Indigenous Engagement and Arctic Governance

(Inuit Circumpolar Council Alaska. 2020. Food Sovereignty and Self-Governance: Inuit Role in Managing Arctic Marine Resources. Anchorage, AK. Page 15.)

This week, Arctic360 sat down with Sara Olsvig, the Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, for our summer ‘Breaking the Ice’ podcast kick-off.

In our conversation, Sara shared valuable insights into her new role as Chair, the ICC’s current activities from the Arctic Council to the UN and beyond. We delved into the challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic and emphasized the critical importance of including Inuit voices in all discussions about Arctic issues. Sara highlighted the value of indigenous contributions to policy, sharing that indigenous collaboration in international policy leads to more enriched processes and results.

As the ICC prepares for it’s Delegates’ Meeting from the 17th to 19th of July in Ilulissat, Greenland, we explored some key highlights from our discussion.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council traces its roots back to the Cold War era when Inuit communities recognized the need for a united organization that would transcend the state borders imposed upon them. With a shared culture and language, the Inuit sought to learn from each other and collaborate on common issues. The establishment of the ICC, in 1977, created a platform for Inuit from Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia to foster a stronger sense of unity and identity, paving the way for greater representation and engagement with regional and international organisations.

The end of the Cold War allowed the Inuit in Chukotka that before then were isolated from Inuit living in other parts of Inuit Nunaat, to be active members of ICC. Today, the ICC represents approximately 180,000 Inuit across different regions in the Inuit Nunaat. The ICC operates in four regions: Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Chukotka with four regional offices working under ICC International. For instance, ICC Greenland is made up of diverse civil society organizations, such as associations representing fishermen and hunters, teachers, human rights councils, and workers’ unions. Each regional office operates under a different structure, but together they combine their expertise to work on improving the lives of Inuit living in Inuit Nunaat. By finding common ground among these groups, the ICC addresses priority areas for Inuit Peoples, such as infrastructure deficits, health and wellbeing, and the preservation of Indigenous knowledge. The organization’s remarkable growth and international recognition underscores its significance in advocating for Inuit rights and welfare on a global stage.

In the July 2023 Delegates’ Meeting happening in Ilulissat, the ICC will focus on its priority areas: Good Governance, Security and Inuit Nunaat, Health and Wellness, Language and Culture, Hunting and Food Security, Arctic Ocean and the Marine Environment, and Infrastructure Deficit. Following the Delegates’ Meeting, the ICC together with the Sami Council will host the 2023 Arctic People’s Conference. Building upon the priority areas of the Delegates’ Meeting, this conference aims to bring together representatives of various Arctic Indigenous Peoples to discuss broader Arctic cooperation. As the 50th anniversary of the first Arctic Peoples Conference in 1973, this event symbolizes a milestone in the history of Arctic Indigenous Peoples’ cooperation and collective progress. Given the current geopolitical landscape, it was decided that the Inuit in Chukotka will join the conference and participate virtually. This approach to inclusivity underscores the ICC’s commitment to ensuring that all voices are heard, even in challenging geopolitical circumstances.

Sara’s insights also shed light on the essential role of Indigenous Peoples in Arctic governance and international processes. The ICC actively engages with various international bodies, including the International Maritime Organization, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, UN negotiations, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In the case of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the ICC received provisional consultative status. Not only was this a symbolic move in the process to decolonize the IMO, but it was also necessary to finally have the Inuit voice formally recognized on an issue so pertinent to life in the Arctic. The IMO works on a number of issues in the Arctic that have a direct impact on Inuit communities, namely, the heavy fuel oil ban and the Polar Code. Also, considering the accelerated effect of climate change in the Arctic, it is crucial to fully include Indigenous Peoples in international negotiations and decision-making processes. Sara also reflected on lessons learned in past agreements that were made without Indigenous participation and could only speak positively about the added value brought by including more diversity to international conversations.

This commitment to inclusion aligns with the ICC’s broader mission to advocate for the rights and welfare of Inuit peoples. One notable example of progress in this regard is the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement, where Inuit voices were actively heard from the outset through state delegations. The Agreement is another step to protect the Arctic’s marine ecosystem, to fight unregulated fishing and to fill a gap in international ocean governance. It was an innovative agreement for the Arctic region, both because of its reliance on precautionary measures, but also because non-Arctic states and the European Union were signatories to it. This engagement illustrates the positive developments that can arise from incorporating Indigenous Peoples into decision-making processes.

Arctic development is a topic that often elicits passionate discussions, with assumptions that the Inuit are inherently opposed to development. However, the development of infrastructure systems in the North is crucial for strong economies that can adapt and remain resilient to the challenges posed by climate change. Nevertheless, it is crucial to approach development in the Inuit Nunaat through a lens of inclusivity and collaboration with the communities residing there. Without the active involvement of local communities, well-intentioned infrastructure developments can quickly turn into “green colonization,” a term used by the Sami Council to describe the development of wind farms on Sami reindeer herding pastures. The development of renewable energy sources is necessary for the green transition; however, development cannot be carried out at the cost of Indigenous communities who traditionally contribute little to the causes of climate change. Other ongoing conflict exists between Indigenous-led development and subsistence practices and perceptions and imposed regulations by non-Inuit about what Inuit should and should not be able to do. Examples range from, the use of seal products or banning resource development controlled by Inuit, on Inuit lands. The delicate balance between development, preservation of traditional ways of life, Indigenous rights, and the ability of Inuit to not only be resilient to climate change but to thrive continues to challenge Arctic states and international organizations alike.

Our conversation also touched upon the broader concept of Arctic security, encompassing not only military aspects but also broader environmental, social, and cultural dimensions. Sara highlighted the contributions made to security by Indigenous Peoples’ on the Northern coastlines that often go unnoticed and unappreciated. In addition, Indigenous Peoples’ organisations like the ICC have long advocated for the Arctic to remain an exclusively peaceful and environmentally safe region, as stated in Resolution 77-11. This proactive approach to hard security issues distinguishes the ICC from other organizations and underscores the importance of Indigenous Peoples in shaping the region’s security policies. Nonetheless, numerous international security organizations operate based on Westphalian concepts of statehood. Consequently, incorporating Indigenous voices into formal Westphalian structured, state-led organisation, such as NATO, for instance, presents significant challenges. While some security organizations have started to embrace the notion of including Indigenous voices, there is still much work to be done to broaden the understanding of security and ensure that Arctic Indigenous peoples have a say in matters affecting their communities. Sara’s emphasis on the ICC’s policies regarding hard security reflects the organization’s ongoing commitment to shaping a more secure and sustainable Arctic for all.

Another critical aspect of our conversation centred around reconciliation and understanding what non-Indigenous people can do to support Indigenous rights movements and advocate for their deeper inclusion and collaboration. We first turned to the Nordic states like Canada and Sweden where some reconciliation processes are already taking place. While these countries have taken steps to address historical injustices and foster reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, the situation in Greenland, which is part of the Danish state, presents its own unique challenges. Greenland has operated under home rule since 1978, empowering the local government to take responsibility for legislation including health and education, and self-determination. Despite this, the legacies of colonization still linger, as illustrated by the uncovering of the IUD cases that occurred before and after Home Rule was obtained. According to current information, in Greenland half of the women of childbearing age in the late sixties and early seventies were fitted with IUDs without their consent, and at times without their knowledge (for example after the termination of a pregnancy). This was primarily carried out during a campaign led by health authorities under the responsibility of the Danish state. These cases illustrate the full-fledged inhumane discrimination Indigenous Peoples were forced to endure under Danish colonial rule. Sara questions why it took so long to uncover this information, and why many people are still reluctant to discuss what happened. Sara points out that coming to terms with this information in Greenland is one matter while doing the same in Denmark is another challenge. However, she observes a gradual shift in Denmark’s perspective towards its colonial past and the current constitutional arrangement, which still is not fully equal. Such painful chapters of history must be acknowledged and addressed for genuine progress in reconciliation and healing. In shaping our future, it is crucial that we delve deep into these matters while being mindful of the individuals involved. Particularly from the perspective of former colonial powers or the ones in power today, it is essential to maintain respectful and knowledgeable interactions and to be willing to reflect and understand the historical implications and their impact on the people they seek to treat as equals. Achieving this requires extensive contemplation, open-mindedness, and a willingness to reassess the knowledge we have acquired, both through formal education and the structures in place. In the Greenlandic context, this introspection has led to the question of whether practices inherited from the colonial era have been perpetuated. To create a more equitable and just society, non-Indigenous society must confront these challenges and strive to implement meaningful changes in approach and actions. Reconciliation is a collaborative project for everyone to do together, it means to engage in dialogue and reflect and to question what we assume.

In conclusion, our conversation with Sara Olsvig, sheds light on the ICC’s crucial work and the multifaceted challenges faced by Arctic indigenous peoples. Through collaboration, engagement, and the active inclusion of Indigenous Peoples in decision-making processes, the ICC strives to strengthen their representation and influence on regional and global platforms. As we move forward, it is crucial for all stakeholders to recognize and respect the rights, knowledge, and perspectives of Indigenous Peoples, ensuring a more inclusive, sustainable, and equitable future for all in the Arctic and beyond. Only through sincere cooperation and collective action can we address the complex challenges confronting the Arctic and protect this unique and vital region for generations to come.

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