In On Thin Ice, Barry Scott Zellen poses tough questions about Canada's claims to a vast swathe of the soon-to-be hotly contested resource-rich Arctic. Zellen not only shows how much these depend on whether a collaborative and interdependent relationship can be successfully forged with Native peoples struggling to preserve fragile ecosystems and their own ethnic identity, but how conceptions of human security, tribal security and national security are inexorably tied together. Zellen's keen insight and painstaking research suggests that truths from the land of the midnight sun might help to illuminate and guide the struggles of indigenous peoples around the globe. On Thin Ice is a "must read" for the 21st century.
Although some governments view the activism of indigenous peoples in those the so-called "ungoverned" areas as real or potential threats to national sovereignty, just as surely those risks are exacerbated by the failure of those same nation-states to consider solutions that allow Native American communities to survive as nations within those nation-states. Proof of the possibility of enhancing national-state sovereignty through recognition of Indian nationality can be found in Zellen's writing. As he explains in On Thin Ice, one of Canada's "most powerful claims" to that its sovereignty in the frozen north is the "increasingly supportive, collaborative, and interdependent relationship to the Inuit [Eskimo] of the Arctic, their enduring stewardship over the Arctic lands, seas, and wildlife since time immemorial, and the mutual recognition of each other's sovereignty through the resolution brought forth by Native land claims."
Zellen explores how within the last generation the Inuit have made "tremendous gains" in increasing their autonomy and broadening their political power. Now governing partners, indigenous leaders and organizations share in the assessment of environmental risks, mitigating development's effects on traditional subsistence, and participating in economic windfalls in resource royalties, education and training, and jobs. In part due to a "shrewd and powerful" tribal political elite, and in part due to "the tolerance and encouragement and support of the Canadian government," he writes, the Inuit today enjoy "greater autonomy, greater wealth, greater political power, and greater environmental control than any comparable indigenous minority group worldwide."
Zellen underscores "the emergence of a shrewd and powerful political elite that has helped the Inuit make huge political gains, particularly in comparison with the much larger Indian population to their south, who in many respects suffered more, and yet have won far fewer concessions from the state." The fate of the Inuit might have been different had native land rights not moved into the national spotlight in a way not too different from myriad experiences in Latin America. In 1990, the small town of Oka was the site of a violent showdown between Native peoples--in this case the Mohawk--the Canadian police and, later, the Canadian army. A Québec police officer charging the barricades erected by a militant Mohawk faction during a 78-day armed standoff was shot and killed. The specter of indigenous armed conflict, Zellen wrote, "paralyzed the nation, and hinted at the dangers that would ensue should the path of militancy and armed resistance, and an armed response by the state, be chosen."
Not only did the crisis help to increase the public awareness of the concerns of Canada's indigenous citizens, who rode a wave of public sympathy from Anglo-Canadians. For the Canadian government, the violence assured it would honor the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement of 1993, which set the stage for the creation of the largest and newest federal territory in Canada, seven hundred seventy thousand square miles in all, the home to the country's thirty thousand Inuit. The land claims negotiations created both corporate structures and co-management systems that enabled the Inuit to enjoy an unusual degree of self-government allowing the Native people more than a semblance of control not only of their lands, but also the terrain upon which indigenous culture interfaced with myriad forms of modernity and globalization. The talks, conducted in a democratic framework of mutual respect, helped both sides understand the countervailing interests within their own forces, adding to the impetus for a successful conclusion to the negotiations.
"By letting go, central authorities were in fact strengthening their hand, gaining greater political legitimacy through their new collaboration, co-management, and devolutionary policies," Zellen noted. The settlement of land claims, he added, has allowed the Inuit to move on to those challenges having to do with restoring self-government. Their relative control over the environmental impact on their homeland of external development efforts have given the Inuit a potential "hammer" to assert their values; the environmental assessments becoming "extremely important" as a way for the indigenous group "to stand at the crossroads of the ongoing debate between development and conservation."
Zellen has shown the ways in which the Inuit example offers a striking contrast to the declamatory and divisive goals of Latin American populists, all the more so because in the Canadian case they have been so successful. There security issues were broadly defined--taking advantage of Canada's long-standing view that environmental protection was also a national security question--to incorporate local and indigenous perspectives that reflected their rights and values. The arrangement forged between the Inuit and the national government not only allows for remediation and compensation when activities such as oil drilling and mining scar the land or leave the environment contaminated, "itself a big win for the Native peoples who not too long ago were neither consulted nor compensated," Zellen points out. "With the real political gains of land claims and the various self-government processes, Natives are positioned to reap huge rewards from the coming wave of development. They own most of the coastal land, have significant regulatory powers and various co-management regimes that will ensure numerous benefits, from training and employment, including indigenous hiring and tendering preferences, to royalties, compensation, and remediation guarantees. The Inuit will find themselves in a central role not unlike that now enjoyed by the Saudi royal family."
The process, of course, has not solved all the Inuit's problems. The Arctic people still wrestle with steep learning curves in capitalism, the ways and means of interfacing with modernity and globalization, as well as with their limited management experience. Crushing social problems remain--such as poor housing and education, high suicide, infant mortality and alcoholism rates, and low life expectancy; political accountability mechanisms remain weak and, in large measure a result of this, cronyism and other corruptions accompany large cash settlements past, present and--perhaps--future.
But few other Native peoples in the world embark on this new journey with as many things in their favor as the Inuit. "The Nunavut experiment, blending an historic, comprehensive land claim settlement with the creation of a new, predominantly Inuit territorial government, could fail, despite its structural innovations and paradigm-shifting advances in self-government," Zellen noted. "Success will require closer, and more continuous attention, by Ottawa, and more time, experience, training, and education will be required by the Inuit."
Martin Edwin Andersen
Author of "Peoples of the Earth; Ethnonationalism, Democracy and the Indigenous Challenge in 'Latin' America" (Lexington Books, 2010)