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The Coming Northwest Passage Through the Heart of
the Arctic Nations: Oil, Diamonds and Self-Determination

by Macdonald Stainsby
August 9, 2004

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Since the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, indigenous sovereignty has gained a wider understanding among progressives and activists across Turtle Island (North America), and in particular in Canada. Many writers and activists have offered insight and support into ongoing struggles over sovereignty for the Shuswap Nation's Secwepemc people at what is commonly referred to as “Sun Peaks” near Kamloops, British Columbia. Also, near Montreal Quebec, the Mohawk Nation's Kanehsatake community continues to be under siege from the Federal government, police and federally appointed “chiefs”. Both of these struggles have ongoing support campaigns among non-First Nations populations: In late August, Vancouver BC will see bus loads of supporters head to the areas being defended against the creation of more resorts, ski hills and other illegal and unauthorized, anti-environmental developments. From Montreal, Kanehsatake continues to ask for and receive support, if limited, in the ongoing camp out against the invasion of the government and “government-Indians”. However, perhaps the single most important battle over sovereignty is also the single most important move by Canadian imperialism since WWII. And it has yet to register on the radar screen, though the battle has been under way for over three decades.

It is in the Arctic regions where the fastest process of settler colonialism in the Western Hemisphere is occurring, with new untapped resources-- particularly oil and gas-- being discovered, along side some of the largest diamond deposits on the planet. Just as Canadian and American imperialist designs on Iraq, the Sudan, Nigeria and Venezuela are often in large part about crude and energy, so too is this not-new battlefield. We must call the piper on his lousy tune: “you are not bringing freedom and development” we must again say, “you are after the oil”. When the Canadian state and the corporations that it serves are openly clamoring for oil, talking about “growth” and “potential yields” while mentioning the need to discuss the “land claims problems first”, it has usually warranted a yawn, shrug or at best, a need for most of us to look on the map-- despite this area being larger than 90% percent of the states internationally recognized today.

Speaking of maps, a tiny ice rock called Hans Island [1], almost exactly half way between Ellesmere Island (“legal” territory of Canada) and Greenland (colonized by Denmark) has given Canadian imperialism a much needed reason to “flex muscle.” [2] As global warming continues to shift the ecological balance in the Arctic and Antarctic regions far more rapidly than anywhere else on earth, this colossal thaw provides a very twisted but real “opportunity”. While currently not able to navigate the waters due to both ice and lack of technology, neither is expected to be much hindrance for very long, and the oft-sought Northwest Passage will open up as a “benefit” from industrial-led environmental decay. Hans Island will become a transit point for what will be the most radical shift in commercial shipping globally since the opening of the Panama Canal. With plentiful resources needing to be exported out (oil, gas, diamonds) of the economically explosive Arctic, small wonder that Canada is threatening Denmark and intimidating with the military. Since neither colonizer “claimed” Hans Island, there has now been a Danish flag planted in the ice, and Canada plans to focus their long term military expansion in the Arctic. The term being bandied about is “putting footprints in the snow”. This includes military exercises involving all three branches of the Canadian armed forces, setting up permanent military patrols (often made of many Inuit peoples serving the Canadian military) and establishing monitoring of the entire claimed region. Beginning on August 12 of this year, “exercise Narwhal” will go on until the 31st of the month and cost $5 million. According to the Canadian Forces website, Narwhal:

[I]is designed to challenge senior military and civilian staffs to produce innovative solutions in a combined operations setting: Land forces will manoeuvre over rugged terrain with naval and air forces providing joint support. The naval force will operate in the Pangnirtung and Kingnait Fiords and the Cumberland Sound area. Air operations will support the placement of troops for covert patrolling. In addition, air operations include counter electronic surveillance using a UAV (uninhabited aerial vehicle [drones- MS]).

The exercise is designed to strengthen Canada's presence in the Arctic. [3]

Why does Canada need to “strengthen presence” in the Arctic? There are four international border disputes all taking place currently: two with the United States (Alaska), one with Russia and the dispute with Denmark. To quote from the National Post:

“The northern attention comes as international interest in Canada's claim to the far north is increasing. Climate change is bringing increased activity to the area because reduced ice cover makes it possible for ships to travel between Asia and Europe through the Northwest Passage, a far shorter route.” [4]

As always for the indigenous nation dealing with the settler state, such attention can be deadly. Particularly when the nations are already in decline due (in part) to the fact that toxic environmental pollutants (such as Mercury) made in the south gather in the northern arctic like hair in the bathtub drain. Of course, it is not inconceivable that these indigenous nations can establish forms and expressions of self-determination-- for this we first must establish the primacy of the principle, hardly an uncontested concept. However, it is in the Arctic where the largest basis for “modern” self-determination exists, and with the least complications for structures with real applications of sovereignty. The Arctic, despite some of the largest unexplored areas and most plentiful deposits of resources on the earth, has not been heavily settled by the Canadian state. While slightly less than 5% of Canada's population remains indigenous, slightly more than 20% of the Yukon, over 50% of the Northwest Territories and 85% of Nunavut (already declared an autonomous indigenous region/territory) are indigenous. This incredibly wealthy part of “Canada” contains the second largest diamond deposits in the world, and the largest “non-blood” deposits. [5] This has led to marketing these resources stolen from indigenous populations as the “clean alternative” to African diamonds, [6] and much like corporations abroad, they pat themselves on the back for employing one-third of their workers from indigenous communities. Then, of course, there is the question of oil and gas.

The largest remaining untapped natural gas reserves on the planet, they tell us, are in the Beaufort Sea and Mackenzie River Delta and some of the largest untapped oil reserves are slightly below the Arctic Circle. Gas stretches north into the Arctic Ocean where global warming continues to stubbornly (and with frightening success) try to carve out a northern shipping lane. This lane would happen in the east Arctic, whereas the gas and oil (and presumably the eventual commercial hubs themselves, Inuvik and Tuktoyuktuk) are in the west Arctic-- in the Beaufort Sea region where the Mackenzie meets the ocean. This incredible resource base has been developed in bits and pieces, most notably at Norman Wells in the NWT, where drilling began in 1922. But the main plans are proposed oil and also expanded gas pipelines that would extend the entire Mackenzie Valley, north through the Yukon, Arctic Ocean and Alaska and south into Alberta on the way to the United States. This construction, first discussed in the early seventies, would now cover 1700 km of territory, an absolutely phenomenal distance in some of the only primarily untouched lands in the world, where some Caribou herds-- including the 150 000 population Porcupine herd (already steadily declining from several hundred thousand only a few decades ago)-- are among the few remaining herd animals on earth to annually migrate en masse for the calving season. As global oil production has now past its peak, the pressure to force through this pipeline will only intensify. In the seventies, this process led Chief Frank T'Seleie (Dene -Fort Good Hope) to exclaim at an inquiry into the proposed project:

“You are like the Pentagon, Mr. [Robert] Blair [president of Foothills Pipe Lines Limited, a corporation that wanted to construct the pipeline- MS], planning the slaughter of innocent Vietnamese. Don’t tell me you are not responsible. You are the 20th century General Custer. You are coming with your troops to slaughter us and steal land that is rightfully ours. You are coming to destroy a people that have a history of 30,000 years. Why? For 20 years of gas? Are you really that insane?” [7]

This was the “Berger Commission”, begun in 1974, releasing reports in 1977. Surprisingly, the commission was entirely dismissive of the claims of prosperity to come made by oil and gas corporations. The commission concluded that the project would be like so many other resource extraction projects: The environmental impact would destroy traditional ways of life based on the land, threaten the animal species living in the area and during the construction of such pipelines would only provide low paying and unskilled work, leaving ruin behind that made abandoning most parts of the proposed pipeline the only rational choice. To quote Thomas Berger in the report, the "social consequences of the pipeline will not only be serious -- they will be devastating." [8] Later in the same document, Berger describes the mindset of the settler state very clearly:

"I discovered that people in the North have strong feelings about the pipeline and large-scale frontier development. I listened to a brief by northern businessmen in Yellowknife who favour a pipeline through the North. Later, in a native village far away, I heard virtually the whole community express vehement opposition to such a pipeline. Both were talking about the same pipeline; both were talking about the same region - but for one group it is a frontier, for the other a homeland." [9]

The final recommendations of the report were that the Mackenzie River north route be shelved for at least ten years, that northern Yukon never be opened to drilling or pipeline construction and that no energy corridor be opened in the Delta. The south of the Mackenzie Valley was recommended to be the only area where pipelines be even considered. Several parks and ecological reserves were suggested throughout the area, to protect marine mammals, the Porcupine caribou herds, and many Arctic waterfowl.

Of course, grinding poverty imposed by environmental destruction up north where southern industrial pollutants get exported, combined with a current lack of any real control over the resources as they are, has led Some Inuit, Metis and Dene to believe that the scraps brought about through the building of pipeline infrastructure is preferable to the status quo of death by deliberate neglect and chemical poisoning. In Palestine, the ongoing misery in the West Bank and Gaza has led many prominent Palestinians to discuss making compromises that violate their individual and collective human rights as well, in particular the fate of the refugees is now viewed as a “bargaining chip” more often than as a principle for some prominent Palestinians. In the Arctic, even Chief T’Seleie has now called for the pipeline to be established, with only minor modifications to what was proposed 30 years ago.

This calculated imposition of misery is the main weapon that the settler state uses to force the colonized indigenous voice into openly endorsing a “treaty” or “peace” process that is anything but about the devolution of sovereignty, but instead designed to achieve the exact opposite and declaim self-determination for the colonized nation simultaneously. The rush to force “deals”, “road maps”, “peace plans” and “settlements” on the indigenous group has as a vital component: misery. When “negotiations” begin, to not have an unequal starting place would render the inequitable nature of the settlement impossible to sell, even to numerically and militarily weak Inuit and First Nations in the Far North. Meanwhile, during the “process” discussions are drawn out or stalled all together, commissions are undertaken, inquiries are held and --most importantly-- the settler state maintains its course in “fact creation” through road building, water diverting or pollution and settlement building. While these infrastructure and housing projects are carried out, the various courts will make a series of rulings striking down certain projects as either “too contentious” or “burdensome” to indigenous populations or by invoking environmental assessments before project resumption. These court challenges will be brought as a matter of course, but only a few projects will ever go off their initial course as a result of legal action. Such is the nature of the Israeli supreme court ruling on the re-routing of the Apartheid Wall, and such is the nature of courts re-routing certain parts of the oil and gas pipelines. These few not only give to the visible legitimacy of the various settler state projects, they will be cited by settler state ideologues of the “impartial” nature of the courts and even their “pro-native” bias. Lest one think the Berger inquiry was ultimately “pro-native”, it should be noted that both Bergers and another commission into an Alaskan Highway pipeline (the Lysyk commission) recommended that these proposals could be revisited after the pesky land claims issues with indigenous nations get their own final settlements.

At beginning of the “negotiations” in the seventies, all the Northern nations took the position that they were never conquered or consulted nor did they cede anything, but have been in place for multiple millenniums on the same homeland territory-- and it is Ottawa that has to establish a legitimacy to their presence. The settlements really leave next to nothing in local hands and look much like the proposed Geneva Accords: the nation is allowed to police itself but is not allowed an army; it will be given “land” but not control over any borders, passports or the like; access routes for various roads, public works and military installations will leave a Swiss cheese appearance to the “ceded” land. The resources under the ground will remain in the hands of the occupier, and the laws will now be enforced by indigenous members of the local community. Whether in communities like Tsiigehtchic or Tuktoyuktuk, it is certainly not irrelevant that communities can gain the authority to hunt traditionally or expel alcohol (which has an incredibly destructive history in the Aboriginal north), but it is akin to creating an appearance of self-determination where there is none on the questions that any society needs control over to claim their own destiny. Since the land on the surface will be under more or less indigenous control, any claims to any more are de jure negated, as are any claims to restitution. The settler state absolves itself of any further responsibility for the lives and well-being of the people it occupied.

Take the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR) as a case study. A couple of points from the Inuvialuit Final Agreement (IFA) [10] and it could be lifted from the “generous offers” of Camp David. From point 3.4:

Subject to the settlement legislation, [...] the Inuvialuit cede, release, surrender and convey all their aboriginal claims, rights, title and interests, whatever they may be, to the Northwest Territories, Yukon Territory and adjacent offshore areas, [...] within the sovereignty or jurisdiction of Canada.

and from point 3.5:

[T]his agreement shall extinguish all aboriginal claims, rights, title and interests whatever they may be of all Inuvialuit in and to the Northwest Territories and Yukon Territory and adjacent offshore areas [...] within the sovereignty or jurisdiction of Canada.

It gets better. Perhaps providing a blueprint for a future “withdrawl” agreement from the West Bank, point 7.3 reads (in full):

For greater certainty, the Crown shall retain ownership to all waters in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region.

Section 9.2 begins:

Land selections by the Inuvialuit were based on the following criteria:


(b) areas that may be important to the Inuvialuit for the future development of tourism or that may offer other economic opportunities for the Inuvialuit;


(f) lands that do not contain proved oil and gas reserves;

(g) lands that were not privately owned and lands that did not constitute public works as of July 13, 1978. [....]

The document also cites that resource extraction and contracts should be tendered to help “social and economic interests that favor aboriginals” without explanation as to what that is or what it would look like. Most of the document deals with the interpretation of hunting and fishing rights, which are still subject to the whims of the Federal government, but places most of these categories under local hands. It must be noted that this is one of many “settlements” that have been reached in the Arctic; the ISR/IFA is one I focus on only for having seen the area first hand. Other such agreements include the Gwich'in (Dene) and Metis, whose negotiations were broken into smaller agreements by region (North Slave [Dogrib], Mackenzie Delta, Deh Cho, Sahtu and South Slave [11]) after the initial process combining all Dene and Metis as one unit collapsed. Across the Arctic, including the largest land claim in Canadian history in the creation of Nunavut, similar “deals” exist. They include the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, the Northeastern Quebec Agreement and The Gwich'in Final Agreement (separate from the above-mentioned Dene/Metis claims). The Nisga'a Agreement of 2000 in Northern British Columbia is patterned after these “final agreements” and sets the stage for the Arctic solution to migrate south.

Since the ISR/IFA agreement, signed in 1984 (and since amended), the massive expansion of oil and gas exploration has begun. The workers of these industries-- but not the owners-- are often the indigenous population. Such is like the construction work done in Arab East Jerusalem, Palestinian non-citizens building homes and walls made with Arab concrete to be lived in by Jewish settlers only, overwhelmingly European and American. The Inuvialuit no longer, thanks to the “deal”, have any legal recourse in Canadian Federal courts as all further land claims have been permanently “extinguished” within the framework of the settler state. The same permanent surrender terms are being drawn up throughout the north, across the whole province of British Columbia and were once being drawn up at Oslo and now Geneva for Palestine, all in the supposed name of historical justice.

The strategy for dealing with the indigenous populations should they rebel today is quite apart in the two states: in Canada, the fear of demographic overrun was destroyed by physically destroying the nations directly; Today the rhetoric of “equality” of “citizens” is used as a wedge to deny self-determination. This combined with people who were brought in as settlers (of any generation) to simply over-whelm the indigenous nationality rights. In other words, Canada followed the Sharon & Ben Gurion model to the letter: By creating facts on the ground, 'Canada' has essentially negated the national question, they hope, de facto. And if that isn't enough, then we always have the treaty process itself to finish the job, because "Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian that has not been absorbed into the body politic of Canada, and there is no more Indian question. That is the whole purpose of our legislation." according to Duncan Campbell Scott, former Department of Indian Affairs head, quoted in 1920. [12]

It is hard to make connections to peoples and national struggles that are not seemingly tangible, nor are parts of our daily news broadcasts. By virtue of a total blackout most of the northern settler project has gone on, unnoticed, nearly destroying nations in the Arctic north. However, as the issue of Palestine and indigenous sovereignty globally has started to penetrate more and more progressive and radical circles here in the “local” struggles of the Mohawk and the Shuswap, so too is my personal great hope for the lands of the Dene and Inuvialuit. I have had the great pleasure of visiting some of the areas discussed. Standing atop some of the most awe-inspiring mountains (indeed, glaciers never topped these rugged peaks), one can see for what seems like eternity. You truly feel you are on top of the world. The only thing you see in any direction from the peaks of the mountains near what is named “Tombstone” is a little gravel road called the Dempster Highway (named after a Northwest Mounted Police Officer). Aside from that, it is territory unblemished by resource extraction and massive settlement. The fate of this area will be decided in the next few years, but it has not been as yet. One of the more remarkable aspects of indigenous consciousness in the north is the understanding that humans are not separate from nature, but are indeed wholly reliant upon it. The land gives, and we must respect the land. You can't own it, you are a part of it. It goes to a worldview, a worldview that I hope the settlers of Turtle Island are finally starting to understand.

Whether it is in Venezuela, Iraq or Dene and Inuvialuit territory, oil and gas imperialism must not take precedence over the needs of the people and the earth itself. If we are serious about self-determination and struggling for it, the nations of the Arctic need our help as urgently as in Palestine, before “facts on the ground” make it too late.

Macdonald Stainsby is a freelance writer and social justice activist living in Montreal, Quebec. He can be reached at:













12) As quoted in Terminal City, #205, by Ben Mahony. (September 1997)