The White House Arctic Science Ministerial: A step backward for Canada

November 1, 2016
Natan Obed
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami

The first White House Arctic Science Ministerial was convened to advance promising, near-term science initiatives and create a context for increased international scientific collaborations in the Arctic over the longer term. Participants included Ministers from the eight Arctic states as well as 14 other countries and the European Union. However, Canadian Inuit were not directly represented at the event, and our role as stakeholders in Arctic science and research was considered only as an afterthought by the Government of Canada.

From a process perspective, the Ministerial represents a step backward for Canada. From a content perspective, the Joint Statement of Ministers provides only a thin commitment to collaborate on a number of diverse issues and challenges ranging from climate change to STEM education.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) is the national representational organization working on behalf of Inuit in Canada. Our homeland encompasses 35 percent of Canada’s landmass and 50 percent of its coastline. Inuit are the majority population in the Canadian Arctic and our historical occupation of this land forms the basis of Canada’s status as an Arctic state and participant in Arctic affairs.

Yet Canada’s delegation to the Ministerial was limited to the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, a member of her staff, and David Scott, President of Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR). POLAR led engagement and consultation with federal government departments/agencies and territorial governments in the months leading up to the Ministerial in order to inform Canada’s positions on the thematic areas discussed at the Ministerial. However POLAR did not engage Inuit until days before the event took place, and only then to provide an overview of what would transpire in Washington, D.C. Canada formulated its positions on Arctic science and research in our homelands independent of Inuit.

The Canadian delegation’s actions represent a disregard for the commitments Canada made in the U.S.-Canada Joint Statement on Climate, Energy, and Arctic Leadership just six months prior to the Ministerial. The importance of working in partnership with Indigenous peoples on Arctic issues is repeated throughout that statement, which includes a commitment by Canada and the U.S. to incorporate Indigenous science and traditional knowledge into decision-making.

In contrast to Canada, the U.S. followed through on its commitment. More than 30 Alaska Native leaders and representatives from five Indigenous organizations had the opportunity to share their concerns and priorities with the U.S. delegation to the Ministerial through an open dialogue held in Washington prior to the event.

Strengthening Inuit self-determination in research is one of ITK’s seven objectives identified in our 2016-2019 Strategy and Action Plan. Inuit self-determination in research means that Inuit have oversight in setting the research agenda in our regions and communities, work as equal partners with researchers in the design, implementation and dissemination of research, and have access to and – as appropriate – control over how information gathered about our population is used and disseminated. Inuit benefit in meaningful ways when we participate as equal partners with researchers and research institutions, including through the development of evidence-based policies that impact the quality of life in our communities.

It remains to be seen whether the vague commitments solidified during the Ministerial will translate into actions that contribute positively to the thematic areas identified by organizers. Canada’s marginalization of Inuit represents a perplexing and avoidable step backward in the context of an event that readily accommodated diverse states without Arctic territory, such as India, the United Kingdom, and China.

The legitimacy of the White House Arctic Science Ministerial and Arctic science and research initiatives more generally turn on the presence and participation of the Indigenous peoples that live in Arctic regions. This first Arctic Science Ministerial signifies that we still have a long way to go.