North of 60: A New Approach to Inuit Relations and Northern Governance

Governments need to offer more support for work on social issues and capacity building, says Duane Ningaqsiq Smith, former president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation.

Written by Heather McGregor Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
The sun rises over Inuvik, Northwest Territories.Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0/Martin Male

Born and raised in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Duane Ningaqsiq Smith served as president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) for close to 15 years. He resigned this post early in 2016 to assume the role of chairperson and chief executive officer of Inuvialuit Regional Corporation. As the ICC president, Duane has been a prominent international figure engaged in shaping Arctic policies. In his interview with Heather E. McGregor, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Ottawa, Duane draws on his wealth of experience to share his vision and ideas about the future of Arctic policy.

Heather McGregor: The Centre for International Governance Innovation held a roundtable on revitalizing Arctic policy shortly after the change in Canadian government – from 10 years of Conservative leadership to the new Liberal government. We are interested in hearing, from the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) Canada’s perspective, and from your perspective, what priorities would you be looking for the Trudeau government to highlight?

Duane Ningaqsiq Smith: One of the more crucial things is for them to work closely with the Inuit land claims organizations to develop a common approach with them for implementing the land claims. If they were to develop an umbrella approach, it would address so many of the other issues at the same time because the land claims organizations cover pretty well everything in the Arctic. More specifically: health issues, improving services to the people in the Arctic and developing a strategy on improving graduation rates so that there’s more success for Inuit, so that they can be more self-sufficient.

McGregor: How much do you think domestic politics in Canada affects the ability of Inuit to mobilize around their interests at the circumpolar level?

Smith: It does to some degree. More effort needs to be put in from the government to be more proactive and prepared for the activity that is already taking place in the Arctic. The changing climate is making it much more accessible, such as through tourism, commercial shipping of freight, tankers, produce, potential exploration in minerals, and oil and gas activities. I think there needs to be a better strategy by the Canadian government, alongside the land claims organizations, to have something commonly developed, so that both governments and Inuit representative organizations are more prepared. Being proactive and getting some understandings out there, so that any organizations or industries operating in the Canadian Arctic know what the rules of the game are before they start.

McGregor: What is Canada’s reputation right now, among circumpolar peoples?

Smith: Well, if we’re just looking at it from a circumpolar perspective, I think Canada is looked upon positively, because of the issues that they deal with at the Arctic Council level. But I think there’s so much more potential – and hopefully this new Canadian government looks at it as an opportunity to enhance some of their activities.

When I was with ICC Canada, we were continuously trying to get support not only from the Canadian government, but from other Arctic states, to work with us more closely on social issues; research activities to document and address health issues of Arctic peoples; food security; climate change; depleting populations of different species; and invasive species.

Our caribou population is crashing – how is that affecting the health of the Inuit? Is it putting pressures on other species because they have to harvest something else for their nutritional needs? The cost of living is so high, so people have to harvest in order to subsidize their foods. We need to get an understanding of exactly what is harvested, how much is harvested, when and where, so that we can ensure it is done in a sustainable manner. But we were unable to secure sustainable funding for these projects from Canada and the other Arctic states.

McGregor: Is there an example of an initiative by ICC Canada, or within the circumpolar region, that has been successful, and can serve as example of something that needs more support, or shows what is possible?

Smith: ICC Canada, under the Arctic Council Sustainable Development Working Group, led a project to document Inuit observations regarding how the changing climate is affecting their well-being, and the ecosystems around them. We completed that with the support of the Canadian government in the past, within the four Canadian Inuit regions. Then we received support from Canada and the U.S. to do that in the other Inuit regions – Alaska, Greenland and Chukotka. We would have liked to continue the project, to make it more encompassing to all regions.

McGregor: What do you think are the most significant barriers in facilitating this kind of circumpolar collaboration?

Smith: The most significant barrier is the lack of support from the Arctic states, including Canada. We are going to have to wait to see what the mandate of this new government is going to be. Hopefully they will continue to promote more collaborative ways with Indigenous peoples in Canada. Thus far, a renewed effort remains to be seen.

McGregor: At the CIGI roundtable on Arctic policy, many people in attendance – including researchers and federal public servants – were talking about how aware they are of the importance of having Inuit and Northern people involved in policy development and implementation, and yet, how stretched the Inuit organizations are. They are struggling to keep up with so many demands, so many meetings and so many partners. From your perspective, are the Inuit organizations well supported?

Smith: No, not at all. I’ve been lobbying for four years under the previous government to try and increase the funding not only to us, but to the other Canadian Indigenous groups as well. The funding still remains the same today. It’s primarily funding to go to Arctic Council meetings, and that’s about it. There’s no real funding for capacity research or preparation. It has been frustrating. We need the funding to have the capacity to prepare, take part in and possibly lead projects that would benefit all permanent participants, like we have in the past.

McGregor: Based on your many years with ICC Canada, what role do you think the Arctic Council should play moving forward?

Smith: The Arctic Council can conduct research activities in a variety of areas. There should be an obligation of the Arctic states to review their policies based on the results of the research. Some of the working groups produce a report and that’s the end of it. You don’t see any follow-up based on the recommendations that come out of these reports. There’s no accountability on those matters. There should be a process to follow up on these things and an obligation to report back on what the Arctic states may be doing, or may not be doing, in regards to recommendations.

McGregor: Do you think the Arctic Economic Council – the primary forum between the Arctic Council and the circumpolar business community – will have any constructive impact for Inuit?

Smith: That remains to be seen. It is nice to see the level of interest from the private sector. Some have deep pockets, but there still needs to be infrastructure put into the Arctic. Within Canada, they can’t invest without working with land claims organizations, because these organizations have rights within their respective regions regarding development activities.

McGregor: How do you see the prospects for ongoing circumpolar collaboration, based on how things are going with Russia right now?

Smith: It seems like the Arctic Council has been able to continue to operate collaboratively and cooperatively with all Arctic states, including Russia. Any trouble that has been going on in other parts of the world has not had too much of an effect. The Arctic Council wants to continue to work in a positive, proactive manner.

McGregor: Is there any other issue that you want to bring to the attention of our readers?

Smith: Yes. I think that all the departments that have responsibilities in the Canadian Arctic should sit down as one group with the Inuit organizations and try to develop a common approach going forward. The government has Canada’s Northern Policy but nobody really knows how to go about implementing it because each department does its own thing. It doesn’t seem like there’s one common strategy. They should work with us on developing an umbrella approach, so we have a clear agenda, and can try to work toward a common objective.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect those of Arctic Deeply.

This piece originally appeared in “North of 60: Toward a Renewed Canadian Arctic Agenda,” and is reprinted here with permission. Read the full report here.

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