Inuit leaders tackle resource development debate

Inuit leaders from around the circumpolar world are hoping to reach a consensus on Arctic mining and offshore oil and gas development at a summit this week in Ottawa.

Greenland defends oil, gas development amid environmental concerns

Inuit leaders from around the circumpolar world hope to reach a consensus on Arctic mining and offshore oil and gas development at a summit this week in Ottawa.

Arctic offshore drilling is one of several issues being discussed at this week's Inuit summit in Ottawa. (CBC)

The Inuit Circumpolar Council has brought together leaders from Canada, Russia, Alaska and Greenland for the resource development summit, which began Wednesday and runs through Thursday.

Offshore oil and gas development and mining — especially uranium mining — are contentious issues in the Arctic, and Inuit leaders have disagreed on what should be allowed and what should not be allowed.

Greenland has been pushing for offshore oil and gas drilling in Davis Strait, raising concerns in neighbouring Nunavut about potential impacts on wildlife and the environment.

As the summit began Wednesday, Greenland Premier Kuupik Kleist told delegates that oil and gas development will become a top industry there.

Status quo 'not an option': Greenland premier

Kleist said outside companies have been exploiting the Arctic's natural resources for centuries, but now it's time for Greenland's Inuit — who he said can no longer depend solely on traditional activities like hunting and fishing — to benefit from resource development.

"For Greenland, status quo is not an option," Kleist said.

"It's safer today than it has been ever," he added, referring to the oil and gas industry. "There is a risk, of course. We know that and we are open about it. But we want to gain from that kind of activity ourselves."

Ove Karl Berthelsen, Greenland's minister of industry and mineral resources, said about 20 offshore licences have been granted under what he called very strict conditions.

But Inuit living in Nunavut have said last year's major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico should serve as a warning for proponents of oil and gas exploration in the Arctic.

"After all, it was the environment and the animals that have taken us up to [the] 21st century," said Larry Audlaluk of Grise Fiord, Nunavut.

Seeking consensus

While Inuit have generally agreed that they must be consulted on economic development in the North — and benefit from it — leaders have differed on what should get their support or not.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Mary Simon said she will bring several positions to the table, in the hopes that Inuit leaders can reach a consensus. (CBC)

For example, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the Inuit land-claim organization in Nunavut, supports uranium mining despite the Inuit Circumpolar Council's longtime opposition to it.

Kleist referred to that fact on Wednesday, noting that Greenland has zero tolerance for uranium mining development.

"I'm sure there will be disagreements or agreements. That's a natural process and we need to do that," Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami in Canada, told CBC News.

"We need to bring these things out in the open, talk about them, and then come to some kind of a conclusion in terms of how we're going to deal with it."

Simon said she will present specific positions and hopes Inuit leaders will reach a consensus by the end of the summit.