© Jack Iqaqrialuk

My community took on the oil industry—and won

17 July 2018

This article originally appeared in The Circle: The rising tide of underwater noise. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

Kangiqtugaapik (or Clyde River) is a picturesque community of roughly 1,000 people on the east side of Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada. The area is home to various sea mammals, including different species of seal, whale and water fowl. But as Jerry Natanine explains, in 2011, the small community’s way of life, food supply and livelihood were threatened—so the town fought back.

Like many other Inuit communities, most of Kangiqtugaapik’s healthy food still comes from the sea. Hunting seals, whales and waterfowl, and fishing for char, are incredibly important to our physical and cultural health. Kangiqtugaapik also benefits from a thriving commercial fishery that provides employment and financial revenues to several communities in the Baffin Island region. We very much depend on the animals and birds that live in and migrate to our area.

In 2011, a consortium of geophysical companies applied to conduct seismic surveys in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait. Seismic surveys are used by oil and gas companies to identify potential oil and gas deposits. This would have meant blasting very loud sounds into the water near Kangiqtugaapik—so loud they would have penetrated the ocean floor. There is evidence from many parts of the world that seismic blasting can harm marine mammals and disrupt fisheries.

During an environmental assessment of the application, there was wall-to-wall opposition from Nunavummiut. Through petitions, letters and resolutions, we made it very clear we did not support the proposed surveys. Both of our Inuit organizations—Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association—passed resolutions opposing the surveys. The Baffin Mayors Forum, a meeting of all of the mayors from Baffin Island, did the same.

We were against the proposal for three main reasons. First and foremost, we were very worried about the effect seismic testing might have on our hunting way of life. We worried that the noise could harm many parts of the ecosystem, from the big sea mammals like whales all the way down to the tiny plankton. Secondly, the companies did a horrible job of consulting with us. They couldn’t answer our most basic questions about potential impacts to the environment, and gave us absolutely no reason to trust them. Finally, they were not offering substantial benefits to our community. The companies would not agree to hire any permanent Inuit employees or share revenues.

We quickly realized this was not “development” they were proposing. It was exploitation.

Despite our objections, the surveys were approved in the summer of 2014. At the time, I was mayor of Kangiqtugaapik. Our Hamlet Council and Hunters and Trappers Organization agreed we should keep fighting and stand up for ourselves and the animals we eat. We approached our Inuit organizations, the Government of Nunavut, our federal Member of Parliament, and several environmental groups. However, none of them were willing or able to help us continue our fight.

We ended up finding help in the most unlikely of places—from Greenpeace, a group that had been detested in Nunavut for decades. Many Inuit are still very angry with the organization because of its anti-sealing campaign in the 1970s and 1980s. The European boycott on sealskins impoverished our communities. But with nowhere else to turn, we decided to make common cause with an old enemy.

With funding from Greenpeace and a lot of volunteer work from many people, we challenged the seismic surveys in court. The next few months of my life were a blur. I will never forget how frantic we were as we rushed to submit our application to the courts. With a deadline only a few days away, and our lawyer’s wife going into labour, it was an emotional and exciting time for all of us.

The Supreme Court ruling made it very clear that Inuit must be consulted extensively where offshore development is concerned.

The Federal Court of Appeal dismissed our case, but we didn’t give up. We appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada and won. The Supreme Court ruling made it very clear that Inuit must be consulted extensively where offshore development is concerned. By uniting as a community, and by working with our former enemy, we defeated a threat to our well-being and establish an important precedent for Inuit rights.

Jerry Natanine is an Inuk from Kangiqtugaapik (Clyde River), Nunavut, and is Kangiqtugaapik’s former mayor. He is currently president of the Clyde River Hunters and Trappers Organization.

This article was written with the assistance of Warren Bernauer, a graduate student at York University in Toronto, Canada who worked closely with Jerry Natanine during Kangiqtugaapik’s battle against proposed oil and gas exploration.