Canada's Original Think Tank

Motion to Strike a Special Committee on the Arctic

Motion to Strike a Special Committee on the Arctic

Motion to Strike a Special Committee on the Arctic

Motion to Strike a Special Committee on the Arctic


Published on 4 May 2017
Hansard and Statements by Senator Charlie Watt

Hon. Charlie Watt:

He said: Honourable senators, I’m not going to keep you too long. I’m looking at the time. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to address the assembly.

[Editor’s Note: Senator Watt spoke in Inuktitut.]

Honourable senators, I am pleased to speak with you today on the motion to create this special committee on the Arctic and I look forward to addressing the issues that are specific to Northerners who are in the Arctic region. I am happy to do this with the support of my colleagues.

Canada needs a well-articulated Arctic policy that puts Northerners first.

A special committee on the Arctic will give us a chance to look into a variety of issues that are long overdue. We plan to start with a few smaller studies on the oil and gas moratorium, and infrastructure and conservationism before moving to larger studies looking at Arctic sovereignty.

In December 2016, former President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau launched a number of actions under the United States-Canada Joint Arctic Leaders’ Statement, and our committee will be strategically placed to evaluate these initiatives in the Arctic economy and ecosystem, shipping, science-based management of marine resources, and the risks of offshore oil and gas activity.

As the only Inuk in the Senate, my work is multi-dimensional and deals with Inuit in Canada and across the circumpolar world. The issues are complex and require the input of my colleagues and cooperation across party lines. As an individual senator, I don’t have enough resources in my office to do the work alone. I have relied on the goodwill of my colleagues to make things happen. Thank you for your generosity.

As mentioned earlier, my work in the Senate is focused on the Arctic and the Inuit. One example of this work is the mapping of traditional Inuit trails. The data is valuable for search and rescue, and for demonstrating historic use and occupancy over an immense, rugged terrain.

We also need to consider that Arctic people are facing new challenges brought on by climate change. Inuit have been the guardians of the Arctic waters, land and sea within our homeland for thousands of years. During that time, we have managed it the best we can with limited resources, and it has often been described as one of the last pristine places on Earth.

Today, we are facing unbelievable challenges due to the changing climate. The sea ice is melting at a dramatic rate. Inuit are having to adjust to the disappearance of the sea ice, which impacts where we can hunt and fish. It also affects the wildlife that is so vital to our way of life and our economy. Our hunters are witnessing changes in the migration and behaviour of seals, whales, polar bears and much other wildlife.

With the thawing of the ice has come intense interest in the Arctic for shipping, commercial fisheries and commercial interest in the seabed for its oil and gas deposits. Inuit are deeply concerned by the risks this poses and are determined that development in the Arctic be undertaken carefully to prevent threats to the sea and the wildlife we depend upon.

Inuit should be part of the decision-making process. We are very concerned that the benefits of development may not be felt by Inuit. Our homeland is rich in resources and is making some people very wealthy, yet our communities lack resources and have a limited economy in Canada. This is deeply frustrating to me. Sustainable development in the Arctic requires the involvement of indigenous peoples in economic opportunities and in the governance of those activities to ensure that Canada should never forget that it bases its sovereignty in the Arctic on its relationship with Inuit.

Speaking on the floor of the House of Commons in 1985, Joe Clark, Minister of External Relations, said:

Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic is indivisible. It embraces land, sea and ice. It extends without interruption to the seaward facing coasts of the Arctic islands. These islands are joined and not divided by the waters between them.

We have signed agreements in four regions: Inuvialuit, Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut. Our agreements with the Crown require that we are consulted in a meaningful way, yet implementation of our treaty is still not satisfactory. We look forward to the recommendations of the minister’s task force to improve the modern treaties. We acknowledge their task is significant, because it has never been done before.

I am concerned about our processes domestically and also internationally. Even though it may be beyond the scope of this new committee, I want to alert you to areas of particular concern: Canada’s failure to include us in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Limits of the Continental Shelf, and in a new international agreement for marine biodiversity in the areas of the world’s oceans that are beyond national jurisdiction.

This March, Canada attended meetings at the UN through the preparatory committee that is setting up the elements that would be included, negotiating the agreement. This is being negotiated under the UNCLOS and would apply to the high seas, including the Arctic Ocean. It will set out the terms for creating marine-protected areas and the rules for environmental assessment of projects with the potential to harm biodiversity, as well as for the sharing of marine genetic resources. The impact to Inuit will be significant because of the potential to affect fish stocks and migratory marine life.

We have many areas that we would like to cover and only a short time to make it happen. Ultimately, this special committee will focus on the people of the Arctic, and we look forward to hearing from them directly.

I urge the committee to work from the principles that: Inuit, as the first inhabitants of the Arctic, have long governed the lands, waters and sea ice of the Canadian Arctic in a sustainable manner; Inuit agreed to share their lands, waters and sea ice with Canadians in return for constitutionally protected treaty rights and true partnership with Canada, which is reflected in the modern treaty; the partnership should be honoured and every step should be taken to ensure that Canada’s laws and policies recognize and support Inuit’s traditional and modern place in the Arctic and the implementation of treaty promises made to Inuit; and the committee must hear from Inuit in a meaningful way to understand how Canada’s laws and policies in the Arctic affect Inuit.

The international community is moving into the Arctic, so we must be prepared. We need to prepare northern communities to follow the issues clearly both in Canada and in the international community, and we need to be able to discuss the needs of the North in a collaborative and informed manner.

I know that we have a strong group of senators who look forward to working on these and other Arctic issues. Thank you for your support as we move this forward.