gopaul from Burnaby Canada writes: 1) What do you want the Canadian to do to help your people and to protect your lands and Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic? 2) What are your greatest concerns today about the Arctic region - both land and sea?

Mary Simon: Act in partnership with us, not in disregard for us and our rights. Implement our land claims agreements (treaties) with honour. Help us tackle some distressing social and community development problems. Take global warming seriously. Communicate with your government representatives. Insist on action.

Linda P from rocky mountain foothills Canada writes: I had thought that the ARCTIC was a part of Canada and there was no dispute regarding this fact. Obviously I was misinformed and now the issue is being brought forward by the Super Powers quest for ownership of the ocean located at the northern part of this country. Cold war tactics, are they beneficial to the needs of all Canadians?

Mary Simon: While there is little dispute that Canada has full sovereignty over the various islands that make up the Canadian Arctic archipelago, there are many disputes regarding marine areas, ranging from whether or not there is an international right of transit through the various channels of the Northwest Passage to the marine boundary separating the American and Canadian shares of the Beaufort Sea, to whether Russian can claims a very extensive seabed projecting far north of the Russian mainland. Although I don't subscribe to as you put it, "cold war tactics" I do believe the Canadian Government should back up its claim to sovereignty not only through military presence but also through building up other infrastructure in the Arctic and longer term through ensuring the health and prosperity of its Arctic residents .

R Wolovet from New York United States writes: Do you think that each nation that abuts the Arctic should have some claim to it, just as continental shelves off-shore nations for a certain distance have been found to have claim to the minerals, oil deposits and fish and animal life found therein?......I believe there has to be a recognized standard by which each country can assert its claim to sovereignty-a recognized institution to arbitrate binding decisions in this regard-and an appeal mechanism in place.

Mary Simon: Inuit believe that the existing Law of the Sea Convention, accepted by many if not all states, sets out valuable accommodations between the rights of states of adjacent living and seabed resources and the rights of the international community in relation to such things as navigation on the high seas.

Jacques Sirois from Edmonton Canada writes: Do you see value in renaming the Northwest Passage the Canadian Arctic Passage (CAP), or the Canadian Arctic Seaway, or the Canada-Nunavut Passage, or something of this nature? Is ITK interested in creating an Inuit name for this passage? This may be even better. Renaming the passage would help put the Arctic on the radar screen of Canadians, I believe. Strangely, most Canadians never seem to even give a thought to 40% of our country. Thanks….these are interesting ideas-Inuit have a name for this passage-roughly translated it is…………………With this kind of on line information exchange Canadians will learn more about the Arctic.

Mary Simon: Your ideas are very good ones. Inuit organizations in the past have supported the creation of a separate authority for the Passage (or whatever other name might be employed). As a first step, the Inuit of Nunavut negotiated the creation of a Nunavut Marine Council in Article 15 of the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement; unfortunately, the federal government refuses to fund the Council. Inuktitut names for any new bodies would be entirely appropriate.

casey miller from oddawa Canada writes: Do you feel that Canada should use the military to solve the hans island issue?

Mary Simon: No. Surely two countries that have enjoyed friendly relations as long as Canada and Denmark, and with Inuit living in both Greenland and the Canadian High Arctic, can solve this issue through peaceful and mutually beneficial conversation.

Christine Diemert, Ms. Simon, thanks for joining us online today. I know you are about to embark on a national speaking tour. Is there anything you can tell us about that now? And is there anything you'd like to add before we conclude today?

Mary Simon: The national launch of the cross Canada speaking tour will take place tomorrow, Tuesday October 23, 2007 at the Canadian Club of Ottawa at noon at the Chateau Laurier.

The title of my speech is "Inuit and the Canadian Arctic: Sovereignty Begins at Home". I will be speaking in all provinces and territories over the next eight months. My message to Canadians is that the best way to assert Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic is with the people. And the people in the Arctic, in the vast majority, are the Inuit. Ensuring the people and the communities are strong and healthy is important in asserting Canadian sovereignty. I will be asking Canadians for their support in the important issues that affect Inuit today in the Arctic aside from Sovereignty, such as climate change, economic development and social issues.