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Clyde River Inuit Await Supreme Court Ruling Concerning Seismic Testing, Indigenous Rights

Nine justices heard arguments that the Canadian government had granted rights for companies to conduct seismic testing for oil and gas exploration beneath the Baffin Bay and Davis Strait waters without proper Inuit consultation.
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Inuit hunters and residents of Clyde River, a Nunavut hamlet on Baffin Island, above the Arctic Circle, traveled nearly 1,900 miles to stand on the steps of the Supreme Court in Ottawa last month. Many carried signs proclaiming “water is sacred,” echoing the slogan for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s campaign against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, reported Arctic Deeply.

Nine justices heard the community’s argument that the Canadian government granted a consortium of Norwegian companies the rights to conduct seismic testing to detect for oil and gas deposits beneath the Baffin Bay and Davis Strait without proper Inuit consultation. Local Inuit subsist off the area’s marine wildlife.

Nader Hasan, the lawyer representing the Inuit of Clyde River, called seismic testing “a threat to their livelihood, food security and 4,000-year-old way of life,” according to Arctic Deeply.

“This case is really about the soul of Canada,” he said.

The outcome of the case will set a precedent for how seriously Canada takes indigenous and Inuit consultation before green-lighting development projects.

Justice Andromache Karakatsanis reviewed the National Energy Board's (NEB) environmental assessment report and pointed out that it did not reference the words “aboriginal rights” even once.

The crux of the argument is about whether the Crown must directly consult with First Nations, or whether third-party regulators—in this case, the NEB—can handle it. Judges will also consider the breadth and integrity of the consultation.

After inadequately consulting with the community, according to the Clyde River members, in 2014 the NEB granted a five-year license in waters off Baffin Island.

“We were treated unfairly. The government didn’t hear our concerns,” former Clyde River Mayor Jerry Natanine told Arctic Deeply.

A Supreme Court decision is anticipated within four to six months.

Seismic testing involves shooting underwater air cannons; scientists measure the reflected signals to determine if oil and gas reserves lie beneath the seabed. These incessant, 230-decibel blasts of compressed air would be repeated every 13 to 15 seconds for 24 hours a day during the ice-free season from July to October for five years, according to the NEB website. The deafening sound blasts are 100,000 times louder than those of a jet engine. The noise pollution threatens the survival of marine life—the main food source of the Inuit, as well as their livelihood.

"We believe that it's a danger to our lives because it's going to destroy the ecology and kill off the animals," said Natanine, who was recently elected by his community members to serve as chair of the local Hunter's & Trapper's Association.

Similar high-intensity noise from Navy sonar testing in the Pacific Ocean, Bahamas, Greece, Canary Islands, Spain and Hawaii has caused brain hemorrhaging and bleeding ears, organ and tissue ruptures, beach stranding and death in local whale populations. Marine mammals rely on echolocation to find food and mates, nurture their young, navigate and communicate with other members thousands of miles away. Studies also show noise pollution silences and displaces whales by about 100,000 square kilometers, causes drastic drops in fish densities, and destroys eggs and larvae.

All this in an isolated area that already copes with food insecurity. Clyde River, home to 1,100 residents, is so geographically remote that shipping in food from the south is prohibitively expensive. Basic foods in Nunavut grocery stores often costs three times more than in the rest of the country, according to CBC News.

“The mainstay is seal. That’s our everyday food. The seasonal, migratory animals that we hunt and preserve, frozen or cached to ferment, are narwhals, Arctic char, bearded seal and harp seal,” Natanine told The Globe and Mail.

Baffin Bay is also home to 90 percent of the Earth's narwhals. Hear Natanine talk about the Inuit's cultural relationship with the mammals in the below video.

The same day, the justices heard another case concerning the NEB’s neglect of indigenous consultation. The Chippewas of the Thames First Nation are arguing that the Crown violated section 35 of the Canadian Constitution by not providing the opportunity input from the Anishinaabe community concerning changes to Enbridge Pipelines Ltd.’s Line 9 crude oil pipeline, which cuts through their traditional territory, reported the Nunatsiaq News. The Chippewas of the Thames First Nation are requesting donations to cover legal fees: chippewassolidarity.org/en/donate.

If the Supreme Court sides with the indigenous groups, it could overturn some NEB approvals and drastically change the way Canada consults with First Nations regarding resource development projects.