Friday, September 23, 2011

The North, the Arctic and the Indigenous national question – A Québécois perspective


In the September issue of the pro-sovereignty newspaper, L’aut’journal, editor Pierre Dubuc writes an interesting account of the geopolitics involved in the northern and Arctic development plans of the Canadian and Quebec governments, and spells out some of the implications for the Indigenous peoples who make up the majority of the inhabitants of these regions.

Dubuc concludes with a challenge to supporters of Quebec independence: Will they oppose the Inuit people as they assert their sovereignty claims, or “will they ally with the Inuit against the federal government, linking their struggle for the sovereignty of Quebec with that of the Inuit, within the framework of what could be a sovereignty-association?”

These are important questions for Québécois sovereigntists, who — like most Quebec and Canadian federalists — have often displayed indifference or even hostility to Indigenous struggles against capitalist “development” and for self-government and sovereignty of their territories and communities within the territory of present-day Quebec (Québec Solidaire is an exception in this regard.) The Parti Québécois leadership has historically devoted much greater attention to its hopes for association with capitalist Canada than it does to developing links of solidarity with the Inuit and the dozen or so other Indigenous nations formally recognized by the National Assembly in the mid-1980s.

Dubuc is a leader of a left-wing ginger group that campaigns for Quebec independence, although it still supports the Parti Québécois: Syndicalistes et progressistes pour un Québec Libre (SPQ Libre). L’aut’journal, which is funded in part by some Quebec trade unions, is widely read in Quebec. It is to be hoped that articles like this will help stimulate further discussion of these issues in Quebec’s nationalist, labour and left circles. The movement for Quebec independence can only succeed as a component of a much vaster emancipatory project.

Dubuc explains in a note attached to his article that much of the information he recounts is drawn from the recent book by Shelagh D. Grant, Polar Imperative, A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2010). Here is my translation of the major part of his article; I have added a few notes of my own for clarification, in places.

– Richard Fidler

* * *

The North, the Arctic and the Indigenous national question

by Pierre Dubuc

The Far North and the Arctic are increasingly important regions for the governments in both Quebec City and Ottawa. In Québec, the Charest government is making its Plan Nord the key to Quebec’s future economic development. In Ottawa, the Harper government is vastly stepping up its trips and initiatives, especially those of a military nature, to guarantee Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic.

The new importance of the Far North and the Arctic is a consequence of the melting of the glaciers, which opens the way to mineral and hydrocarbon development. Up to 20% of the world’s undiscovered reserves of gas and oil are buried in the Arctic soil. The warming of the Arctic also opens the Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and the Pacific to international trade. It is calculated that a trip from Tokyo to London would be shortened by 14 days in comparison to the Suez and Panama canal routes, saving about a third in fuel costs. Charest’s Plan Nord provides for a deepwater port on Hudson Bay and the shipping of ore to Asia through the Northwest Passage.

Canada wants to affirm its sovereignty over the Arctic — a region that represents 40% of its territory and on which 110,000 persons are living — and more particularly over the Northwest Passage, while the United States, Europe and Asian countries consider it is an international strait linking two oceans.

The United States cannot accept Canada’s position because it could create a precedent for the strait of Malacca in Southeast Asia or the strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, but Washington understands that Canada cannot renounce its claims and is legally bound to ensure that the waters in question are used safely. The two countries have therefore reached an agreement not to agree.

That did not prevent the Canadian government from announcing in 2010 the purchase of a fleet of six to eight offshore patrol vessels at a cost of $9 billion, in addition to the $720 million for the future icebreaker John G. Diefenbaker and some military bases to supply these ships. Parallel to this, Canada plans to increase its Ranger force from 900 to 5,000 men under the command of the Northern Joint Task Force, and to supply them with state-of-the-art material and equipment including stealth snowmobiles.

Journalists and experts query the relevance of these expenditures, noting that Canadian sovereignty is not threatened by foreign countries. But more seasoned observers know that the threat exists and that it comes from within. The Inuit of Nunavut and Nunavik are following with great interest the evolution toward complete independence of their brothers and sisters, the Inuit of Greenland, now scheduled for 2021.

During a consultative vote in November 2008, 75% of the Greenlanders voted in favour of independence. The referendum reinforced their position in their negotiations with Denmark on self-government. In this regard, the preamble to the Danish parliament’s legislation on Greenland stipulates that “the inhabitants of Greenland are recognized as a people under international law, with the right to independence if they so desire after the holding of a referendum and negotiations with Denmark.” At present, the Greenland government holds all powers except over foreign policy, security, the Supreme Court and the coast guard.

Coveted territories

There is nothing new in this interest in the Far North and Arctic. They have been the scene of wars between France and Great Britain, and rivalries between Canada and the United States. It is significant that the treaty for the purchase of Alaska from Russia by the United States was signed on the very same day [in 1867] that Queen Victoria placed her signature at the bottom of the British North America Act. In 1869, the United States was also thinking of purchasing Greenland and Iceland with the goal of acquiring the Arctic lands claimed by Canada.

It was under the governments of Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1896-1911), but mainly Pierre-Elliott Trudeau (1968-1984), that Canada sought to secure its sovereignty over the Arctic — the United States, in the latter case, having taken advantage of two world wars and the Cold War to install its radio and radar stations and airports in the Arctic.

Under Laurier, Senator Pascal Poirier proposed the adoption of the sector theory, according to which, for any country possessing a shoreline on the Arctic Ocean, two lines pointing to the North Pole were traced respectively from the most western and eastern points, with everything falling within this pie shape pertaining to its jurisdiction. Laurier officially rejected the idea, but at the time, on several Canadian maps of the Arctic, the borders appear defined according to the sector principle.

The United States rejected this theory — there is no island to the north of Alaska — and considered the High Arctic as a terra nullius, that is, not belonging to any country. However, Russia and Norway adopted the sector theory.

Petroleum and territorial claims

In 1968-69, the discovery of significant quantities of petroleum in Alaska was to alter the course of history in the Arctic. To enable development to occur, the U.S. and Canada were going to have to settle the issue of aboriginal titles as well as their differences over the marine frontiers of the Beaufort Sea and the use of the Northwest Passage.

The discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic coast of Alaska had the Canadian oil companies drooling in hopes of making similar discoveries in the Beaufort Sea and the Mackenzie River delta. 1968 was also the year of Trudeau’s coming to power. It was the end of the “goodwill” policy with the United States and the emergence of a new Canadian nationalism, which would also be expressed in the Arctic. Gone was the time when the United States could consider its differences with Canada over the Arctic as a domestic issue that could be settled among civil servants. The Trudeau government would make these political issues.

The first challenge occurred in October 1968, when Humble Oil announced that its tanker converted into an ice-breaker, the SS Manhattan, would try to cross the Northwest Passage. Instead of prohibiting access to these waters, Canada proclaimed its right to control pollution in the Arctic waters, invoking its responsibility to uphold this fragile environment and ensure respect for the indigenous peoples who inhabit it. The fact that the two U.S. icebreakers accompanying the SS Manhattan needed assistance from a Canadian icebreaker, and that the Manhattan struck an iceberg, gave some credibility to the Canadian approach.

In 1970, the Trudeau government tabled two bills in the House of Commons. The first, Bill C-202, entitled the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act (AWPPA), created a zone of 100 nautical miles over which Canada would have authority to apply its anti-pollution regulations. The second, Bill C-203, amended the Territorial Sea and Fishing Zones Act to extend the limits of the territorial waters from three to 12 miles.

President Nixon immediately reacted by announcing that he was reducing the import quotas for Canadian oil and he threatened Canada with other retaliatory measures if the legislation was adopted. Simultaneously, the SS Manhattan undertook a second voyage through the Northwest Passage, and although Humble Oil had acquiesced with the list of stipulations issued by the Canadian government, including prior inspection of the vessel by the Canadian authorities, the U.S. government refused to recognize Canadian authority over the Northwest Passage. The House of Commons replied by unanimously adopting the bills and the Canadian Senate approved them in eight days.

But before the Senate adopted the legislation the United States proposed the holding of a multilateral conference on the Arctic waters, based on their priorities. Canada was invited to participate, but was not consulted on the list of invited countries or on the agenda. Ottawa lobbied actively against the project and found enough allies to abort it.

On the other hand, the Manhattan’s voyage occurred without incident. A Canadian observer was aboard the vessel and it was accompanied by the icebreaker John A. Macdonald, whose captain was instructed to end the voyage if the situation so required. Canada had won a battle, but the dispute was now on political terrain.

The sector theory

[At this point, Pierre Dubuc digresses to cite at length an episode he says occurred in 1971, when Jacques Parizeau, a leader of the Parti Québécois, was summoned mysteriously to Chicago and then taken to a meeting at a Wisconsin retreat attended by leading U.S. military and diplomatic personnel. While discomforted Canadian officials looked on, the Americans questioned Parizeau as to his opinion on the sector theory, and whether a sovereign Quebec would apply it. It seems that Washington was concerned that applying the sector theory to Quebec’s boundaries might give it a claim to sovereignty over most of Baffin Island, which at the time contained the second largest U.S. air base after Thule, Greenland.

The biography of Parizeau from which this account is taken apparently does not indicate what his reply was to the Americans — although it says he reassured them that a sovereign Quebec under the PQ would be part of NATO and NORAD.[1]

Dubuc concludes:

“The United States clearly showed the Trudeau government that they were prepared, in order to counter Canadian claims on the Arctic, to lend their support to the idea of Quebec independence, if its promoters did not recognize the sector theory.”[2]

But he adds:

“In 1995, Jacques Parizeau realized that the converse situation could occur when the Crees campaigned in New York and around the world against the Grande Baleine [Great Whale] hydro-electric project. On the eve of the 1995 referendum [on sovereignty], he announced the abandonment of the project.”]

Toward self-determination

In 1976, the U.S. courts recognized a form of self-government for the Indigenous peoples of Alaska, after six coastal villages with a population of 6,000 joined together following a referendum. Immediately, the new entity levied a tax on each barrel of petroleum produced. The money was used to improve the living conditions of its inhabitants, but also to finance the first meeting of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), held at North Slope, Alaska, in 1977.

In 1983, during the third general meeting of the ICC, the United Nations recognized the organization as an NGO and later the ICC played a key role in drafting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The ICC promotes the right to self-determination as a means of protecting the environment.

In 1979, following a referendum, the Greenlanders obtained Home Rule, a status of self-government. At the time, that was the most advanced form of self-government granted to a predominantly indigenous population.

In Canada, the indigenous relied on the recognition granted to them in Pierre Trudeau’s 1982 Constitution to demand what would become Nunavut. Section 35 of the Constitution Act confirms the recognition of indigenous rights, which allowed the Inuit to negotiate instead of having to resort to the courts. An agreement in principle was signed in 1990 and finalized two years later after a referendum was held in which the population approved by 85% the redrawing of the boundaries. On April 1, 1999, the Parliament of Canada adopted the Nunavut Act. In 2008, when a protocol was signed on the devolution of powers, it was obvious that they were heading toward provincial status.[3]

In 1997, the Inuit of Quebec resumed negotiations for the creation of Nunavik on territory formerly known as Nouveau-Québec, covering about 507,000 sq. km., a third of the territory of Quebec. The administrative centre for the population of about 11,000 persons in Nunavik is Kuujjuaq. The region is managed by the Kativik Regional Administration, created by the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. An agreement was signed on December 1, 2006, creating the Nunavik Inuit Settlement Area, which includes 80% ownership of Quebec’s offshore islands and waters, with annual royalties paid by the federal government for natural resource development. On December 5, 2007, a new agreement in principle was signed. It seemed at the time to constitute a supplementary step toward the formation of a government of Nunavik. It provided for an elected, non-ethnic government under the jurisdiction of the province of Quebec. But the Inuit rejected this proposal in a referendum on April 27, 2011, because, it seems, they want an ethnic government independent of Quebec’s jurisdiction.

Some fundamental issues for the independentists

In the coming years the melting of the ice cap is going to make natural resource development possible in the Far North and Arctic. This has important implications for Canada. For example, the London Mining Company hopes to extract iron from a mine in Greenland and ship it to China via the Northwest Passage. Greenland, which already shares with Denmark the revenues from the development of its natural resources, sees an opportunity to end its financial dependence on Denmark and accede to political independence. The Charest government also wants to ship ore mined in the Far North through the Northwest Passage, and its Plan Nord provides for the construction of a deepwater port on the banks of Hudson Bay.

Nunavut and the other regional governments in Canada will be sure to pressure Ottawa for a more favourable distribution of revenues from natural resources.

The Arctic promises to be one of the political hot spots of the globe during the 21st century. Thus, while Ottawa promoted the idea of Nunavut as a means to obtaining recognition of Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic, the Inuit see it instead as a step toward accession to their own sovereignty.

Quebec is currently the major arctic province of Canada, as a mere glance at a map will show. Nunavik covers a third of Quebec’s territory. But under the Canadian Constitution, Quebec’s territory stops at the shoreline, which leads to the absurd situation that islands situated a few hundred metres offshore, and frequented since time immemorial by the Inuit of Quebec’s Nunavik, are not part of Quebec. However, these Inuit hold rights over the waters and islands bordering Quebec that were granted to them by the federal government.

The Inuit of Nunavik maintain close ties with their brothers and sisters of Nunavut and Greenland. In some articles published in l’aut’journal, André Binette, a lawyer who co-chaired the study commission on Nunavik self-government (1999-2001), has clearly described Greenland’s process toward political independence, which appears inevitable, and in particular the possible bandwagon effect on the Inuit of Nunavut and Nunavik[4] — a phenomenon the Canadian government is perfectly aware of and which doubtless is a better explanation for the deployment of military forces in the Arctic by the Harper government than the existence of a foreign threat.

André Binette wrote: “Moreover, in the public meetings that I co-chaired in a dozen or so villages of Quebec’s Nunavik and in my conversations with political leaders in that region it was soon evident that for many Quebec Inuit the dream of a single country composed of Greenland, Nunavut and Nunavik was quite substantial, and that the independence of Greenland, the creation of Nunavut in 1999, and the establishment of a future autonomous government in Nunavik were perceived as major steps in that direction.”

Added to this is the fact that the United States does not recognize Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic waters and that nothing prevents them from supporting the claims of the Inuit, just as they flirted with the Quebec sovereigntists in 1971 to counter the northern policies of Pierre Trudeau, witness Jacques Parizeau’s trip to Chicago.

The situation could become extremely complex and the Quebec independentists will have to think carefully before taking a position on the Inuit claims. Will they make common cause with the federal government in opposing them, and defend Canadian unity, or will they ally with the Inuit against the federal government, linking their struggle for the sovereignty of Quebec with that of the Inuit, within the framework of what could be a sovereignty-association? The debate is open.

[1] Dubuc writes that he is quoting from Laurence Richard, Jacques Parizeau, un bâtisseur (Montréal: Éditions de l’Homme, 1992). A very similar account of this meeting is found in the major biography of Jacques Parizeau by Pierre Duchesne, Tome I, Le Croisé (Montréal: Québec Amérique, 2001). However, Duchesne dates the meeting in 1969, as does Jean-François Lisée, in Dans l’oeil de l’aigle. Washington face au Québec (Montréal: Boréal, 1990). And Duchesne reports that Parizeau told his questioners that “he was in full agreement” with the sector theory (pp. 595-96).

[2] For a less sanguine interpretation of US views of a sovereign Quebec, see Anne Legaré, Le Québec otage de ses alliés: Les relations du Québec avec la France et les États-Unis (Montréal, 2003). Legaré represented the Parti Québécois government in New England and in New York and Washington from 1994 to 1996. She quotes (p. 26) a statement by Parizeau himself, in his book Pour un Québec souverain (Montréal: VLB éditeur, 1997), on the obstacles the United States posed to Québec sovereignty: [Translation] “While, in the Department of Commerce in Washington, the State Department and the National Security Council of the White House, they readily agreed that Quebec could not be excluded from NAFTA, from there to recognizing Quebec as a sovereign country there was not only a step to be taken but an abyss to be crossed.”

[3] The actual chronology differs from this account. According to the National Library of Canada,

“An agreement-in-principle was finally reached in 1990, a final version of which appeared in December of 1991.... It was then put to a plebiscite in October of 1992, and saw a record turnout of voters. The Agreement passed the plebiscite with an overwhelming majority of 84.7%. Once past this hurdle, matters moved quickly. The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act, ratifying the agreement, and the Nunavut Act [], which created the new territory, were both passed on June 10, 1993....

“As with the ratification of the Nunavut Act in 1993, the actual birth of Nunavut on April 1, 1999 became an international news story. Parties, speeches, fireworks, traditional Inuit games and dances, and other activities marked the occasion.”

[4] See “Scottish, Québécois reactions to Greenland’s vote for autonomy”.

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