Northerners to Drive Canada’s New Arctic Leadership Model

The village of Salluit is one of the most Northern Inuit communities in Nunavik, northern Quebec. (Credit: Wikimedia/Louis Carrier, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Conservation and sustainable development in the Arctic are priorities for the Canadian government. Inuit leader Mary Simon talks about her new role as special representative to the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

Conservation and sustainable development in the Arctic are priorities for the Canadian government. Inuit leader Mary Simon talks about her new role as special representative to the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

A noted defender of Inuit rights and culture has been tapped to oversee the development of a new phase of Arctic leadership in Canada. Mary Simon, a life-long Inuit leader, will be a special representative of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, responsible for seeking out the views of Northerners and providing advice to the government on the future conservation and sustainable development of the Canadian Arctic as it creates a new Shared Arctic Leadership Model. 

Simon’s work will help the government implement the commitments it made in the U.S.-Canada Joint Statement on Climate, Energy and Arctic Leadership during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to the White House.

Inuit and environmental organizations praised the statement when it was released in March. It takes a strong position on Arctic environmental issues, including developing science-based standards for commercial fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean, creating a network of Marine Protected Areas and building a sustainable Arctic economy; it also lends support to incorporating indigenous science and traditional knowledge in decision-making.

In her role, Simon will provide options for new targets for marine and terrestrial conservation in the Arctic and outline their potential benefits to the well-being of Northerners. She will offer guidance on fulfilling those goals and document other Arctic-related issues amassed during the consultations.

"It’s a great opportunity for Inuit organizations and communities to outline a vision on how to implement Inuit land claims into the Arctic Ocean," said Scott Highleyman, director of the International Arctic Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts. Simon has long championed the social, economic and human rights of Canadian Inuit. She has served as president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada’s national Inuit organization, and was the Canadian ambassador for circumpolar affairs. She also led Canada’s negotiations during the creation of the Arctic Council in the mid-1990s.

Simon spoke to Arctic Deeply from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, in northern Quebec, on the eve of the announcement.

- What does it mean to be the ministerial special representative on the Shared Arctic Leadership Model?

- The title is long, but I like it. It addresses the relationship that the federal government is developing with the Canadian North – that the role of Northern people, particularly Inuit and Indigenous people, has to be a lot more substantive than it has been. The idea of a shared Arctic leadership model fits that thinking. My role will be to lead engagement and develop advice on what the government of Canada can do in the coming months. Part of the work that I’m going to be doing needs to reflect the parameters of a renewed crown-to-Inuit relationship as well as a nation-to-nation relationship. It is not just about relationship-building, but decision-making on issues that matter to the North and affect people on a day-to-day basis. That is how the crown-to-Inuit relationship will start to establish itself in more concrete ways.

- The joint agreement covers a wide range of Arctic issues that – as you say – affect people on a day-to-day basis. How will you build your advice on those varied issues?

- My work will be grounded in a vision of sustainable development for the Arctic region. It will be based on the best available evidence, which includes scientific evidence, as well as traditional and local knowledge. There is a lot of talk about how important traditional and local knowledge is, but we still have to figure out how that knowledge will be used in a real way. There will be a lot of engagement from the land claims organizations, as well as the territorial governments. The land-claims organizations represent the land-claims beneficiaries, and engagement with these groups is central to this process. I’m not reinventing the wheel here. A lot of the work has already been done, but it hasn’t been consolidated or implemented. I will also be looking for gaps that are outstanding. I have a responsibility to write a report that reflects their priorities.

- Are there specific examples of how this might help improve the lives of people?

- In the Obama-Trudeau declaration, there is quite a bit of talk about clean energy, but all our communities still rely on diesel fuel for heating and electricity. We have to find ways to help communities move away from that and provide them with cleaner energy. Another example is the internet. Before you called me, I was trying to download a document from the minister’s office, and I couldn’t do it. That’s in Kuujjuaq – people say the internet is great here – and it gets worse in smaller communities. We have a digital divide. Because we are so remote, when you are talking about the health and well-being of people and you talk about education, we need distance learning, we need services for mental health to be delivered through telehealth. When you think of the suicide situation that we have in the North, that is a very serious issue. We need to supply a support system for our people to help get them through it. All these things could improve the services provided for our people up here, but we can’t do it because the bandwidth is too small.

- The environment, sovereignty, economic development, well-being have been in the past Arctic policies too. How will this vision of Arctic policy be different?

- The issues haven’t changed. As a matter of the evolving Arctic, when you look back 20 years, there has been tremendous change, but those issues will always be there. When you look at economic opportunities, job opportunities, we’re lagging way behind the rest of Canada. People are dealing with them, but the gap is still very large and we need to address it. The participation of Northerners hasn’t been very strong. The participation in decision-making is a priority of this government.

- On the issue of Marine Protected Areas, Canada has a long way to go to meet its commitment of protecting 10 percent of its marine areas by 2020. Where does the Arctic fit in this?

- There isn’t any disagreement in contributing to protected areas; it is really about how we do it. I’ve been working with other people to think outside the box. One of the things we’ve talked about is creating a new concept for protected areas called Indigenous Protected Areas. It hasn’t happened here, but it has in other countries. It would be an area that might enable Inuit, and other groups, such as the Cree, to actively participate in the management of these areas. It is something we’d like to explore and it is something that is important to the North. But we don’t want to be in a situation where everything is protected and we can’t move. There has to be balance. Inuit are very conscientious about the environment and the traditional way of life. They are at the top when it comes to protecting the environment. But they also know that they need to have jobs. Our young population is so huge. It goes to the heart of the issues – the well-being of individuals will make healthy communities.

- How will local and traditional knowledge be blended into decision-making and policy creation?

- I’ve dealt with this for many years. In the past, governments haven’t known how to integrate the community knowledge, and it gets dropped. To me, the answer is that you have individuals working together, scientists with local people, forming partnerships and taking both knowledge bases to make recommendations on policy issues that are relevant to governments. You can’t take traditional knowledge from a book. It is an evolving knowledge base that is transmitted through individuals.

- This will be a collaborative effort – with federal and territorial governments and national organizations. What are the key elements to making it a success?

- That’s my challenge. People do work together, but we need to consolidate it more and talk about how we can move the agenda forward. It’s very doable. I think if people sit together and talk about these issues you can find answers. I’m not starting from square one; I’m jumping into something that has been going on for many years, the relationship-building and working together. Twenty years ago, we weren’t really working together and now we have an open discussion going on. I think it is more than collaborative. It is recognizing the importance of regions having differences and that there are different ways of doing things. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach and it is giving the North a meaningful role to be part of the decision-making that affects their lives. It is happening more and more, but we need to increase it even further. The role of the land-claims organizations needs to be an integral part of the decision-making; they represent the people. When the agreements were signed, there were hopes and dreams. The vision was there. We need to embrace it and work with it.

- How will your experience with the Arctic Council, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Inuit Circumpolar Council help you in this role?

- Adversity has played a big role in my decision-making. I grew from it. There is so much knowledge that I have gained after 40 years of working on these issues. I’ve been through regional, national and international discussions on all these issues we’ve talked about. It gives me a view of what is already out there. It gives me a window into how the Arctic has evolved over the past 40 years. It is almost unrecognizable from when I was growing up.

- In five to ten years, what does the Canadian Arctic look like to you?

- When I sit back in my living room and look across the river, I hope there are a lot of jobs for our children and adults, so that we don’t have to depend on handouts. We were once self-reliant, and we’d like to be again. Colonization has taken a deep toll on our people. It is very destructive. It is not just about traditional livelihoods any more, but about the economy. If you give the younger generation the right opportunities and pride, so they feel good about going to school, it will happen. It is happening now, slowly, but it needs to happen more quickly. We need to bring people – those in their 30s and 40s – who were left behind, back up again.This is a great opportunity to work with people and be part of the decision-making in terms of how the North is developing and evolving. I’m looking forward to it. It’s the difficult things that make a difference.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This article originally appeared on Arctic Deeply, and you can find the original here
For important news about Arctic geopolitics, economy, and ecology, you can sign up to the Arctic Deeply email list.