Arctic Contaminants: An Unfinished Agenda
By Robbie Keith
In January 1998 DIAND announced funding commitments of $6 million annually for the full 5-year programme contemplated for NCP-II. This announcement responds to concerns of Aboriginal peoples' organizations, and CARC applauds the government's commitment to continue this essential research into the serious problem of northern contaminants.
For six years the Northern Contaminants Program (NCP), funded by the federal government and co-ordinated by the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND), focused the efforts of scientists and Aboriginal peoples to document the nature of contaminants in the Arctic, their sources, modes of transport, pathways, distribution, and uptake in the ecological systems of the Arctic.

 Exposure levels among the people living there were recorded. Canada's roles in domestic and international contaminants management were examined.

 The unprecedented levels of exposure to contaminants found among many Aboriginal people in the Arctic, along with a growing sense that the integrity of ecological systems was at risk, created a sense of urgency. It became necessary to know—soon—what both science and traditional knowledge could tell us about the problems. More than 100 studies of contaminants from both distant and local sources were documented in the Canadian Arctic Contaminants Assessment Report (CACAR). The NCP is widely recognized as one of the most detailed scientific appraisals of contaminants ever undertaken. As a collaborative research programme involving the scientific community, Aboriginal organizations, public policy makers, and public administrators, it is a lesson in successful partnerships. All who took part are to be applauded for their initiative. We now know a great deal more about Arctic contaminants.

In spite of the accomplishments of the NCP, we remain troubled by unknowns, uncertainties, imponderables, and resistance on the part of some industrial interests and government agencies to adopt well-reasoned precautionary, preventive, mitigative, and restorative responses. A sense of disquiet continues to permeate discussions on contaminants across the country. Some of that disquiet is found in the articles that follow in this issue of Northern Perspectives.

The Northern Contaminants Program

We begin Northern Perspectives with a summary by Chris Furgal and Robbie Keith of the key findings of the Canadian Arctic Contaminants Assessment Report. Russell Shearer, of DIAND, outlines "The Next Steps" of the Northern Contaminants Program, noting greater emphasis this time on human health, quantification of risks and benefits of country foods, and Aboriginal leadership in communications and public information.

While CARC applauds the effort and commitment of those who have worked to guide the NCP and those whose research informed it, much remains to be known and great political leadership will be required to deal effectively with the threats to human and ecological health.

 

 

Aboriginal Perspectives

 The Council of Yukon First Nations, the Dene Nation, the Métis Nation of the Northwest Territories, the Labrador Inuit Association, and Inuit Circumpolar Conference-Canada have outlined some of their positions and concerns. Aboriginal people were among the first to draw attention to contaminants when they noted changes in the flesh and organs of the animals and fish they hunt. Not surprisingly, they now seek genuine involvement at all levels of decision making, from local to international, in their quest for elimination of pollution at source and clean-up. Aboriginal people were a part of the Canadian negotiating team to amend the Migratory Birds Convention, an international treaty between Canada and the United States. CARC believes they should be included as negotiators on international contaminants agreements. The northern Aboriginal organizations recognize the necessity for international action and want Canada to adopt strong positions in international fora. And everyone wants clear, straightforward answers to the issues. The NCP was a successful collaboration between Aboriginal, scientific, and administrative stakeholders. Continuing collaboration is necessary, they say, for everyone to have confidence in the "Next Steps." We should also note the following:

 

 

International Regulation of Contaminants

 In his discussion of regulating persistent organic pollutants (POPs), Professor Nigel Bankes provides an overview of existing international regulations and global and regional steps being taken to create new regulations, as well as a critique of a draft protocol to regulate POPs. Professor Bankes underscores the precedent-setting effect of the current protocol negotiations on POPs for upcoming negotiations on a global United Nations regulation. Negotiations on a POPs protocol under the Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution framework of the Economic Commission for Europe continue with many critical elements of the protocol unresolved. Bankes argues that the protocol's "ultimate objective" should be "the protection of humans and components of the environment, especially upper trophic levels, from the harmful effects of POPs," and goes on to suggest that such an objective provides the criterion against which to measure the effectiveness of the protocol. He suggests further that current substance exemptions are too broad; obligations are limited by national laws, regulations, and practices; there is too little acknowledgement in the protocol of the special character of Arctic peoples and environments; trade rules should be used to protect human health; and the procedures for adding substances to the "lists" are contentious. He suggests an Arctic regional seas approach to deal with land-based POPs pollution. As well, he adds his voice to those calling for Aboriginal representation on Canada's negotiating team.

CARC would add the following points:

 

 

Canada and POPs Policy

 Terry Fenge chronicles the efforts of five major northern Canadian Aboriginal organizations to get federal government recognition of POPs as a public health issue and support for a LRTAP protocol whose goal is "to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of persistent organic pollutants subject to long-range transboundary atmospheric transport by taking measures, consistent with the precautionary principle, to control, reduce, or eliminate their discharge, emission, and loss." CARC believes that the manner in which the federal government has approached the LRTAP/POPs protocol is indicative of too much emphasis on the economic and trade perspectives and too little concern for public health. The health of northern Canadians should be a major foreign policy issue. In its report Canada and the Circumpolar World, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade calls for the Government of Canada to "redouble its efforts to conclude LRTAP protocols on POPs" and urges a broadening of the Northern Contaminants Program to "focus more clearly on the links between contaminants and public health."

 CARC is also concerned that Parliament has not played a significant role in the POPs issue. For that matter, until recently neither had Cabinet. As Terry Fenge notes, until this past autumn, the lead in developing this country's negotiating position had been taken by bureaucrats, not by elected officials. We believe the issue of human health is much too important to be left to unaccountable officials.

 Also troubling is the unwillingness of officials to provide timely and complete information. With peoples' health at risk, we can see no reasonable argument for withholding information and failing to include those most affected in the negotiations of important policy matters. In this post-tainted blood inquiry period, one wonders who may be liable in the future for today's contaminants.

 Now is the time not just for federal leadership but for truly national leadership shared by all the key parties—Aboriginal, federal, and territorial. Canada distinguished itself in the international community in 1997 on the issue of land mines. By joining forces with those truly committed to ridding the world of those terrible devices, Canadians demonstrated the level of resolve needed to achieve a victory for humanity. CARC now urges all parties to dedicate themselves to a similar challenge—the task of eliminating contaminants from the food, waters, air, and land of northern peoples in Canada and throughout the circumpolar Arctic. This is what sustainable development is really about.

Robbie Keith is Executive Director of the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee.


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