Inuit in Canada, U.S. seek greater involvement in climate change decision-making

 Inuit food security and self-governance in a rapidly warming Arctic are at the centre of a new policy paper issued by the Inuit Circumpolar Council

  • Aug 29, 2022
  • 1,085 words
  • 5 minutes
On St. Lawrence Island, Alaska and across the Arctic, marine mammals are crucial to Inuit food security and are carefully harvested and used. No part of the animal is wasted. (Photo: Carolina Behe)
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Inuit have always shared a deep connection with their land and the natural world, but with the Arctic warming at a much faster rate than any other region of the globe, this relationship is being severely disrupted. Now, Inuit from Alaska and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR) of Canada are calling for more Inuit involvement in government decisions about the Arctic so that their way of life can continue. 

In September 2020, the Inuit Circumpolar Council Alaska (ICC Alaska) published an extensive report on Inuit self-governance and food sovereignty — a multifaceted concept that encompasses the rights of Inuit to harvest healthy, nutritious, and culturally appropriate foods from land, air, and water. In a series of meetings, focus groups and workshops, dozens of Inuit from across Alaska and the ISR shared concerns about the changes happening in their homeland and threatening their way of life. The report’s findings are summarized in a recently-released policy paper that puts forward five calls to action for greater recognition and participation of Inuit in decisions related to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

“The only way Inuit can obtain food security and have food sovereignty is to manage their resources themselves, including those within both marine and territorial environments,” says Vernon Blaine Amos, a resident of Sachs Harbour, N.W.T. and one of the authors of the policy paper.

Amos says traditional Inuit knowledge and western science can be combined in a way that benefits the Inuit, but lack of trust and respect for Inuit knowledge has stood in the way of securing meaningful partnerships for their communities. 

“Our language and culture are important to each Native that is raised from the land and ocean. We must not forget about that and how this connects to our food,” adds James Nicori, who grew up on the Kuskokwim River in southwest Alaska and today serves as an Elder Advisor to the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Executive Board.

Preparing bowhead whale muktuk to share at the 2018 Inuit Circumpolar Council General Assembly in Utqiagvik, Alaska. (Photo: Carolina Behe)
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Climate change is altering the life cycles of land and marine animals that Inuit communities have hunted and fished for thousands of years. Warming waters affect salmon and char and change the migration patterns of belugas and walrus, while increased ship traffic through the region disrupts marine habitat. 

Although laws exist in both Canada and the U.S. to protect the harvesting rights of Indigenous Peoples, federal regulations don’t necessarily align with their practices and values. Slow, rigid, and complicated decision-making processes do not allow Inuit communities enough flexibility to respond to real-time changes in the Arctic or to “follow the weather and the animals,” as was shared in the ICC’s consultations.

“We have lived here for thousands of years. We know when to leave the animals alone, and we know when they give themselves to us, and we take them for our food security,” says Robert Lekander, an active hunter and fisher from Bethel, Alaska and also an Elder Advisor to the Executive Council of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “We never waste. Decision-making should be left to us. We know our own area.”

The policy paper asks Canada and the U.S. to take their international commitments seriously, especially in areas where climate change impacts are creating food insecurity, by including Inuit as key partners in the development of the Nationally Determined Contributions and National Adaptation Plans under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

“People must listen to Indigenous Peoples from their area for anything they do,” says John Noksana Jr. “We are the first people. We have always been here and we will always be here.”

A resident of Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., Noksana Jr. has served on various Arctic co-management boards over the past 12 years. He currently advocates on behalf of the Inuit way of life through his work with Oceans North, a charity that fosters science and community-based conservation in the Arctic. He says traditional knowledge should be held in the same regard as western science when it comes to decision-making in the Arctic. 

“Traditional knowledge carries just as much value as science. We know what we are talking about when we say something. We need to be trusted and respected.”

The authors of a new ICC policy paper that calls for greater involvement of Inuit in climate change decision making. Top row, from left: Joanna Petrasek MacDonald, Vera Metcalf, Robert Lekander, John Noksana. Middle row, from left: JakyLou Olemaun, Vernon Blaine Amos, Mary Sattler Peltola with her daughter Ikamaq. Bottom row, from left: James Nicori, Dalee Sambo Dorough, and Carolina Behe. (Photos courtesy of the authors)
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The policy paper also asks Canada and the U.S. to fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and its interrelated provisions on food security and sovereignty, and to include Inuit voices in international climate processes taking place at the UN and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to Natan Obed, the head of Canada’s ICC delegation, Inuit communities have the highest rate of food insecurity in the world, ranging between 60 to 70 percent across Inuit regions.

Dalee Sambo Dorough, a senior scholar with the University of Alaska Anchorage and former chair of ICC, says Inuit were among the first to sound the alarm on climate change, decades before the threat fully entered the public consciousness. Climate change poses “multiple diverse yet interrelated [threats] for the Inuit, from environmental degradation to food insecurity to the diminishment of our human rights,” she says. “Together with the Inuit, the world community must respond.” 

Last month, Sambo Dorough handed over leadership of the ICC to Greenland’s Sara Olsvig, an anthropologist and member of Greenland’s Human Rights Council and Constitutional Commission. Under her leadership, the ICC, which represents approximately 180,000 Inuit across the Arctic, including Alaska, Northern Canada, Greenland, and the Russian Federation, will continue to participate formally in the UN to address their concerns about food security and the effects of increasing industrial marine traffic in the Arctic.

The policy paper concludes that Inuit ingenuity and knowledge can provide innovative solutions and management approaches to climate change in the Arctic, but that their knowledge and authority must be at the forefront of all discussions and decisions made about their homeland.

“The quality of our Indigenous food sovereignty and self-governance is the best measure for determining the health of our communities and culture,” says Vera Metcalf, a resident of Savoonga, Alaska who is passionate about strengthening Indigenous languages and cultures and advocates for the subsistence lifestyles of Arctic Indigenous peoples. “They remain a critical aspect of our identity and a foundation for our Indigenous knowledge.” 


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