Colonialism still present in Arctic, says premier of Canada’s Northwest Territories

Closer cooperation between northern jurisdictions will help protect the interests of Arctic residents as international activity increases in the Arctic, says Bob McLeod, premier of Canada’s Northwest Territories. (Courtesy Arctic Circle)
REYKJAVIK, Iceland ­-  Despite improved relations between the federal government and Canada’s Indigenous Peoples, northerners still get excluded from political decisions that impact their lands and livelihoods,  says Bob McLeod, premier of Canada’s Northwest Territories.

“Colonialism is not entirely absent,” McLeod told a standing-room only crowd of international diplomats, business leaders, media and academics at the Arctic Circle Assembly, an annual event held in Iceland to foster international dialogue about the North.

“We saw (this) last December when Canada declared a unilateral moratorium on oil and gas development in the Arctic without prior consultation with either the public government of the Northwest Territories or the Indigenous people of the region,” he said on Friday.

Last winter, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the risk of Arctic drilling justified the moratorium, but that the decision would be reviewed after five years.

However, in Canada’s North, where education and employment opportunities are scarce, especially in isolated Indigenous communities, northern leaders pushed back saying the decision would put the breaks on much-needed economic development.

Resource development and environmental protection
Ulukhaktok, a community in Canada’s Northwest Territories. What should economic development look like in remote northern communities like this one? (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)

In Iceland on Friday, McLeod said closer cooperation between Canada’s territories and other Arctic regions was needed to better protect the interests of northerners, pointing to the Pan-Territorial Vision for Sustainable Development, released by the Northwest Territories,  Yukon and Canada’s eastern Arctic territory of Nunavut, last month.

In it, the territorial governments call for an end to unilateral decision making on areas affecting their regions and stress the importance of Indigenous participation in economic and resource development.

McLeod said the territories recognize that the resource economy can’t be the only focus of development, and called for greater investments in infrastructure, clean energy and innovation that could lead to a northern knowledge economy.

“Our vision is built on the recognition that the people of the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon are our number 1 priority and our most important resource,” McLeod said.

“The people of the Arctic want what everybody else wants. They want good jobs and a good standard of living. They want to be healthy and educated. And most of all, they want a sustainable future for themselves and their families, based on their own vision and priorities.”

Paris climate agreement takes centre stage
Sea ice breaks apart by the passing of the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica as it traverses the Northwest Passage through the Victoria Strait in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago Friday, July 21, 2017. Scientists believe there is no way to reverse the decline in Arctic sea ice in the foreseeable future. Even in the best-case scenario envisaged by the 2015 Paris climate accord, sea ice will largely vanish from the Arctic during the summer within the coming decades. (David Goldman/AP/via The Canadian Press)
The Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica sailing through the Northwest Passage this summer. Even in the best-case scenario envisaged by the 2015 Paris climate accord, sea ice will largely vanish from the Arctic during the summer within the coming decades. (David Goldman/AP/via The Canadian Press)

McLeod’s remarks were made during the Arctic Circle Assembly’s opening session alongside Iceland’s Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, Iceland’s President Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson and Ségolène Royal, France’s ambassador for the Arctic and Antarctic Poles, where the implementation of the Paris climate agreement dominated many of the speeches.

“The worst is yet to come,” Benediktsson said of climate change.  “The melting may impact the entire climate system of the earth.”

The Paris agreement was heralded as a major political achievement when it was reached in 2015. But the international community was left reeling when U.S. President Donald Trump said in June that he would pull out of the accord, saying it would be bad for the U.S. economy.

“The consequences of climate change are already being felt all over the planet,” said Royal, who was president of the UN climate change process at the time of the Paris agreement and one of the accord’s key architects.

“We all know we still need to work very hard on implementing the Paris agreement,” she said. “The climate fight is a major step towards global justice and human dignity. And if we are united in this fight, we will win.”

The Arctic Circle Assembly runs until October 15.

Write to Eilis Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Court ruling on Inuit consultation a ‘wake-up call’ for Canadian government says lawyer, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Barents bishops ask Arctic Council to promote fossil-free future, Yle News

Greenland:  Companies ill-prepared to respect indigenous rights in Arctic, study finds, Blog by Mia Bennett

Iceland:  Norwegians and Icelanders let Alaskans in on the secrets to economic prosperity, Alaska Public Radio Network

Norway: Establishment of Álgu Fund marks new beginning in Arctic Council, indigenous peoples say, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: More protected lands on Nenets tundra in Arctic Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Treatment of Sami people among Swedish shortcomings : Amnesty International report, Radio Sweden

United States: New bill aims to reverse Obama restrictions on Arctic offshore drilling, Alaska Public Radio Network

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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