Saturday, December 27, 2008

Canada and the Arctic

In his latest book, A Fair Country, John Ralston Saul argues that Canadian culture is fundamentally different from US or European culture because of the strong influence of aboriginal civilizations on all aspects of Canada - our art, history, constitution, justice system, government, foreign affairs and collective unconscious.

I was thinking about Saul's thesis while reading about the recent European Union attempts to usurp Canadian sovereignty on issues of traditional hunting and fishing.

In November the EU released a report called The European Union and the Arctic Region. The report has some troubling aspects. As a recent CBC article put it, "the EU says it supports indigenous populations — except where their activities give offence to Europeans concerned about animal welfare." In particular, the EU report targets Inuit whale hunting as an area where Europe may try to impose restrictions. The report also proposes a ban on imports of seal products from Canada. While the affected sealers would not be aboriginal, Canadian sealers are following a traditional lifestyle that their ancestors have lived for 500 years.

To put all this in context, the EU doesn't protest Alaskans who hunt wolves from helicopters with machine guns. They don't protest slaughterhouses that hang pigs by their back legs and bleed them to death. They don't protest German commercial kills of wild boar and deer for restaurants and butcher shops. Yet they are absolutely up in arms about seal hunters who use the traditional hakapik to kill seals, and now they have aimed their sights at Inuit who hunt caribou, whales and other animals.

Harper is failing us in a number of ways. The CBC article says that under Harper, "Canada is being slowly pushed aside as the rest of the world sets the agenda for opening up the rapidly melting Arctic." Harper seems interested in only two aspects of the arctic: building up our military presence so we can patrol the newly opened northern passage, and extracting resources.

By not dealing with climate change, pollution, sustainable development and healthy aboriginal communities, Canada leaves the door open to groups like the EU to try to set the policy. Further, by giving in to EU pressure over the traditional use of the hakapik, he deserts traditional ways of life when he should be protecting them.

The Canadian arctic has a permanent indigenous population. The Inuit know more about arctic ecology and wildlife than anyone else. We should be working with the Inuit to create Arctic policy, not giving in to ignorant far-away protestors who are squeamish rather than rational. We should be doing much more to improve living conditions in the north to create more sustainable communities. We should be preparing for the changes to Inuit lifestyle that will come with global warming. Over all else, we need a Canadian policy on the arctic that includes a vision of the arctic as a fundamental part of Canada, not a little-populated place with diamonds that might make some southerners rich.


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