Ottawa's northern representative proposes 'Indigenous protected areas' for Arctic

Arctic environments should be conserved through a network of Indigenous protected areas that would give Inuit more control over their land, says an interim report from a high-profile northerner.

Changing Arctic conservation could contribute to healthy northern communities, says Mary Simon

Mary Simon has proposed that there should be Indigenous protected areas for the Arctic. She was appointed as a special representative on the Arctic to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett. (Sean Kilpatrick/ The Canadian Press)

Arctic environments should be conserved through a network of Indigenous-protected areas that would give Inuit more control over their land, says an interim report from a high-profile northerner.

"It's the connection between creating healthy communities, reconciliation, about many different things," said Mary Simon, who is advising Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett on the North.

"It's about people calling a place their home."

Simon, a diplomat, journalist and longtime Inuit leader, was appointed special representative to Bennett last summer after a joint statement on Arctic policy by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former U.S. President Barack Obama.

Simon said that dozens of meetings with northerners have revealed that health care, housing, suicide prevention and Internet access are more immediate concerns than conservation.

So are delays in getting long-term access to money to implement programs announced by the government.

"There's a blockage on the part of the department to get beyond that funding mechanism and allow Inuit to access that money and have a five or 10-year agreement," said Simon.

All issues raised are to be addressed in her final report due March 31.

For now Simon concludes that changing the way Arctic conservation is approached could also significantly contribute to healthy northern communities.

She suggests that conservation zones should not only be defined by Inuit, but Inuit should decide what activities are allowed within them and manage them. They should also reap whatever economic benefits are generated.

Each area could have different rules, depending on local priorities.

"We want it to be driven from the bottom up," Simon said. "It's really managing your own lands."

Speed up Parks Canada action

Putting Inuit in charge could also speed up Parks Canada action on Arctic protection, she said. For example, Lancaster Sound on the eastern gate of the Northwest Passage was first proposed for protection by the Inuit in 1987 and still hasn't achieved marine protected area status.

It would also ensure that land would be managed by those with local commitments and ties instead of by southerners who move on after a few years. More responsibility for the land would also reinforce cultural bonds, Simon said.

"It's bringing back this connection that people have to their homeland and allowing people to create much healthier communities."

In fact, Simon believes the Inuit should have a greater role in managing the Arctic overall, including responsibility for environmental monitoring.

Canadian Rangers could play a role 

The Canadian Rangers — a largely Aboriginal army reserve unit that acts as the military's northern eyes and ears — could be made responsible for keeping track of things such as shipping.

"We'd like to see the northern Rangers have more capacity to monitor the region."

Shipping corridors could be defined in accordance with local concerns about impacts on wildlife and hunting.

"It's also a contribution to the country," Simon said. "We can address sovereignty concerns."

She said the idea of an Indigenous protected area already exists in places such as Haida Gwaii, a Haida-controlled group of islands north of Vancouver Island. Other examples exist in Australia and New Zealand.

Such status doesn't exist yet in law.

Simon said Bennett's office and other federal ministers have been receptive to the idea.

"The government is really working to make it work," she said. "I think it's going to happen."

Officials from Bennett's office were not available for comment.