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A Feast Worth Fighting For: Inuit Appeal Approval of Seismic Testing at Federal Court

At lunchtime on April 20, as a symbol of their sustenance that’s at stake and as a show of Inuit values of sharing and community, Clyde River Mayor Jerry Natanine will pass around whale and seal meat and Arctic Char to protesters rallying on the steps of Canada's Federal Court of Appeal in Toronto.

Hundreds of Inuit supporters are campaigning for the court to reverse the National Energy Board's (NEB) decision to allow a consortium of three companies to conduct a five-year seismic airgun testing program to map the Baffin Island and Davis Strait sea beds for oil and gas reserves. Surveys—which would involve underwater air cannons emitting frequent and incessant blasts 100,000 times louder than those of a jet engine—would commence in these pristine Arctic waters off the east coast of Nunavut, Canada, once the ice melts this summer. The noise would be severely disruptive and potentially fatal to the region's marine animal populations—the main food source of the area's Inuit, as well as their livelihood.

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But the focus of today's hearing is not about the environmental impact of seismic testing; it is on the NEB's neglect to consult in good faith with the aboriginal peoples of Clyde River and Baffin Island, Nunavut, before approving this oil and gas exploration—a gateway to offshore drilling.

å"When we talk, it's like talking to a brick wall," Clyde River Mayor Jerry Natanine told Indian Country Today Media Network.

On April 20, three judges will hear submissions by both sides and intervenors concerning the appeal by Mayor Natanine, the Hamlet of Nunavut, and the Nammautaq Hunters and Trappers Organization to overturn the NEB's approval to begin seismic testing in the absence of adequate Inuit consultation.

"The main argument we are advancing is that the federal government violated the constitutional duty to consult the affected Inuit groups under the Canadian constitution," Nader Hasan, legal counsel on the appeal and partner at Ruby Shiller Chan Hasan, told ICTMN. "Any pretense of consultation was completely illusory."

Immediately after news of the 2011 proposal for seismic testing circulated, the Inuit community came out swinging. Residents of Clyde River and Pond Inlet sent petitions opposing the proposal to the NEB in 2011 and 2013, respectively. In the spring of 2013, Nunavut residents proclaimed their opposition at public NEB hearings. In 2013 and 2014, the Hamlet of Clyde River and the Clyde River Hunters and Trappers Organization passed two joint motions opposing the proposed surveys. And in 2014, all 13 mayors of Baffin Island unanimously passed a motion opposing seismic surveys.

But their cries have gone unheeded. The NEB approved the proposed surveys in June 2014. On July 23, Clyde River staged a protest in response. Warren Bernauer, a York University academic and doctoral candidate who specializes in the politics of energy extraction in Nunavut, and who initiated the creation of the Clyde River Solidarity Network in March 2015, offers a thorough overview of the fight against the NEB’s proposal and approval of seismic testing in the Baffin Bay and Davis Strait in the article “Nunavut Is Still a Colony” in Canadian Dimension magazine.

According to the Clyde River Solidarity Network, an alliance of 40 or more advocacy groups and individuals, the NEB's rubber-stamp approval was "a clear and direct violation of international protections for the human rights of Inuit as Indigenous Peoples, as set out in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other international standards." The network, comprised of environmental, labor and Indigenous rights organizations, released its official statement on April 16, calling on the government "to reverse the NEB's decision and ensure that no further permits for petroleum exploration development in Nunavut are granted unless Inuit rights are fully protected, including the right to grant or withhold free, prior and informed consent to such development."

Among the signatures on the solidarity statement are political and celebrity figures like Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada; journalist, author and activist Noami Klein, and musician and actress Lucy Lawless, best known for her turn as the protagonist in Xena: Warrior Princess.

While the Clyde River community's size and remoteness initially limited its members’ ability to mobilize public opinion, support for their fight has snowballed in recent months, said Craig Benjamin, campaigner for the human rights of Indigenous Peoples for Amnesty International Canada, part of the Clyde River Solidarity Network. Amnesty issued its own statement on March 13, declaring the Inuit battle for a voice in seismic testing to be a matter of human rights.

"When you look at the licensing of seismic testing, did [the NEB and the Canadian government] enable the full participation of the Inuit people, listen to their concerns and provide adequate protection for their rights? I think the process failed on all counts," Benjamin told ICTMN. "No other group would see rights recognized by the highest court so casually ignored. When it comes to First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, they have to fight and fight before courts to have their rights respected. What else can you call this except discrimination?"

Inuit Open to Development

Largely, the Inuit people of Nunavut have said they are by no means opposed to industrial development, but that it needs to be their decision. Their culture, traditions and livelihood are at stake.

"We're not totally against development. We've been saying from the beginning that it has to be done right," Natanine told ICTMN. "Measures have to be taken not to harm the environment and the animals living there. Inuit people have to have a meaningful benefit from such activity. We've been saying that we want to be equal partners, co-partners, in any kind of development that is happening up there. We have a bowhead whale sanctuary, we want to protect that area. We've mapped out areas that would be okay for oil exploration and extraction," Natanine explained.

Done faithfully and responsibly, sourcing oil from Baffin Bay and Davis Strait could benefit their remote communities through much-needed employment opportunities and a profit-sharing agreement.

"Up north, there's a shortage of infrastructure: docking facilities, proper airports and housing," Natanine said. "That lack of infrastructure is part of the reason why we want clear benefits outlining what we would get from this."

A Feast of Demonstration

Outside the Federal Court of Appeals in Toronto, today's peaceful protest is intended to unite people through sharing what Natanine calls "country food."

"The marine mammals are the reason Inuit live up there—it's because the animals live up there. Hunting them is an everyday activity for Inuit," Natanine told ICTMN. "We consume country food at least three to four times a week; it's a regular part of our daily consumption. If that activity should be affected negatively, it would have a terrible effect on our lives."

Inuit often rely on these foods, not simply as an essential part of their traditional diet, but as the best and most affordable way to put food on the table.

"Food up there [in grocery stores] costs sometimes 10 times more than down south," Natanine said. "Country food helps a lot. Lots of people share with other people, and if we're free, we gather for food. That's how we live up there."

Natanine stressed that protecting the marine habitat is not an effort exclusive to the Inuit. The entire country, and people internationally, should understand that they have a vested interest in caring for the marine life.

"This is not only our fight; it is not only the Inuit fight," Natanine said. "Canada is not benefiting from this. The only benefit to Canada that we heard is that there will be four or five monitors looking out for whales around seismic ships."

Beyond this current battle, the Federal Court's forthcoming decision is one of constitutional magnitude.

"On a larger scale, the [Federal Court's] decision will impact the constitutional rights of indigenous people across Canada," Hasan told ICTMN. He anticipates a decision within weeks or a month.

While Natanine and his allies are hopeful for a victory, they have pledged to fend for their rights to the bitter end.

"We're going to fight this as long as we can," Natanine said. "Hopefully we can win it, and do it right, if it has to be done."