While business and political leaders from across the Pacific Northwest are fretting about how to harness the Arctic’s potential at a summit in Whistler, B.C., an international gathering of Inuit leaders is discussing how to adapt to rapid change in the region.

Delegates at the Pacific Northwest Economic Region Summit in Whistler, B.C., heard that Canada and the U.S. are still in the ice age when it comes to harnessing the Arctic's potential.

Russia is building more than a dozen icebreakers to transport liquefied natural gas to Asia while Canada and the U.S. are still trying to organize talks.

University of Victoria Professor Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly said Russia pulls 37 per cent of its gross domestic product from the Arctic while Canada earns less than 10 per cent.

He said Russia has tapped into the Arctic in a massive way, while North America is barely touching its potential.

But at the 12th general assembly of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which wraps up today in Inuvik, N.W.T, delegates are busy discussing just how rapidly the region's western hemisphere is developing, and how people who live in the area can take part.

“In 1990, there were a mere three port calls,” said the mayor of Nome, Alaska, Denise Michaels. “Last year, in 2013, there were 449 port calls with a hundred fifty waiting to come in.”

Michaels said the increased activity has also brought new problems to the region.

“For example heroin and meth has come into Nome: it was never there before.”

A major topic for Inuit from all the regions represented at the meeting — Canada, Russia, Alaska, Greenland — is how to share in the gains of development.

“The offshore does not in itself have a policy by government to say what is the share of the risk and the benefit to Inuit,” says the chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, the land claims organization for Inuit in the N.W.T. “That risk is very high,” Nellie Cournoyea said.

Cournoyea said Inuit are competing with federal governments for a share of those potential royalties, and should create a common policy.

Others raised concerns about wildlife, especially sea mammals, which many Inuit still rely on as a major source of nutrition and cultural strength.

At a session on sustainable resource management, Karl Kristian Kruse, a Greenlandic delegate, said marine mammals such as seals and narwhal have always been the best food in the harsh environment where Inuit live.

“I’m afraid that this increased traffic can harm our marine animals: their foraging areas, their resting and nesting areas, and disturb all the animals that our lives depend on,” he said. “We know how noise can affect our animals, and we know that if this traffic is increasing, it can harm our wildlife.”

Kristian Kruse called on the ICC to manage the increased traffic in the Northwest Passage, so as not to disturb that way of life.

Many of the delegates agreed that if companies are willing to spend millions of dollars in investments for resources, they should also invest in communities, where people who live in the Arctic are suffering from a chronic housing shortage, a lack of community infrastructure and a high cost of living.  

Anguti Johnson of Nunavut, president of the National Inuit Youth Council, said young people need particular, immediate attention.

“When leaders think about these issues, remember young people and children as well. They have no proper housing and no food,” he said. “They cannot get housing because they’re still in school. They cannot get jobs because they’re still in school. These things don’t just happen on their own.”

Johnston said young people are always told they are the future, but he said they can provide direction to decision makers now.

With files from The Canadian Press