North

Clyde River hunters laud 'surprising' Greenpeace partnership

As Clyde River, Nunavut, waits to hear if the Supreme Court will hear its seismic testing appeal, Mayor Jerry Natanine says environmental activist group Greenpeace continues to be a key ally.

Greenpeace's anti-sealing campaign is 'in the past,' says Clyde River Mayor Jerry Natanine

A group of hunters in Clyde River, Nunavut, set out in search of a narwhal, knowing this is their last chance to catch one of the mammals this year. They fear seismic testing will disrupt the migration patterns in the future. (Vincent Robinet/CBC)

For more than a year, a small Nunavut community has been the underdog in a legal battle to stop a consortium of international companies from conducting controversial seismic testing off the coast of Baffin Island.

But Clyde River's mayor says the hamlet has a powerful ally: Greenpeace.

"We wouldn't have been able to do it without them," says Jerry Natanine. "They're the main reason why we've gotten all the publicity we've gotten around the world." 

It's a "surprising" alliance, Natanine admits, given the environmental group's history of opposing the seal hunt, a strong tradition in this Inuit community. 
A banner signed by supporters from around the world can be seen as soon as you enter Clyde River's hamlet office. Mayor Jerry Natanine says the community's partnership with Greenpeace is the reason why so many people know about his cause. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

Clyde River says the scientific evidence surrounding seismic testing is inconclusive, and fear the extremely loud guns used in the tests would scare away animals or even deafen them. 

Earlier this year, the hamlet lost its case with the Federal Court of Appeal, but it hopes the Supreme Court will hear the case.

Greenpeace's anti-sealing history

In the 1970s and 1980s, Greenpeace led a national anti-sealing campaign, which saw images of fluffy white seal pups contrasted with shots of the commercial hunt in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Many Inuit across Canada, including a young Jerry Natanine, saw the campaign as an attack on their traditional hunting practices.

Last year, Greenpeace made a formal apology to Inuit, saying they wanted to "set the record straight," emphasizing that subsistence hunting was never their target. 

"For years we used to fight against the Greenpeace because the seal skins that we used to sell the prices declined on," said Esa Qillaq, a young full-time hunter.

"Now they're kind of standing beside us fighting these guys, these big corporations, financially. And they're the only ones who probably care."

A community divided

Greenpeace was not the first organization the hamlet looked to for help. 

When the National Energy Board approved a permit for seismic testing, Natanine says the community was divided. 

Many saw this as the opportunity for economic development they had long been waiting for. Even Natanine says he saw dollar signs before he saw any danger to hunting. 

"I was happy about it because we see other nations who are benefiting from it — oil and gas," he said. "A lot of us were thinking, we're going to benefit."

That's when elders began sharing their stories. 

Decades ago, they say similar types of testing deafened and killed seals, with animals unable to hear the sound of guns mere metres away. Some saw the seals they caught had pus oozing from their ears. 
Former mayor Jerry Natanine has long been able to point out on a map where different marine animals are at different times of year. Now he can also point out how that might change, if seismic testing goes ahead. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

"They became deaf," said Joelie Sanguya, who is an avid dogteam owner and hunter. "That's our food."

Soon, the community united in their resolve to stop the tests — but, by then, Clyde River had already lost some of the 30 days it had to mount an appeal. 

"We were trying to figure out how are we going to do this? Where can we get help?" said Natanine. 

First they went to the various Inuit organizations. Natanine says they found some support, but not nearly enough to mount an expensive, and potentially lengthy court battle.

"As time went on, the days were getting shorter and we were getting desperate. What are we going to do?"

A partnership is forged

For weeks, Natanine says Greenpeace and its recent apology had been discussed among hamlet staff and members of the local hunters and trappers organization — mainly to say "we hate them."

Then, with only a few days left to the important deadline, Natanine said they decided to hear what Greenpeace had to say. 

"At first we thought Greenpeace was against us because we eat animals," said hunter David Iqaqrialu in Inuktitut, "but they're not like that. 
Hunter and former Nunavut MLA David Iqaqrialu says Greenpeace was misunderstood by Inuit: 'They love animals as we do.' (Elyse Skura/CBC)

"They're not trying to stop what we eat, but they are against mistreating animals."

'Over my dead body'

Now, virtually everyone in the community seems to agree that this 'David versus Goliath' battle against big business seems winnable — almost solely based on the support Greenpeace has provided. 

Beyond money, Natanine says Greenpeace has given them valuable strategic advice on how to lobby the government.

And if the courts don't rule in Clyde River's favour, Natanine says he's willing to learn one more tactic from the activist group: direct action. 

"If Inuit can be swimming in the water there when it's happening," said Natanine. "They'll have to stop the seismic ships from blasting.

"I've told them it's going to happen over my dead body."

If Clyde River loses its legal battle, Natanine says some hunters are willing to drive their boats out to the seismic vessels and swim in the frigid waters to block the tests. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

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