Feds, Inuit sign unprecedented working arrangement to negotiate Lancaster Sound benefits deal

'It allows us to be able to work with the different departments that have different programs,' says P.J. Akeeagok, president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.

Whole-of-government approach puts onus on federal cabinet to work as one

From left to right, P.J. Akeeagok, president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, Catherine McKenna, minister of Environment and Climate Change and minister responsible for Parks Canada, and Joe Savikataaq, Nunavut's minister of Environment. (Nick Murray/CBC)

It's a commitment that's never been made on a regional level: the federal cabinet will work as one on a file, making it easier for one department to align its priorities with another.

The "whole-of-government approach" came as a commitment from the Prime Minister's Office to the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), and was signed and sealed on Monday as part of the memorandum of understanding for protecting Tallurutiup Imanga, or Lancaster Sound.

The new working approach should make it easier for both QIA and Parks Canada when it comes time to hash out an Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement (IIBA) for the conservation area. More infrastructure is at the top of QIA's list of desired benefits, and since it falls outside of Canada's Environment Minister's portfolio, the approach puts the onus on the cabinet as a whole to see it through — if it's agreed upon in the IIBA.

"That's exactly where we're coming from. It allows us to be able to work with the different departments that have different programs," says QIA president P.J. Akeeagok.

While the agreement is similar to the Inuit-to-Crown partnership the federal government signed with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami in February, it's believed on all sides this is the first such arrangement on a regional level for any Indigenous group.

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says the commitment from the PMO realizes the whole-of-government approach is bigger than simply protecting Tallurutiup Imanga, to make sure there are real economic benefits to Inuit.

"I now have the mandate internally to say 'OK, everyone needs to come to the table and work together,'" McKenna told CBC News.

"The MOU as part of the Lancaster Sound boundary announcement, I think, is groundbreaking. It's really the first time government is saying, 'You know what, it's not just about protecting a very important space, both ecologically and also for Inuit culture and history, but it's about something more.'"

Recommendation into reality

The whole-of-government approach stems in part from a recommendation from Inuit leader Mary Simon's final report in May on a new shared leadership model for the Arctic. Simon most recently served as a special representative on Arctic leadership for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett.

Simon experienced federal interdepartmental bureaucracy first-hand during her work as special representative — exactly what this arrangement is designed to avoid.

"Especially in the area of environment, Parks Canada, Environment Canada, other areas that deal with those types of issues often had the same priority areas but they worked at them from a different perspective. They would not go off in the same direction after a meeting," Simon said.

Mary Simon was appointed as a special representative on the Arctic to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"So the priority-setting and actually carrying out those priorities in a coordinated fashion, will require a concerted effort on the part of the federal government."

In her May report, Simon also tied Arctic conservation into building infrastructure in communities. During his speech Monday in announcing Tallurutiup Imanga, Akeeagok specifically mentioned upgraded airports and small craft harbours as possible benefits from an IIBA.

Simon says leveraging a conservation deal could be one of the more creative ways to address infrastructure gaps in Nunavut.

She also says feeding off this momentum is the key to not getting bogged down in bureaucracy.

QIA has set an 18-month target for finalizing the IIBA for Tallurutiup Imanga.


Nick Murray


Nick Murray is a CBC News reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He specializes in investigative reporting and access to information legislation. A graduate from St. Thomas University's journalism program, he's also covered four Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports.