A case for rights in the Far North

John Plaskett October 15 1979

A case for rights in the Far North

John Plaskett October 15 1979

A case for rights in the Far North


In the past decade of current events in Canada, no subject has seemed to come up with the clockwork regularity of native land-rights negotiations. It is against this background that the latest Inuit claim to 30,000 square miles of land in the eastern Arctic stands out as an event unprecedented in its political importance. For the first time, the Inuit have gone to court to confront legally the federal government on the issue of aboriginal rights. The court’s decision, likely to be made this month, will ultimately affect the development of the Arctic as a whole.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are 113 Inuit residents of Baker Lake, an isolated settlement of 1,000 people in the Keewatin. The Inuit are asking that the federal government respect their aboriginal rights—rights enshrined in the BN A Act, intended to safeguard native traditional lifestyles—to the land in question. As well, they want control over mining, exploration and development, pleading that these activities threaten the delicate ecosystems that support their way of life. The six defendant multinational mining companies* in the lawsuit are asking that the courts respect the exploration and landuse permits issued to them by the federal government so that they can continue development of the eastern Arctic. “This is more than just a traditional land claims case,” says Aubrey Golden,

*Noranda Explorations Co. Ltd., Urangesellschaft Canada Ltd., Pan Ocean Oil Co. Ltd., Comineo Ltd., Western Mines Ltd., Essex Minerals Co. Ltd.

a counsel for the Inuit. “It may prove to be a major testing ground regarding Inuit aboriginal rights to the land.”

Until the 1960s, the aboriginal rights of the Inuit were respected by southerners as much out of indifference as obligation. Then mining companies, alert to the scent of petroleum and minerals, began exploring the eastern Arctic with

permits issued by the federal government. The Baker Lake residents now contend that mining exploration activity, particularly since 1969, accompanied by low-flying aircraft, blasting operations and the setting-up of camps, has resulted in a dramatic alteration of the migratory patterns of the caribou. And with diminishing herds, the traditional Inuit way of life, based largely on hunting and fishing, is dying out, resulting in an increased reliance on welfare to support the community. What the Inuit say they are seeking is not that development stop in the North, nor that anyone be excluded from the land, but that ways be found to deal with development while protecting their hunting and fishing rights.

“The Inuit are not trying to become the Arabs of the north,” says Marc Denhez, counsel for the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC), the umbrella group that has represented 26 Inuit communities of 16,000 people in Baffin Island, the Keewatin and the central Arctic since 1971. “But if there is going to be development, the population will double in 20 years. If every mine causes a decrease in the caribou herds, how will the Inuit support themselves? They don’t want another Klondike. Destruction of the herds is permanent, but job creation projects are temporary.”

The mining companies deny any responsibility in the herds’ decline, which they say began as early as 1950. They blame the drop in one herd (from 200,000 caribou in 1948 to 44,000 in 1977) on over-hunting by Indian and Inuit and on attacks by wolves. Assertions by the Inuit that migration was stable and predictable before the companies arrived were described by lawyer Robert Cosman, representing Comineo,Western Mines and Pan Ocean Oil, as “the myth of certain people.”

The Inuit struggle to retain control of the Keewatin District is not a new one. Last year, supported by the ITC, the Baker Lake settlement won an injunction against the federal government which temporarily stopped mining exploration along caribou migration routes. In the six days that hearings were conducted in Baker Lake this May, they appeared again before the federal court of Canada seeking a permanent ban on their unwelcome guests along the routes.

There are two aspects to the issue, says John Ivany, a lawyer with Noranda Mines. Land-use restrictions will make it “impossible to work in the north,” he says. “But, more than that, there’s the question of who actually owns the land. Mining exploration is an expensive business—our budget in the

Territories annually is $1 million. If we find something, who will profit from it?”

But, for the Inuit, the development scenario is seen in a different light. As William Noah, of Baker Lake, told the court: “What usually happened when the white men came was to tell you, ‘This is the land and we are here to do a job, we are here to make money. Therefore you have no right to tell us we can’t do this and we can’t do that.’ ” To the Inuit, he explained, “The land we live on was a land for everyone. There was nothing one person owned. The land we lived on was shared.”

But not all Inuit have held out against the concept of owned land. In 1978, after almost a decade of discussion, 2,500 Inuit in the western Arctic relinquished 273,000 square miles of rich oil and gas reserves to the federal government in return for ownership of 37,000 square miles, traditional wildlife hunting rights and $45 million—a decision which the Inuit and Dene Indians feel has undermined their strength in the north.

Taking their lead from that settlement, the Inuit of Baker Lake have adopted the strategy of linking their land rights and political rights into one issue for negotiations. They are pressing beyond the Baker Lake case to pursue the possibility of establishing 1.5 million square miles of the Arctic, north and east of the treeline, as a province which they hope to call Nunavut (“our land”).

According to Bob Goudie, a federal government land-claims negotiator,

that stubbornness has kept negotiations deadlocked for two years. “The Inuit should settle their land claims quickly,” said Goudie, “to protect certain land from resource development. Political development should wait.” But Inuit leaders believe that land-claims settlements without assurances of political control will leave them with less than they now have.

“The Baker Lake case is a small piece in a larger puzzle,” says Denhez. “The Inuit have been around for 4,000 years and they have every intention of being around for another 4,000. They want a democratically elected government of their own to protect their future. We’re not trying to establish an ‘ethnic state’ as some people have charged; but the current territorial government setup is so large that it’s not administratable.”

Few politicians understand the natives’plight as clearly as External Affairs Minister Flora MacDonald, who once said, “I think we have a moral right to help them achieve recognition of their aboriginal rights. More important, we have to recognize that their concept of land, rooted in their belief in aboriginal title, is vastly different from ours.”

Whether the Inuit’s traditional way of life can survive the onslaught of mining exploration and development in a world of serious mineral and petroleum shortages is a question that will not be readily answered. Whatever federal court Judge Patrick Mahoney decides on the Baker Lake claims, the outcome will certainly affect mining activity and life in the north. John Plaskett