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Sovereignty in the Arctic (Part II): the indigenous peoples of Canada

Sovereignty in the Arctic (Part II): the indigenous peoples of Canada

The article is the second part of the Laura Borzi's essay "Arctic and Sovereignty".
It focuses on the aboriginal peoples of Canada as a constituent part of the Canadian identity and sovereignty in the Arctic.
The word “Reconciliation” (and the long-term process below) served to ground meaning in the recent story of Canada. Policies to address the north-south development gaps and the sustainability agenda will play a central role to evolve the sovereignty concept in the future and design a common long-term vision for the North.


The third and final part of the essay will be dedicated to "sovereignty in the traditional sense": are there unresolved disputes among the Arctic states?

Did you miss the first part of the article? You can read it here.

Laura Borzi*
In collaboration with Osservatorio Artico

In this article>>>

  • The North between domestic politics and international dynamics
  • Treaties, agreements and legal references for Sovereignty in the Arctic territories
  • Land occupation rights since time immemorial
  • Visions for indigenous Arctic sovereignty

The North between domestic politics and international dynamics

The story of the North is totally related to the history of the European colonization of the American continent.


First the territorial conquest, the stipulation of agreements not always respected by the strong power, finally the forced assimilation. A story that has perpetuated the North-South dichotomy in a process of alienation of the other (the othering), a characteristic modality of the colonialism of the Old Continent at every latitude of the planet as a prerequisite for subsequent economic exploitation.


In Canada, the long process of reconciliation between the parties has been underway for decades, an evolution resulting from reflection and transformation of internal politics but also of international dynamics, including the creation of the Arctic Council, giving voice and visibility to the inhabitants of the North, thanks to the presence at the table, together with the States, of indigenous peoples as permanent participants.


The Council, with the 6 indigenous population groups, is a unique place, where the inhabitants of the North take part in the deliberations and contribute to the decision, although this remains in the hands of the States that decide by consensus.


The populations of the North are a guarantee of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic as an active element in the management of their territory in a relationship that has become almost “equal” with the federal government and contribute to the formation of Canadian Arctic politics.


The greatest obstacle to the full realization of the potential of the North is given by the remaining huge gap in living conditions that separates the populations of the north from those of the south. Only progress in this direction will translate into full and effective sovereignty in the modern sense.


This goes hand in hand with the leadership role that Ottawa intends to play on an international level, the exercise of which seems to be related to the concrete advancement of internal issues regarding:

  • economic and social development,
  • environmental Protection,
  • support of traditional indigenous knowledge alongside modern science,
  • protection of cultural heritage.


Treaties, agreements and legal references for Sovereignty in the Arctic territories

The historical treaties between the Crown (term indicating the rulers, represented first by the British and then by Canada) and the indigenous peoples began in 1763 with the Royal Proclamation by George III of England, who attributed large areas of land or ancestral titles are transferred to the Crown in exchange for reserve lands and certain benefits.

In 1876 the Canadian parliament passed the Indian Act which “took the inhabitants of the First Nations under guardianship”, while in 1927 Canada banned Indian nations from pursuing land claims.


The era of modern treaties began in 1973 with the decision of the Supreme Court (Calder et al. Vs Attorney General of British Columbia BC) which recognized for the first time Aboriginal rights against the position held by the BC Government that the Royal Proclamation did not apply. This decision led to the development of the Comprehensive Land Claims Policy and the first modern treaty: the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement.

Many of the agreements signed since 1975 with the self-government groups are related to governmental autonomy and form the basis of relations between 97 indigenous communities and provincial territorial and federal governments[1].


The map shows the status of the First Nations registered under Indian Act, Land Management Act or Self-Government.
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.


In 1982 the Canadian Constitution recognized that Indigenous peoples have an inherent right of self-government guaranteed in section 35 of the Constitutional Act.

At the end of the 1980s, the orientation towards self-government began to make its way throughout the circumpolar area, when the inhabitants of the Arctic cities decided to engage in a dialogue with indigenous peoples. This process started the self-government agreements of the Aboriginal peoples.

For Canada, the success of these agreements is attributable to the lack of presence at the table by the federal jurisdiction.

With the emergence of innovative power-sharing agreements between the indigenous and territorial leadership, those of the nineteenth century are far exceeded and the Arctic populations are attributed the title over lands corresponding to 40% of the Canadian land mass (corresponding precisely to the North).

Principles respecting the Government of Canada's relationship with Indigenous peoples.
Via Department of Justice, Government of Canada


In recent decades, the negotiations have been positively affected by the changes brought about by the development of indigenous law and by the mobilization of groups that have intervened at the discussion tables and have gone towards an ever greater transfer of competences at the local level.

The path of devolution in the circumpolar context is a trend that has already spread in the Arctic with the example of Greenland and the Home Rule of 1979.

Almost a decade later, Gorbachev's (1987) Murmansk speech, aimed at making the Arctic a zone of peace, called for a dialogue on security and environmental issues with the participation of Arctic peoples.

With the end of the Cold War, the pace of land rights agreements in the Arctic accelerated.


The Finnmark Act, obtained by the Saami of Norway in 2005, outlined a form of co-management of the territory that drew much inspiration from the Canadian example.

Beyond the letter of the agreements, we must foster dialogue and reconciliation process to ensure that the physical distance between the rulers of the Arctic states and the peoples of the North does not remain a psychological distance[2] as well.

In this flow of internal and international dynamics, the Arctic Council, to whose creation Canada has made a notable contribution, has recognized indigenous peoples as permanent participants and interpreters of the decisions made on their territories.

This promotion of the voices of the Arctic, favored by the conclusion of treaties, has made the locals more active and activated a process, not yet finished, in the direction of a government of indigenous peoples focused on self-determination.

The 6 Arctic indigenous organizations holding Permanent Participant status in the Arctic Council: Aleut International Association, Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich'in International Council, Inuit Circumpolar Council, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and Saami Council.

Via Arctic Council


The question of the self-determination of indigenous peoples is not aimed at obtaining a distinct sovereignty with respect to the States to which they belong, but is expressed in the line of enjoying guaranteed rights, as established by the United Nations Charter.

The aborigines have no secessionist aspirations. Their respective States must put in place appropriate political opportunities and legal instruments to encourage participation and decision-making at the local and population-level.

In this regard, it is significant the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (12.09.2007 n 61/295) adopted in 2007 by the General Assembly after more than 25 years of negotiations, with the vote against by Canada, United States, Australia, New Zealand, which over time have revised their positions.

The purpose of the document, which is not binding under international law, is to guarantee individual and collective rights such as the right to life, to an existence without discrimination and the right to self-determination as indicated in Article 3.


Article 5 of the United Nations text states that Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and develop their political, economic and social systems or institutions, to be secure in the en-joyment of their own means of subsistence and development, and to engage freely in all their traditional and other economic activities.

In May 2016, the Ottawa Government announced unreserved support (expressed at the time by the Conservatives) for that part of the document in which states were asked to obtain free, prior and informed consent when pursuing policies capable of impact on the rights of peoples.

Although the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has not yet been translated into a body of internal rules, the liberal government continues the re-construction of the relationship with indigenous peoples defined by Trudeau as the most important already during the first mandate (2015-2019).


In this regard, on 3 December 2020, the Minister of Justice and Attorney General, David Lametti, introduced a bill (Bill C-15), which states that the Declaration as a universal international human rights instrument with application in Canadian law. The bill provide a framework for the Government of Canada’s implementation of the 2007 Declaration.

Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan - Photo by Adam Scotti via Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau


This seems to be the way to go: on the one hand there is the political choice, which recognizes the value of a universal instrument for the protection of human rights, and on the other the legal instrument which requires the Federal Government to act in accordance with the rights of indigenous peoples.

There is therefore no doubt about the presence of indigenous peoples as a constitutive element of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.

The perspectives on sovereignty of Ottawa and indigenous peoples have not always been the same. But today a greater convergence objectives is emerging since it is quite clear that the international imprint of Canadian politics in the Arctic cannot be separated from a leading North.


Land occupation rights since time immemorial

The Inuit presence in defense of Canadian sovereignty as inhabitants and landowners is essentially the perspective of the central government.


The 54 Inuit communities of Canada. Explore the interactive map via Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada


This is an approach reaffirmed in official statements and documents that reiterate the formula “of the occupation of the land from time immemorial”.

In a speech to the House of Commons in 1985, Foreign Minister Joe Clark stated:


Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic is indivisible. It embraces land, sea and ice. It extends without interruption to the seaward facing coasts of the Arctic islands. These islands are joined, and not divided, by the waters between them. They are bridged for most of the year by ice. From time immemorial Canada’s Inuit people have used and occupied the ice as they have used and occupied the land.


The Inuit contribution to Canadian history, identity and sovereignty in the Arctic is recognized in the preamble of the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, whose article 15 states that:

Canada's sovereignty over the waters of the arctic archipelago is supported by Inuit use and occupancy.


The 2010 Foreign Policy Statement, the penultimate Canadian Strategy for the Arctic, underlined that the first and most important foundation in the awareness of the potential of the North is the exercise of sovereignty qualified as “longstanding, well-established and based on historic title, founded in part on the presence of Inuit and other Aboriginal peoples since time immemorial”.


This need for a human presence in the North was translated in the middle of the last century into policies of populations displacement precisely for fear of territorial claims.


In 1953, the movement of Inuit families from Inukjuak, in northern Quebec, and from Pond Inlet on Baffin Island to Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay 1,500km further north, meant not only the displacement of an entire culture to a very different ecosystem but the use of populations as “human flagpoles”, causing extreme hardship and suffering.


Just a decade ago, in August 2010, the Federal Government formally apologized for the deplorable actions taken out of fear aroused by the US military deployment to the Canadian Arctic during World War II.


Visions for indigenous Arctic sovereignty


The perspective of the Arctic peoples on sovereignty has in a certain sense a double aspect: the first circumpolar / international and a second of an internal nature.


The international point of view derives from the fact that the Inuit are people that expands into 4 countries that have grown up around the northern territory: those States that did grow up around us have impaired our territorial integrity, and indeed they have impaired our cultural integrity[3].


In 2009, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which represents the Inuit of Greenland, Canada, Alaska and the Chukotka Region of Russia, adopted its own definition of sovereignty: the question of sovereignty and sovereign rights must be assessed in the context of the long history of struggle to obtain recognition and respect as Arctic peoples entitled to self-determination of territory, culture and language.


On that occasion it was noted that the Declaration of Iulissat, issued by the Arctic Five in 2008, which even referred to international law for the purpose of resolving sovereignty disputes, does not mention the tools to promote and protect the rights of populations. Furthermore, it was found that, given the connection between issues of sovereignty and the sovereign rights of states, the Arctic states should accept the presence of the Inuit as partners in the conduct of international relations in the Arctic.


The Iulissat Declaration, issued by the riparian states at a time when the race to grab Arctic resources seemed to begin, also sparked protests from non-coastal Arctic Council member countries, Finland, Iceland and Sweden, who denounced the way action of the Arctic Five as univocal management of the fate of the North Pole by a select club.


As for the indigenous rights of sovereignty over land and also over waters, however, their marginalization in the decision-making process is related to the fact that the Convention on the Law of the Sea  UNCLOS (1984), which outlines the framework of the law of the sea, sees the state-organization is the protagonist and does not take indigenous rights into consideration.



Press release issued by the Inuit Circumpolar

There is a certain dichotomy between the Canadian government's narrative about the rhetoric of lands owned by Aborigines since time immemorial, rightly included in the treaties with the populations guaranteeing their possession, and the concept of Canadian sovereignty tout cour since the holders of obligations under international law are the States.


It is precisely the States which, through internal processes, can involve local populations also in foreign policy.

This means, for example, including the inhabitants of the North in the national delegations that deal with the elaboration of treaties. A circumstance that has already occurred in the process that led to the treaty to ban commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean which inhibited this activity for a period of at least 16 years.

Obviously, the opportunities to voice and confer rights on indigenous peoples in international conventions is a highly desirable political choice.


The UN adopted a resolution in 2015 to initiate a process leading to a legally binding agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction of states (Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction).



Inuit access to Arctic resources is essential, particularly at a time when the risk associated with climate change is endangering survival itself. It is therefore very appropriate that states accept the role of the Aborigines as partners in the conduct of international relations concerning the Arctic.

A twofold dynamic of land ownership emerges:

  • the international role of populations with rights deriving from internal and international legal instruments and a politically active part in the formation of the regulations;
  • secondly, the role of communities that share culture, language and traditions and that extend across the Arctic coast beyond national borders. They do not represent the case of a nation-state but represent a nation in the circumpolar Arctic, a term used to indicate the focus on the human dimension and environmental protection.


Ottawa has often translated the concept of sovereignty and territorial boundary typical of the south to the north. But the conventional Westphalian concept of relations between States and territorial protection is no longer adequate for managing borders in general, much less in the north, where state control has always been tenuous.


Moreover, it is not even the concept of sovereignty that is useful to the peoples of the North.


Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic does not need high-sounding statements in international fora, according to Duane Ningaqsiq Smith, President of the Organization that was set up to manage matters relating to the agreement signed between the Government of Canada and the Inuvialuit in 1984.

During a testimony to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, Duane Ningaqsiq Smith indicated that Arctic sovereignty entails an educated population, capable of defending the Northern coasts on behalf of Canada, better management of the marine environment with a prompt response to challenges.


In particular, it is essential to build a partnership based on mutual rights and obligations so that Canada and the North can jointly face national security threats.


The latest strategy issued in September 2019 tried to respond to this concept of sovereignty: Arctic and Northern Policy Framework.


The political document, from now to 2030, intends to build a future that supports self-determination and is able to nurture a relationship of mutual respect between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.

During the development of the Strategy, a process that lasted the entire first Trudeau mandate, steps forward were made in the direction of making the populations living in the North protagonists.


Inuit leader Mary Simons and special representative of the Minister for Northern Affairs, who worked extensively on the preliminary phase of drafting the document, called it essential to eliminate the gap between what the south takes for granted and what actually exists in the Arctic. in terms of levels of health, economic and social development, infrastructure, education, justice.


Resilient and healthy populations of the North and the commitment to reconciliation with the inhabitants of the North are part of the promise of a future that supports self-determination and nurtures mutually respectful relations between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.

The challenge for the government lies in the will to overcome centralized trends to develop together with the North measures that reflect the objectives of the partners, the full realization of collaborative governance capable of developing the potential of the North for the benefit of Canada's prosperity.


Until the 2019 Framework, there was no focus on the human and economic value of the North, except in the form of a social obligation on the part of the Federal Government, while it is essential to remedy the serious lack of infrastructure that inhibits the development of the North by perpetuating the sense of isolation from the rest of the country.


It has been observed[4] that the most effective way to protect and strengthen Ottawa's Arctic sovereignty is to focus on the needs for infrastructure and investment, essentially the necessary elements of a basic economy. In the North American Arctic there is a lack of infrastructure such as roads, SAR ports, fiber optic cables, housing, deep water ports that are active all year round.


In this context, Canada lags behind other Arctic countries, such as Norway, in the expansion of fishing and the development of offshore hydrocarbons. (Not to mention the Russian Development Strategy in the North, a characterizing element of Moscow's return to the world stage).


While the global geopolitical system seeks a new order and the liberal governance model centered on the West is in part reshaped by the peripheries, the Canadian North also becomes an area of global interest.

In this context, Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic is not threatened but represents a source of economic and strategic opportunity.


Canada has expressed its intention to play a leadership role in circumpolar affairs at the international level and this concretely means advancing the urgent internal issues relating to the full development of the North and its populations. Only in this way, the human presence in the area will be able to manifest itself in a new and valid concept of modern sovereignty.


Cover: photo taken by Ansgar Walk, CC BY-SA 2.5, via wikimedia

*Analyst at the Centro Studi Italia-Canada,
Arctic and canadian foreign policy expert


Did you miss the first part of the article? >>>

Sovereignty in the Arctic (Part I): why It is important and the must-tackle challenges for Canada

[1]Property rights for 600,000 km2 of land, capital transfers of $ 3.2 billion, protection of traditional ways of life, access to resource exploration, participation in land and resource management decisions, land rights for 40% of Canada's land mass, rights related to government autonomy and political recognition.

[2] In this sense, a significant path was that of the establishment of the (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada) to shed light on the events of the Residential Schools. In June 2015, the Commission presented a report with the Conclusions and 94 Calls to Action in order to remedy the consequences of the Residential Shools system and carry out the reconciliation process in the country.

[3]Dalee Sambo Dorought, A land without borders-Inuit Cultural Integrity pag 69, The North American Arctic, Themes in Regional Security ed by Dwayne Ryan Menezes, Heather N.Nicol , UCL Press, 2019

[4]Dr. Jessica M. Shadian ,Canadia’s Sovereignty in the Arctic, Brief to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, November 2018



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