Inuit and environmental organizations are celebrating the prioritization of the Arctic in the joint statement on climate change issued by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama.

The statement released Thursday in conjunction with Trudeau's visit to Washington included a commitment to implement the Paris Agreement and reduce methane emissions. A shared leadership model on action in the Arctic was one of the highlights in the document.

National and territorial Inuit organizations are heralding the agreement as a positive step that aligns the Canadian-U.S. position with the priorities of Inuit not only from Canada, but also from Greenland, Russia, and Alaska.

Highlights of the Arctic leadership model:

  • Protecting at least 17 per cent of land areas and 10 per cent of marine areas by 2020
  • Creating a pan-Arctic marine protection network
  • Incorporating indigenous science and traditional knowledge into decision-making
  • Establishing low impact shipping corridors
  • Calling for binding international agreement to prevent the opening of unregulated fisheries in the central Arctic Ocean to preserve living marine resources and promote scientific research in the region
  • If oil and gas development and exploration proceeds, activities must align with science-based standards between the two nations that ensure appropriate preparation for operating in Arctic conditions, including robust and effective well control and emergency response measures.

"I think it's a tremendous breakthrough for indigenous people who live in the Arctic, specifically for Inuit," said Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit organization.

Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama hold a joint news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Thursday. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Obed said he was consulted by the Prime Minister's Office in the preparation of the joint statement.

"This was not a statement that was about us, or that was done thinking of us in a paternalistic role. We were actually in discussions with the drafters. The final language in this document really spoke to Inuit."

The document includes many issues that ITK has been fighting for, including respect for land claim agreements and Inuit sovereignty, and socio-economic priorities such as housing, infrastructure, mental wellness, education, indigenous language, and skill development for youth.

"I think that this is a very coherent, strong statement that will give us a great platform to try to work on our issues," said Obed.

'Marching orders to federal ministers'

Obed admitted "there's a whole lot of politics involved" in translating such a statement into concrete action.

He acknowledged that it will take a spirit of co-operation to navigate the jurisdictional considerations required to implement promises in areas such as health and education which are under the territorial or provincial purview.

Hunter Tootoo and Natan Obed

'This gives marching orders to federal ministers, hopefully it also influences the way money is allocated in the budget for the government's overarching priorities,' said Natan Obed the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami who was in Washington with the Minister Tootoo. (Minister Tootoo's office)

"Then there's the money side, and I think we are going to see some investment in some of these issues, because you can't build houses without the money to build houses," said Obed.

He said the next step is for the prime minister to direct his ministers to follow suit.

"This gives marching orders to federal ministers. Hopefully it also influences the way money is allocated in the budget for the government's overarching priorities."

'Indigenous science'

Obed said the statements' attitude toward indigenous knowledge is another important element within the document.

The document mentions incorporating "indigenous science" and "traditional knowledge" in decision making.

Obed said the term "indigenous science" is a step forward and signals a change from qualifying that form of knowledge.

"There's been a push from Inuit for a long long time to have our knowledge and our science be at the same level as western science and this gets us closer to that realization," said Obed.

Cathy Towtongie, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the organization responsible for ensuring the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement is implemented, said she is happy to see the focus on land claim agreements in the statement.

"The fact that both President Obama and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about these land agreements and social and environmental cultural agreements means the Inuit will be fully involved," she said.

Nunavut MP and fisheries minister Hunter Tootoo, who is in Washington with the prime minister, said the statement "reconfirms the prime minister's commitment to the North."

"I just feel honoured, especially as an Inuk coming from Nunavut where we're already feeling the impacts of climate change," he said.

Louie Porta

'I think people should take a step and appreciate how significant this is,' said Louie Porta, Policy Director of The Pew Charitable Trust’s Oceans North Canada. (The Pew Charitable Trust’s Oceans North Canada)

The statement took a strong position on key environmental issues in the Arctic.

"That is not just significant, it's historic and unprecedented," said Louie Porta, policy director of The Pew Charitable Trust's Oceans North Canada.

"I think people should take a step and appreciate how significant this is that the Arctic was raised to this level of attention in a Canada/U.S. continental discussion."

Paul Crowley, director of WWF-Canada's Arctic Program, said "It is huge to have such leadership on these issues."

Crowley expressed his excitement to see issues such as shipping and the use of heavy fuel oil, working on renewables to replace diesel, and a commitment to conservation in the marine and terrestrial environments in the statement.

"It's hard to express how big this is. If it gets implemented, it will have a huge impact on the North."

Trudeau's three-day visit to Washington wraps up Friday.