Nunavut and the International Arctic
Gordon Robertson


Among the considerations that relate to the establishment of the Territory of Nunavut, which would be an "Inuit homeland" in Canada, there is one consideration that has not received the attention it should. That is the way in which such an "Inuit territory" could play a role in Canada's growing interest in the international Arctic.

 With the voyage of the Manhattan in 1969 we were jolted into an awareness of the uncertain status at international law of the waters of the Canadian arctic archipelago. That led to an assertion of Canadian jurisdiction in the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act. We got a second jolt in 1985 with the voyage of the American ice-breaker, the Polar Sea. That led our present government, in September 1985, to establish straight baselines around the archipelago and to declare the waters within those lines to be inland waters of Canada. That assertion has not yet been tested in international law, but at some point it may have to be.

 One of the surest grounds in international law for a claim of sovereignty is what is called "effective occupation". It is not easy to effectively occupy waters in the extreme North that are frozen for most of the year. However, the Inuit do "occupy" those waters. They use them even more than they use the land as a source of food-largely marine mammals taken from the water during the short time it is open and from the ice during the rest of the year.

If the Territory of Nunavut existed, it would include a number of islands in the arctic archipelago, of which several have Inuit settlements. It might be worth considering how the government and jurisdiction of Nunavut could be used to buttress our claim to sovereignty over those arctic waters.

 In the constitutional arrangement for the new territory provision might be made for some aspects of presently federal jurisdiction over offshore areas to be exercised by the legislative assembly and government of Nunavut. This could be in respect of the control of hunting and exploitation of marine mammals in the waters of the archipelago, law enforcement and the application of law to activities in the "water" areas offshore, and other matters of that kind. The application of the laws of a Canadian Inuit government to an ice and water region used by them would be a valid and genuine form of occupation by the people and the government in Canada that can most effectively occupy them -and much cheaper than a Class 8 ice-breaker.

 A new Nunavut territory, special arrangements for aboriginal self-government, and the settlement of aboriginal land claims all will cost money. The decline in oil and gas prices, as well as world prices of commodities generally, are clear enough warning that those costs will not be covered by any bonanza in resource development in the North not in the foreseeable future and possibly not ever. What it comes down to is really two questions. The first is whether we want the North to continue to be a part of Canada. If the answer is "Yes", the second is whether we are prepared to do what is necessary to provide the circumstances, economic and political, in which the people who are native to the North, and others who go to live there, can govern themselves and be themselves as the Canadian presence in that enormous area.

 The reaction to the voyage of the Polar Sea, with its apparent challenge to Canadian sovereignty over the waters of the archipelago, made it clear that the Canadian people want no doubt about the fact of the North being and remaining a part of Canada. If that is the case, it becomes a national responsibility to make the most effective arrangements we reasonably can, in cooperation with the people of the North, to provide for a self-respecting northern future that is as dynamic and as self-supporting as it can be made.

 While the costs will be substantial, they need not be exorbitant. While there will probably be no resource boom, ingenuity, education, and effort can undoubtedly provide economic activity we do not now foresee. It is a difficult but an exciting challenge.

 It could be that imaginative political development in the North, with full involvement of the native peoples there, is just the thing we need to remove that nagging doubt whether Canada really is different and really has a character of its own.


Gordon Robertson is Fellow-in-Residence, Institute for Research on Public Policy.

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