Canada's Original Think Tank

Canadian Arctic territorial claim dependent on inclusivity and collaboration with Inuit

Canadian Arctic territorial claim dependent on inclusivity and collaboration with Inuit

Canadian Arctic territorial claim dependent on inclusivity and collaboration with Inuit

Canadian Arctic territorial claim dependent on inclusivity and collaboration with Inuit


Published on 5 May 2016
Publications by Senator Art Eggleton

Canada’s claim to its extended Arctic continental shelf can only be legitimized through an inclusive and collaborative engagement with circumpolar Inuit peoples. This was the sentiment that grounded panellists’ comments on Inuit and Canadian Arctic territorial claims at the Senate Liberals’ Open Caucus on Wednesday.

Rapid ice melting in the Arctic has resulted in a growing international interest in opportunities for natural resource exploitation in the region. While there are some existing territorial agreements for countries neighbouring the North, international agreements are being negotiated or renegotiated to account for these recently accessible extended continental shelves.

Five arctic coastal states—Canada, Russia, Denmark, Norway, and the United States—have submitted, or plan to submit, territorial claims to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf through a process established by the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, the panel emphasized that the strength of Canada’s claim is contingent on its past and future relations with Inuit peoples.

According to domestic treaties and international law, Canada has an obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights of Inuit peoples in the Arctic and refrain from actions that interfere with Inuit rights to their lands and resources. Thus, Canada is obligated to present UNCLOS with evidence of a historical presence in, rights to, and current use of, the claimed regions.

In short, the legitimacy behind and approval of Canada’s UNCLOS claim on the extended continental shelf is dependent on consent via meaningful consultation with Inuit peoples.

The panel explained how, according to domestic law, Inuit must be included on Arctic sovereignty to honour existing treaties and agreements. While recognizing that the Crown has not “been a boy scout when it comes to implementing treaties,” Peter W. Hutchins, a lawyer with forty years of practice devoted exclusively to Aboriginal peoples, stressed “the Crown needs consent… and our courts have been very strong in not only affirming that but in overseeing and supervising the implementation of the treaties”

Beyond the Canadian courts, “international law provides support for Inuit rights in the Arctic.” Bianca Suciu, an associate at Hutchins Legal, stressed that according to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Canadian government must include Inuit in decision-making processes that relate to the Arctic and its governance. More specifically, Canada has an obligation to gain their prior, free, and informed consent as well as taking due consideration to their concerns in order to minimize risks to their rights.

The panel also cautioned that the Canadian government should avoid “go[ing] through the motions of consulting” and instead, encouraged genuine and meaningful engagement to strengthen their claim. As Mr. Hutchins stated, consultation is not the same thing as consent. “It’s a matter of having the Inuit voice at the table,” he said.

Mr. Hutchins noted that exclusion of Inuit from the claim process could result in a judicious review in federal court or, on the international front, a formal appeal opposing Canada’s claim before the Commission. Both scenarios would slow or impede the approval of Canada’s claim. “One way or another, the people cannot be ignored and I think it’s a lot smarter to work with them now in this crucial time when Canada is trying to get acceptance”.

The panel stressed the urgency of this issue noting that it is a timely issue facing Canadians and Inuit peoples as international parties race to stake their claim. While Canada submitted a partial submission to UNCLOS in 2013 in reference to the Atlantic continental shelf, this issue has been put front and centre as Canada prepares to submit its claim on the extended continental shelf in the Arctic.

Senator Charlie Watt, supported in part by the Senate Liberal Caucus Research Fund, commissioned Hutchins Legal Inc. to produce a series of papers examining the rights of Inuit to the Arctic Ocean and the implication for Canadian sovereignty claims to the extended continental shelf in the Arctic.

The panel concluded that Canada cannot cement its sovereignty over a large portion of the Arctic Ocean seabed without working with those who live and depend on it. As stated by Ms. Suciu: “It is in Canada’s interest to have Inuit on its side when claiming sovereignty in the arctic. Canada can rely on Inuit historic occupation and rights as a foundation for its claims, but this must be an inclusive and collaborative process that gives Inuit a key role in matters governing the arctic.”