Reading and interesting speech from the UK-Canada Colloquium by Okalik Eegeesiak who is the head of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association. The QIA recently obtained a court injunction against the federal government in Lancaster Sound, preventing scientists from conducting siesmic research on the composition of the seabed. Eegeesiak talks about what this means for Inuit:
Unfortunately, Inuit in Nunavut have taken more frequently to the courts. This move is in protest at not being included or consulted properly. For example, we have a major case before the courts right now to address the federal government’s reluctance to live up to its obligations under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. More recently, my organization, the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, was successful in getting a temporary injunction on the federal government’s plans to carry out seismic testing in Lancaster Sound. This injunction is based on our assertion that the air-gun array proposed for parts of the testing will cause irreparable damage to marine wildlife and impair our ability to hunt in the area. The concept that pushes us into these lawsuits is the idea of the right to say no, which can be described as the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Meaningful consultation, participation in decision making and the right to say no to development when it does not suit our needs is what we strive for when we participate in the many forums we attend with the federal and territorial governments.
This concept of Free, Prior and Informed Consent goes far beyond information sessions or community meetings. Meaningful consultation should reflect an inclusive and respectful process like the consultation you would have with your spouse when you are buying a new home, rather than the “consultation” you have with your teenager about cleaning up their room.
I want to make it clear that we understand that meaningful consultation is not the same as controlling or having a veto over the actions of governments. However, it is our belief that our voice should be heard at a minimum and most of all respected and not ignored, across a wide range of issues that affect us, including education, housing, lands and wildlife management, sovereignty, and economic development. And our voices are worth hearing – we have a valuable contribution to make for our land and ultimately to our country and the world.
Today, as eyes turn north yet again, with dreams of oil, gas, minerals and ice-free ocean travel, we remind everyone to consider the advantages of Free, Prior and Informed Consent and respect the way in which, we as Inuit, choose to engage with our governments, organizations, and industry
In Canada, the law provides powerful protection for First Nations, Inuit and Metis groups who have Aboriginal rights to their territories. In practice, this protection means that governments and industry must consult with Aboriginal groups prior to undertaking any activities that would infringe on Aboriginal rights. Eegeesiak points to what such consultation means for Aboriginal communities. The kinds of conversations that need to take place at this legal, cultural and political interface are complex and weighted with issues of power.
For me one of the most difficult questions to address in these kinds of consultations is the massive power imbalance between the federal government and communities. Ine the example above, Eegeesiak struggles with this power in his characterization of what consultation means: it means the ability to say “no” but also not to veto government action.
For me the power issues might be better characterized by looking at both parties in a formal consultation process and asking who has the power to say yes or no and mean it? And, perhaps more importantly, who has the power to benefit from yes or no?
In other words, it’s one thing to simply say no in a consultative process, as the QIA did (or later in a court case, when they were treated unfairly at the consultation table) but quite another to have the power to benefit from a no. With limited capacity, inuit communities have a limited ability to deal with their own stand against exploitation. For example, most of the economic, social and political infrastructure in the Arctic is directly funded by the federal government. If the Inuit block oil and gas exploration in parts of Nunavut, the federal government has the option of waiting until conditions change, in which case, the Inuit may be in a position where the traditional whale and seal hunt might be sacrificed for the economic benefits of oil and gas exploration and development.
Many indigenous groups around the world face this dilemma. In most cases, resisting resource extraction is simply a temporary reprieve on the demise of culture, land and the lives of the people. In Canada at least, we have Constitutional protection for Aboriginal rights but that so far has not levelled the playing field with respect to power and capacity.
The question for governments then becomes, what is the moral obligation here with respect to decisions and activities that could threaten the future of an entire people, even if such actions bring local and national economic prosperity? the question for indigenous groups is terrifying at every turn: will this decision terminate our people? will this happen on my watch, and will I be the one who let it happen?
We need a new way of consulting and collaborating on resource development and indigenous communities. That these questions are never raised at the tables or in the process says something about the unwillingness of society to engage in the shadowy sides of power and exploitation. If it is not the job of the folks actually in the process, then whose job is it?