In October 2015, Peter Taptuna, the Premier of Nunavut, the northeastern territory that, with two others, central and west, comprise the land that borders the Canadian Arctic, wrote an open letter to the four candidates in the coming Federal elections. The letter posed questions in six major areas of interest:
< What will your party do to ensure Nunavut’s economic development continues to grow and this growth benefits the people of Nunavut in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner?
< What are your party’s priorities and plans to address our infrastructure deficit?
< Is your party prepared to work with the Government of Nunavut to develop a long-term plan that will address and fund Nunavut’s housing needs?
< Does your party support a devolution agreement with Nunavut?
< Does your party support a strengthened language services agreement with Nunavut and the resources to enable a successful heritage center?
< Is your party committed to developing a strategic climate change plan for the Arctic? Will you ensure that the three territories are involved and have real input in such a plan? When would you, as leader, begin and have such a plan in place?
The letter was written, no doubt, to publicize the long and unresolved discussion between the Harper government and the indigenous peoples of Canada, to put the candidates on the spot regarding the future, and to perhaps influence a vote that at the time seemed likely to favor the Conservatives whose policies, focused mostly on Canadian sovereignty in the region, in conflict with Russia and the United States, and an industrial development of the Arctic to include road-building, oil and gas extraction, increasing fishing, and the opening of shipping lanes across the Northwest Passage. Harper’s slogan regarding the Arctic was “Use it, or lose it,” thus I suspect Premier Taptuna was not optimistic that his questions would affect the election or change the debate, or even generate a response.
But, change did occur, radical change with the stunning election of Trudeau who had clearly advocated against the Harper emphasis on tar sands energy and pipelines and was apparently more sympathetic about the Nunavut issues raised. Trudeau has now been in office a few short months, and the specific plans he may have for the Arctic are not yet forthcoming.
Taptuna’s letter, however, revealed that his concerns for the people he represents, for those who have lived for generations in the hard and remote places of the Arctic, are directed toward development that is environmentally sustainable and benefits residents in the context of local employment and business opportunities, not federal royalties or corporate profits. Taptuna writes of an “infrastructure deficit” — outmoded and inefficient power generation, lack of runways for air access, and no fiber optic connection to link these communities through the Internet to the rest of the world. He points further to a crises in sub-standard and limited housing, inadequate water and sewage services, and basic educational programs that do not come close to the communities’ needs. He calls for a Nunavut-based university to provide higher education and vocational training. He points to the decline in funding to support Inuktuk, the indigenous language of the Inuit who comprise 85% of Nunavut population. He argues for a place to store, display, and interpret indigenous art and historical artifacts, a heritage center comparable to those that have been built and are government-subsidized in every other part of Canada.
Nunavut is also the only territory in Canada that does not control Crown lands and natural resources, and thus has no say in policy and decisions made regarding transfer, licenses, royalties, and other benefits derived from this exploitation by others. A devolution agreement, creating a structure whereby the Nunavut government can participate in the development decisions has been under consideration for some time, but negotiations were suspended pending the outcome of the election.
All these questions and uncertainties pertain directly to similar questions regarding Arctic resources and populations all across the north — Canadian and otherwise. These are global ocean issues, and the old parameters, along with the old perpetrators, may no longer be appropriate and useful. It may be that now, at long last, Premier Taptuna’s letter from Nunavut merits a differently articulated response.
PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean, providing links and proactive services to individuals, aquariums, science centers, educational institutions, governmental and non-governmental organizations to build public awareness and a global constituency for the ocean. “An Open Letter from Nunavut” was originally published as an audio podcast on WORLD OCEAN RADIO. Peter Neill is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society” available now.