During the last 30 years, northern Canada has changed fundamentally as a result of land-claims settlements, political and constitutional development, mineral and oil and gas exploration and development, the introduction of television, and investment in schools, hospitals, houses, roads, and other infrastructure. Yet in other ways, it has changed very little. Inuit, Dene, Métis, and First Nations continue to hunt, fish, trap, and gather. They eat what the land provides.
Resilient but adaptable, northern peoples move forward, adjusting to economic and social processes from outside the North. But certain important issues can no longer be dealt with solely by residents of this region or even by Arctic states either singly or collectively. Global processes such as climate change and increased WB radiationwhich have marked effects in the Northrequire global solutions. In particular, northerners suffer the public health and environmental consequences of transboundary contaminants brought to the Arctic by winds and currents from tropical and temperate countries. What are these contaminants and what are their effects? How serious is the problem? Must "country food" diets change to avoid ingestion of contaminants? How can we get rid of them? What are the territorial and federal governments doing? How best can the concerns of Arctic residents be brought to bear in international decision making? The answers to these questions will largely determine the face of the North well into the next century and will fully test the resilience and adaptability of northern peoples.
Transboundary Contaminants: The Information Base
Although largely ignored by the mainstream media, two significant scientific reports on transboundary contaminants in the Arctic were published in spring 1997. The firstCanadian Arctic Contaminants Assessment Report (CACAR: presented six years of leading-edge research into contaminants in the Canadian North funded through the federal government's Northern Contaminants Program (NCP), a component of the Arctic Environmental Strategy (AES). The CACAR, which deals solely with northern Canada, is complemented by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme's Arctic Pollution Issues: A State of the Arctic Environment Report. This superbly produced report is a major component of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), which was put in place by the eight circumpolar Arctic nations in 1991 (see Northern Perspectives 21:4, Winter 1993-1994).
Both reports show that toxic, volatile, and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) used in tropical and temperate countries are transported through the atmosphere and deposited in the Arctic "sink." These many and varied pollutants, often with long and difficult to pronounce names, include pesticides (dieldrin, DDT, toxaphene, chlordane, and hexachlorocyclohexane); several industrial compounds (PCBs, HCBs, and short-chain chlorinated paraffins); and some industrial and combustion by-products (PAHs, PCDDs, and PCDFs). [See box, for full names.]
Once in the Arctic, many POPs bioaccumulate and biomagnify in the food chain. They have a high lipid solubility, which means they concentrate in the fatty tissue of animalsparticularly those in the marine environment. In northern Canada many Aboriginal people ingest POPs when they eat country food. Depending upon the type and amount of country food consumed, many Inuit, in particular, have levels of POPs in their bodies well in excess of the "level of concern" defined by Health Canada. In autumn 1997, studies of Inuit women in the Keewatin and Baffin regions of the Northwest Territories showed that 59 and 65 per cent respectively of those studied had quantities of PCBs in their blood as much as five times beyond this level. The Arctic may be wild but, unfortunately, it is far from pristine.
To northerners this is primarily a public health Issue and only secondarily an environmental matter. All involved are concerned with the long-term health effects on people chronically exposed to POPs through their food. This is why the federal government is currently sponsoring rescarch into the public health impacts of POPs in the Arctic and has renewed the NCP for a further five years.
POPs are considered to be endocrine disruptors that cause reproductive, neurological, and immune system dysfunctions. Research already completed in the United States points to learning "deficits" and subtle behavioural effects in children born to mothers with high levels of POPs in their bodies. Most of these pollutants have intergenerational effects, for they pass the placental barrier. Women in these studies had consumed, over a long period, large quantities of Lake Michigan fish contaminated with POPs. The levels of POPs in the mothers and their children are generally below levels recorded in many Inuit in northern Canada and Greenland.
Available evidence suggests that POPs in the Arctic have an impact on public health, although further rescarch is needed to quantify the risks. Decision makers need to be cautious in the dietary advice they give to northerners, for it makes no sense to dissuade people from eating highly nutritious country food when alternative store-bought goods are often prohibitively expensive and some are linked to increasing rates of diabetes and other ailments among Aboriginal peoples. In the same vein, government agencies continue to advise northern women to breast-feed their infants.
International Controls: A Long-term Solution
The only long-term solution to this problem is to reduce the emissions of POPs at source. This is far more easily said than done, for it requires countries in both the developing and the developed world to reduce emissions of POPs from substances important to agriculture and industry. Although public health in the Arctic is not a priority among tropical and temperate countries, the environmental security and public health of northern Aboriginal peoples in Canada and throughout the circumpolar Arctic is determined by the environmental, agricultural, and industrial policies of countries in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere.
Reducing global emissions of POPs to protect the public health of northern peoples is a major foreign policy challenge facing Canada and other Arctic nations.
What is the prospect that international controls will reduce emissions of POPs to the environment? What avenues can governments use to translate research and science into international policy and action? What role is Canada playing in these processes? To what degree will Arctic nations co-operate in international fora to press for reduction of POPs emissions? Many Canadians will be surprised to learn that international discussion to control emission of POPs has been under way for some years; that formal negotiations began in January 1997; and that Canada played a key role in getting control of POPs emissions on the international agenda.
The international response to POPs in the Arctic followed publication in the late 1980sof data that showed women in Baffin Island and northern Quebec had high levels of POPs in their bodies, particularly in their blood and breast-milk. This data surprised scientists and in part prompted the establishment in 1991 of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), an eight-nation programme to research and publicize the full nature of the problem. At roughly the same time, Canada and Sweden suggested that the emissions of POPs be addressed through a protocol to the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP). This short convention, signed in 1979, brings together countries of North America, Europe, and the former Soviet Union under the umbrella of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN/ECE).
Towards a POPs Protocol to the Convention on LRTAP
Designed to address acid rain, the Convention on LRTAP has had several detailed protocolslegally binding technical agreements dealing with emissions of sulphur, nitrogen oxides, and other substances appended to it. Although a POPs protocol to LRTAP would not address emissions of POPs from developing countries in Latin America, Asia, or Africamajor sources of POPs that end up in the Arcticachieving it was judged an essential stop towards a global agreement, for it would signal that the industrialized world was committed to dealing with this issue. Indeed, faced with data made available through the NCP, and with foreknowledge of publication of the CA CAR and the AMAP report, the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) agreed to sponsor negotiation of a legally binding global convention on 13 named POPsthe "dirty dozen" [see box below]. These negotiations are scheduled to begin in summer 1998 in Montreal and may conclude by 2001. UNEP is currently organizing workshops to raise the awareness of states and non-governmental organizations in Russia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America about the environmental and public health implications of POPs emissions and to prepare the ground for the global negotiations.
In 1991, the LRTAP Working Group on Strategies, a technical body comprising representatives of all parties to the convention, asked for and received from a Canadian task force a scientific rationale for a POPs protocol. In 1994, the LRTAP Executive Body, a permanent institution established by the convention, struck an Ad Hoc Preparatory Working Group on POPs that in 1995 was asked to draft a "composite negotiating text," a document to restrict, ban, or phase out uses of 15 named POPs. This group brought together representatives of approximately 30 countries under the chair of a civil servant in the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development who was at the time assisting in the preparation of both the CACAR and the AMAP report. Formal negotiations on this text began in January 1997 at the United Nations in Geneva. Further negotiations were held in June, October, and December. The text of the protocol is now agreed on and awaits ministers' signatures in June 1998 at Arhus, Denmark.
Involvement by Northern Aboriginal Peoples in the POPs Protocol
It is one thing to advocate international controls on emissions of POPs, as Canada has done effectively, but something entirely different to markedly influence negotiations to achieve this end. Moreover, as Lloyd Axworthy, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, said recently, "nothing is ever clear in international negotiations." While Inuit, Dene, Métis, the Council of Yukon First Nations, and the two territorial governments participated strongly in the early to mid- 1990s in the NCP, these interests had little to do with Canada's preparation for LRTAP negotiations. Indeed, the Canadian negotiating team was composed solely of Ottawa-based federal government agencies.
The federal Department of the Environment (DOE), initially the lead Canadian agency in LRTAP negotiations, sponsored conference calls with representatives of industry, governments, Aboriginal peoples, environmental groups, and other interested parties to keep all informed. These calls, often involving more than 20 participants, proved unwieldy and did little to equip these interests to influence events. Moreover, the Aboriginal peoples in the North, to whom the issue of transboundary contaminants is of direct and compelling importance, were uneasy when participating in conference calls as one interest among many: they certainly did not wish DOE to assume that such calls constituted appropriate consultation. These peoples were acutely aware of their Aboriginal and treaty rights and the fiduciary obligations of the Crown towards them, which placed significant consultative burdens upon the federal government before engaging in international negotiations that might affect their rights. At no stage were northern Aboriginal peoples invited to assist the federal government in developing its formal negotiating position.
Faced with the imminent publication of the CACAR and the AMAP report, about which they knew a great deal through their involvement in the NCP, and responding to growing concern among their constituents about the public health implications of POPs in the Arctic, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC), Dene Nation, Métis Nation-NWT, and the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) formed a coalition in March 1997 to constructively influence Canada's position in LRTAP and in proposed global POPs negotiations. The Department of the Environment encouraged the Aboriginal peoples' organizations to form the coalition, and modest funding was obtained from the NCP. The Aboriginal peoples took to heart AMAP's recommendation:
The Arctic countries should take all necessary stops to ensure that their domestic responsibilities and arrangements to reduce contaminant inputs to the Arctic region are fully implemented. If these responsibilities and arrangements are not addressed in an appropriate manner, the justification for recommending actions aimed at reducing transboundary contaminants with sources outside of the Arctic will be accordingly diminished....
The AMAP countries, all being parties to the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP), should work vigorously for the expeditious completion of negotiations for ... a protocol on POPs.... In addition, the AMAP countries should strongly support the work of the international negotiating committee, to be established early in 1998 ... to prepare an international, legally-binding global agreement on controls for thirteen specified POPs.1
Canada's Approach to the POPs Protocol
Some weeks later, the coalition members read a carefully crafted letter written on 21 March 1997 to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) on behalf of the federal departments of Industry, Natural Resources, and Agriculture and Agri-food and the Pest Management Regulatory Agency. Written well after the first LRTAP negotiating session in Geneva, this letter suggested that all was not well in the Canadian approach to the issue or on the Canadian negotiating team. Citing the "urgent need for a Federal Strategy for POPs," including Cabinet instructions to the negotiating team, and the need for DFAIT rather than DOE to lead and co-ordinate Canada's efforts, the letter suggested:
Actions on these substances can be expected to have significant economic impacts, by virtue of reducing or eliminating markets for specific products and associated industries, and by requiring substantial investment in technology designed to reduce or eliminate byproducts of a wide range of manufacturing processes.2
The Aboriginal peoples were concerned with this letter's characterization of the POPs issue as an economic matter, rather than as a question of public health. This was particularly puzzling in light of the reporting relationship of the Pest Management Regulatory Agency to the minister of Health, who, it was felt, should automatically see this as a health issue. With this in mind, the coalition questioned the letter's political approval. In addition, Aboriginal peoples were surprised to learn that Canada's position in Geneva was the result not of Cabinet-approved instructions but of agreements among federal civil servants. This, they felt, did not mirror concern in the North about POPs and public health and was not consistent with the expenditure of considerable sums of money over many years through the NCP to ascertain the nature of the problem or with Canada's considerable efforts to persuade other countries to negotiate a POPs protocol. The letter revealed that in the midst of international negotiations federal agencies disagreed not only on Canada's position but also on the make-up and leadership of the negotiating team! This did not inspire confidence, and the coalition feared that the agencies referenced in the letter might use the promised Cabinet process to weaken Canada's negotiating position on 18 named substances already being discussed in Geneva. These concerns prompted a 1 May letter signed by the political leaders of all five organizations to the minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
In their letter, the Aboriginal peoples pointed out that the proposed POPs protocol to LRTAP would, in fact, have few economic implications, for none of the 18 named substances is manufactured in Canada and only four are used in Canada. In addition, they noted that the International Chemical Council Association, of which the Canadian Chemical Producers Association is a member, supported the protocol. In a direct appeal to the minister, they said:
For more than five years we have observed and applauded an aggressive Canadian commitment to dealing with long-range transport of POPs. We are puzzled by this apparent change of heart on an issue the federal government has so effectively convinced us to be of immediate concern and importance to our environment and our health.
We ask you to give this issue your personal attention and to encourage your Cabinet colleagues to define a negotiating position that fully takes into account the environmental and public health implications of POPs to northern aboriginal peoples.3
Further evidence to support the appeal to the minister arose in a letter from DIAND to the Pest Management Regulatory Agency concerning inclusion in the protocol of the pesticide lindane. The letter acknowledged that the Canadian team had "decided to recommend that Canada will not support the inclusion of any controls on Lindane....including restrictions which may be compatible with current Canadian regulations... [as] the presently valid Canadian risk assessment for this substance would not justify such action."4
Having noted that DIAND would, perforce, "respect" this decision, the letter noted that significant, if preliminary, evidence in the CACAR and the AMAP report showed lindane to be a real public health concern in the North. In the Baffin region, dietary surveys had shown that nearly 15 per cent of women studied ingested more than the advised tolerable daily intake (TDI) of HCHa component of lindane. Copies of the risk assessment and supporting data forming the basis for Canada's regulatory regime for lindane were requested, but the Pest Management Regulatory Agency declined, citing proprietary concerns. To the coalition, this raised questions about the methods and data used to conduct the risk assessment and its current validity. As well, the coalition wondered how this agency could function as a member of the Canadian negotiating team while denying requested information to a federal department on the same team. The coalition could see no reason why information relating to the public health of northerners should be withheld. In December 1997, the ICC formally asked the Pest Management Regulatory Agency for this information5 and was similarly refused.6
The June 1997 Negotiating Session
Now thoroughly concerned about the Canadian position, the Aboriginal peoples coalition used ICC's "consultative" status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council to send an observer to the 16-20 June POPs negotiating session in Geneva. The observer reported that Canada was taking a more cautious and conservative position than virtually any other nation on the inclusion of many substances, restriction on uses, addition of future substances, and import and export controls. This caution seemed curiously at odds with Canada's earlier and successful attempts to persuade LRTAP countries to negotiate a POPs protocol. The observer also reported that representatives of industry observing the events were in close contact with the delegation from the United States, but that no environmental, public-interest, or other non-governmental groups were in attendance. National and international media either did not know about the negotiations or had chosen not to cover them. The Canadian delegation was now co-chaired by the departments of the Environment and Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
These various changes did not go unnoticed; representatives of two other Arctic delegations approached the ICC observer asking whether Canada had changed its view on the need for a POPs protocol. The advocacy of economic development agencies in Ottawa seemed to be having a marked effect on Canada's negotiating position and posture.
Back in Ottawa
This conclusion was bolstered by a letter from the minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in response to the 1 May letter from the Aboriginal peoples coalition:
You express concern that consideration of economic interests could delay and weaken potential control mechanisms for POPs. I wish to assure you that the final Canadian mandate for the negotiations will be based on principles of sustainable development, which involve a thorough consideration of all environmental, social and economic concerns. Our position will also take into account the views expressed by Northern Aboriginal organizations during the consultations that preceded the launch of negotiations.7
The final sentence left all wondering what "consultations" the minister presumed had taken place. The fact that the minister characterized this as a sustainable development issue and not as a matter of public health confirmed that important agencies in Ottawa, with the notable exception of DIAND, saw the issue differently from those it directly affected. The Aboriginal peoples wondered whether their public health might be "traded off" in the rough and tumble of international politics.
Based on observations in Geneva and assuming that in the autumn Cabinet would provide negotiators with a formal mandate to conclude a POPs protocol, the coalition advised the minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in an 8 August letter that Canada's position was "not acceptable." Citing Canada's refusal to include short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCP), lindane, or pentachlorophenol (PCP) in the protocol, to support inclusion of trade-restrictive measures (import/export controls), or to invest authority in the convention Executive Body to add substances to the protocol as and when science showed them to be of concern, the Aboriginal peoples concluded:
To Inuit, Dene and Metis, and First Nations in northern Canada, contamination of the wildlife we hunt and eat is a matter of public health, and as such is an issue we take seriously above all others. A significant percentage of aboriginal people in the North have levels of certain POPs in their bodies which greatly exceed Health Canada's "level of concern " We recommend to you that the Canadian position be reassessed. Canada should join the majority of other LRTAP Convention countries in supporting an effective Protocol that lays a strong foundation for negotiation of the UNEP legally binding POPs instrument.8
The federal Cabinet approved a negotiating mandate on 9 October 1997. The minister of the Environment tabled the correspondence from the Aboriginal peoples to illustrate the depth of opinion and concern on the issue. Influential in raising the profile of the issue in Ottawa were several Members of Parliament who had contacted ministers about this "national interest" issue; the summer 1997 report of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade into Canada's Arctic policy, which called upon the government to "redouble" its efforts to conclude an expansive POPs protocol to LRTAP; and the work of the Canadian Polar Commission and the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee.
Geneva in October
Two representatives of the Aboriginal peoples coalition observed proceedings at the October 1997 negotiating session in Geneva and pressed their concerns with delegations during breaks. The Danish, Norwegian, and Canadian delegations were particularly helpful in facilitating this involvement. This was originally billed as the final such session, but additional meetings of heads of delegationto which observers, including northern Aboriginal peoples, are not invitedand formal negotiating sessions were held in late 1997 and early 1998. Perhaps the most startling revelation at the October session was from the Russian delegation, which admitted that PCBs are still being manufactured in the Federation of Russia. Canada's position was less rigid than that of the previous June. Remaining firmly against import and export controls, Canada now accepted that lindane could be included in the protocol as a restricted substance, but insisted that all current uses of the pesticide be allowed to continue. Canada refused to accept any date to phase out lindane but did agree to a future "review" of its uses.
With an eye to proposed negotiation of a global agreement on POPs, the Aboriginal peoples tabled, through the supportive Swedish chair, a paper that, if adopted, would partially ground the LRTAP POPs protocol in Arctic, Aboriginal, and public health concerns. They proposed the amendment and/or addition of four clauses to the protocol's preamble, and a new clause outlining the protocol's scope:
Aware that persistent organic pollutants resist degradation under natural conditions, particularly in cold climates, and that certain persistent organic pollutants have been associated with adverse effects on human health and the environment, and that this is an immediate public health issue for Arctic indigenous peoples;
Recognizing that many persistent organic pollutants migrate to the Arctic where they deposit and accumulate in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems;
Acknowledging that Arctic ecosystems are especially vulnerable to the serious threat posed by persistent organic pollutants which have been shown to bioaccumulate in the lipid-rich tissues of Arctic organisms;
Cognizant of the particular and immediate threat posed by persistent organic pollutants to the physical and cultural well being of indigenous peoples and others who are dependent on the harvest of country foods;
The ultimate objective of this protocol 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.
The American delegation and representatives of Scandinavian countries warmly welcomed this intervention and proposed to support this language. In subsequent meetings of heads of delegation, the preambular language proposed by the Aboriginal peoples was, in part, accepted. Unfortunately, the clause detailing the protocol's scope was not.
Conclusions and Questions
It would be unfair to draw hard conclusions from events to date; only when a final document is available will we be able to judge whether Canada, in particular, has done a good job. Nevertheless, it is not too early to make several observations.
While transboundary contaminants affect people in many parts of Canada, the health of people resident in the North who eat country food is most obviously at risk. Northerners quite rightly expect the federal government to understand this and to involve them in preparing for and conducting international negotiations. Such has not been the case. Federal agencies in charge of negotiations have little knowledge of the special circumstances that distinguish the territorial North from the provincial South; neither do they fully appreciate federal obligations to northern Aboriginal peoples under comprehensive land-claims and self-government agreements and Aboriginal rights or as a result of the Crown's fiduciary relationship with Inuit, Dene, Métis, and First Nations. These obligations suggest that the departments of the Environment and Foreign Affairs and International Trade should directly involve Aboriginal peoples in defining Canada's negotiating position. There may be legal as well as political and moral reasons to do so.
It is not unusual for Aboriginal people to be included on federal government delegations to international meetings and negotiations involving, for example, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Migratory Birds Convention, or the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy. Yet no invitations have been issued to any northern residentsAboriginal or non-Aboriginalto join the Canadian delegation to the LRTAP POPs negotiations. Ottawa is approaching these negotiations as if they involve federal rather than national interests. This is a mistake. The Aboriginal peoples coalition has had to invite itself into the domestic and international processes. But striving to play a constructive and advisory role while simultaneously looking over the shoulder of the Canadian delegation and reporting what it sees are not always compatible roles.
The Canadian approach to the LRTAP POPs process should not be repeated in the forthcoming global POPs negotiations. As the recent Kyoto conference on climate change illustrates, negotiating with developing countries is not easy, for there is a wideand perhaps growinggap between the views and objectives of developed nations in the North and developing nations in the South in relation to environmental issues. While Arctic concerns will not assume centre stage during global negotiations, Aboriginal peoples in northern Canada and the circumpolar Arctic may be able to engage residents, interest groups, and even governments in key developing countries to promote the case for a global POPs treaty and in so doing bring a more positive hue to north-south relations. The Aboriginal peoples coalition appreciates this opportunity and is discussing with the Sami of Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula and the Russian Association of Aboriginal Peoples the formation of a circumpolar Arctic peoples coalition to participate in the global negotiations. In any event, the Canadian team for the global negotiations should be more broadly based than its LRTAP predecessor and co-ordinated by federal representatives with real knowledge of the Aboriginal peoples and other northerners whose rights and interests they are defending.
Canadian media have yet to grasp the transboundary contaminants story. The Globe and Mail refused opinion editorials submitted by ICC with the comment that the story was unimportant compared with the collapse of cod and salmon stocks off the east and west coasts. Contaminants are insidious and invisible. There are no quick solutions and the issue is not easily captured in sound bites; yet the public must be informed if only so that politicians will be pressed to devote badly needed financial and intellectual resources to the issue. This suggests the need for briefings and informational sessions with selected media on the nature of the issue and how it must be addressed. Government agencies and Aboriginal peoples surely have complementary roles to play here.
Environmental issues attract environmental groups. Some are highly professional and are used extensively by the media to raise the profile of public-interest issues domestically and internationally. Nevertheless, the Canadian environmental "movement" has not discovered the POPs issue. Nor has the community of foundations that funds many environmental organizations. Very few groups responded to the publication of the CACAR and the AMAP report. There are likely many reasons for this lapse: lack of money and qualified people, pressing issues elsewhere, and a perception that this is a "northern" issue affecting relatively few people. But would silence shroud this issue if the levels of POPs in Inuit women were being found in mothers resident in southern Ontario and southern Quebec?
All of this points to the need for outreach and alliance and coalition building among organized interests to raise the issue's profile. In particular, it suggests that non-governmental groups with northern interests and knowledge and Aboriginal peoples organizations must seek out strategic alliances with other interests to persuade the federal government to deal with transboundary emission of POPs as a priority.
Terry Fenge is Director of Research, Inuit Circumpolar Conference.
[Ed. The "notes" for this article are not yet available online.]
Eighteen pesticides are grouped
together in the Dirty
actually a "baker's dozen" of 13
because of their closely related chemical structures:
The "Drins": Aldrin, Dieldrin, Endrin
Parathion, Methyl Parathion
Pentachlorophenol, 2, 4, 5-T