By Juliet O’Neill, Canwest News Service June 17, 2010
OTTAWA — The government should get cracking on implementing Nunavut land claims and involving Indigenous peoples more in protecting Arctic sovereignty, the House of Commons defence committee said Thursday.
An all-party report expressed “concern” that Indigenous peoples have not been accorded proper recognition for their historic role in helping ensure Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic by living in the region.
“The assertion that our sovereignty depends largely on Inuit occupation of the region are a bit hollow if we continue to lag on our commitments to the Inuit and prolong the failure to implement the Nunavut land claims agreement,” Jack Harris, New Democratic Party defence critic, said at a news conference by committee members.
The MPs also recommended the Arctic Council should be strengthened, the government should re-establish the office of Arctic ambassador, create a cabinet committee on Arctic affairs and give priority to resolving a dispute over the Beaufort Sea with the United States.
The report generally supported the broad direction of government policy but chair Maxime Bernier said the recommendations aim to ensure Canada has the right tools. While the committee concluded the Canadian Forces are equipped to defend the region, it was concerned the building of Arctic patrol ships and the icebreaker John G. Diefenbaker are falling significantly behind schedule.
The committee recommended the government make development and long-term maintenance of viable Indigenous communities a priority and ensure that the Inuit be included in Northern environment scientific projects.
“It is especially important that Canada’s Indigenous peoples be an integral part of any decision making process affecting policies regarding the Arctic,” the report said. “In line with this, we believe it important that outstanding land claims in the region be settled quickly.”
Harris issued a supplementary report emphasizing the long-stalled process of implementing the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement.
“After 17 years, only 50 per cent of the agreement has been implemented,” he said, citing provision of educational services as a key to the future of Nunavut’s ability to run its own affairs and participate in national and international decision making about the Arctic.
“We must stress the importance and urgency for the government of Canada to fulfil its obligations to our indigenous partners in the Arctic.”
The committee heard testimony that a dispute resolution mechanism in the agreement was not working and Inuit leader Mary Simon had told the committee that “along with the building of military infrastructure in the region we also need to build sustainable communities.”
The committee said “Canada’s legal title to its Arctic territories is well established” and there is no immediate military threat to Canadian territories either in or “through” the Arctic. But it said that “given the increased interest and anticipated activity in the Arctic, Canada needs to increase its ‘presence’ in the region.”
Meanwhile, Operation Nanook, the Canadian Forces’ summer Arctic sovereignty exercise, moves north of the Arctic Circle for the first time this summer, and in a twist will include ships from the Danish and American navies, plus a ship and dive team from the United States Coast Guard.
The participation by the Danes and Americans is notable for a Canadian sovereignty exercise, since Canada has lingering offshore boundary disputes with both Denmark and the U.S.
With a file from the Nunatsiaq News