Inuit Rights to the Arctic OceanPublished on 3 May 2016 Blog by Senator Charlie Watt (retired)
Rising global temperatures have affected few areas as they have the Arctic Ocean. Areas that were once covered with sea ice year round are becoming more and more accessible to navigation and development activities. As a result, though the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea regime (UNCLOS), Canada is in the process of solidifying its sovereignty over its extended continental shelf and is engaging in treaty negotiations with its Arctic neighbors to ensure that it has fair and equitable access to the natural resources and sea lanes that this disappearing ice has presented. Yet Canada already has a set of treaties that cover the Arctic that it must uphold and respect: its treaties with the Inuit. These treaties were concluded in recognition of the Inuit peoples’ aboriginal rights to the Arctic Ocean and its resources. Other areas of the Arctic Ocean that are not covered by Treaties can also be seen as being subject to Inuit rights, such as Indigenous title and rights.
As Canada moves forward with the international treaty process and its claims to an extended continental shelf in the Arctic, it must ensure that it honours its obligations toward the Inuit, including the treaties Canada has concluded with them. This means that Inuit must be given a voice and their concerns must be taken into account whenever their interests are directly at stake, including in connection with international processes set up under UNCLOS. Bypassing the rights of the Inuit in the Arctic, in the context of State sovereignty claims, will discredit Canada’s engagements towards its Treaty partners to work together in a spirit of reconciliation and can expose it to legal action for breach of its domestic and international obligations toward the Inuit.
I invite you to read this paper by Hutchins Legal Inc. on Setting out Canada’s Obligations to Inuit in respect of the Extended Continental Shelf in the Arctic Ocean.
Senator Charlie Watt