Aboriginal groups from every Arctic country have signed a statement that calls for an end to offshore drilling and a pause in northern energy projects unless local aboriginals consent.
The statement was released Monday in Kiruna, Sweden, two days before leaders from the eight circumpolar nations meet and hand over chairmanship of the Arctic Council to Canada.
It also comes after repeated statements by federal Health Minister and northern MP Leona Aglukkaq, who will lead the council during Canada's two-year stint, that northerners support her pro-business agenda.
"It is time that we join forces and demand that the oil companies and the Arctic states change their path and start to listen to the voices of the indigenous peoples residing in these lands," the statement reads.
It has 42 signatories, including major aboriginal groups from Russia, the United States and Canada, as well as aboriginal leaders from Scandinavia.
Aboriginals from every Arctic Council nation are represented. The signatories range from reindeer herders and private citizens to aboriginal environmental groups, international organizations and members of aboriginal parliaments.
Two groups that have signed on — the Arctic Athabaskan Council and the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North — are permanent participants on the Arctic Council. The other four aboriginal permanent participants have not signed.
The statement demands an end to all offshore drilling in Arctic waters. It says methods to clean up inevitable spills haven't been developed yet. It adds that drilling on traditional aboriginal lands should also end until governments and industry demonstrate better environmental standards.
It concludes that any development that does go ahead should only do so with the full consent of local aboriginals, who must also benefit from the deal.
That caution from aboriginals contrasts with Canada's official agenda for its two-year term.
Aglukkaq has said she plans to establish a business forum for the council to bring industry leaders together to spur northern development. A federal discussion paper on Canada's agenda for its term echoes that.
"The development of natural resources in a sustainable manner, in which northerners participate and benefit, is central to the economic future of the circumpolar region," it says. "Arctic Council initiatives could be built around and support Canada's priorities to increase investment and development in the northern resource sector."
Bill Erasmus, who signed the statement on behalf of Canada's Dene Nation, said he signed on to the statement to show the growing opposition among Indigenous people, who he says would be among the first affected if there were a spill.
"We are very, very concerned that if there is any type of spill like there was in the Gulf of Mexico, then we are really in trouble," he said.
Erasmus said Arctic drilling is an issue for the Dene because Treaty 11 extends to the Arctic Ocean. He said that means the Dene Nation has a direct responsibility to help protect the Arctic.
Not all Arctic aboriginal groups agree with the statement.
Nellie Cournoyea, chair and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, said those that signed the Joint Statement for Arctic Protection do not represent the Inuvialuit or the Inuit.
"When I looked at what was being said, it was rather annoying — Greenpeace and Bill Erasmus trying to get some airtime," she said.
"We don’t need him to represent the Inuvialuit. We have our land claim that was settled in 1984. As far as I'm concerned, it's rather disrespectful to us and what we are doing in our region."
Companies such as Imperial Oil, ExxonMobil and Shell have promised to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for exploration rights to the Beaufort Sea.
The council meeting begins Wednesday.
In addition to handing over the chairmanship to Canada, the council members are also expected to sign a binding agreement on oil spill prevention and deal with the issue of observer status for non-Arctic states, such as China.