Leona Aglukkaq on northern perspectives and whether the EU belongs in the Arctic Council - Macleans.ca

Leona Aglukkaq on northern perspectives and whether the EU belongs in the Arctic Council

The health minister and Arctic Council chair in conversation with Luiza Ch. Savage

Chris Wattie/Reuters

As she takes over chairmanship of the Arctic Council, Aglukkaq spoke with Luiza Ch. Savage on her new role, her childhood in Nunavut and her take on the European Union’s bid for observer status:

Q: As someone who is of the North, who grew up there, how does that shape the perspective you bring to chairing the Arctic Council?

A: I was so very thrilled when the Prime Minister asked me if I would consider the chairmanship. I’m from the Arctic, I work in the Arctic, I live in the Arctic. Sometimes I feel—not just at the Arctic Council but at other forums—that there are people talking about the Arctic, the wildlife, the climate, without ever having ever set foot on the ground and met the people who live there year in, year out, for years and years. I am hoping that, during my time at the Arctic Council, I would be able to bridge some of those gaps and put a voice to the people who live in the Arctic.

Q: What was it like growing up in the Arctic? I understand you didn’t have electricity until you were eight years old.

A: It was peaceful. We lived off the land. My family lived around the Thom Bay area, north of Taloyoak [in Nunavut]. We moved into the community of Spence Bay in the 1970s, and that was the first time I saw structures—buildings, power, power plants. We didn’t have cars. We didn’t have roads. We walked on the tundra from the Thom Bay area to the community with our dogs and our supplies.

Q: How do you get through winter without electricity?

A: We lived in igloos. We had our oil lamps that we call kudlik. The oil was seal fat: that was our diesel. It’s what kept us alive—the seal fat and the animal clothing, like seal, bear and caribou. The fur was used for making our pants, clothes, mittens and our tents. Everything was used. Nothing was ever wasted.

Q: There is a debate about whether the European Union should be allowed to become a permanent observer at the Arctic Council. Some Inuit have said that because of its recent ban on seal products, the EU is not showing respect for Inuit and should not be allowed in. Is that a big enough concern to keep the EU from joining?

A: The criteria that were approved in 2011 in Nuuk, Greenland, said that any country applying must demonstrate respect for the indigenous people’s way of life. It’s huge for us. We don’t say, “Look, you need to stop eating your cow or lamb,” or “You can’t use cow leather for your fine purse or shoes.” We don’t impose that on other cultures, so why are Inuit a constant target? As an Inuk person who depends on the environment where I’m from for my well-being, it’s insulting. These are very legitimate concerns about the EU. I am going to be examining all the applications on the criteria we approved in Nuuk. The applicants know full well what the criteria are.

Q: Some people say the Arctic should be internationalized, that it’s part of a “common heritage of mankind,” and that climate impacts of the ice cap melting are felt around the world. Are those good reasons to have countries as far away as China and South Korea sit at the table?

A: In my view, it’s not enough of an argument. This is not the South Pole. Canada’s Arctic is Canada’s Arctic. There are people in the North who live there all year round. We are not a giant park. This is Arctic sovereignty for us. We need to make sure the Arctic nations have a very strong voice in the forum to share and collaborate.

Q: If you could bring international visitors to see one thing in the North, what would it be?

A: The people. There are people that live up here and we are never the subject of conversation. We hear about the bear, the seal, and nobody ever talks about the people. No one ever talks about the human impact of decisions being made outside the Arctic. I would introduce them to the people.