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A Small Arctic Community Wins a Big Fight in Canada’s Top Court

The former mayor of Clyde River reflects on lessons learned from his community’s legal battle to stop seismic tests they feared would harm marine life and jeopardize ancient hunting traditions.

Written by Kassina Ryder Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Residents of Clyde River, Nunavut, celebrated on July 26 when the Supreme Court of Canada announced that it had overturned a National Energy Board decision to allow seismic testing in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait.Photo Courtesy of Jerry Natanine

In October 2015, Jerry Natanine, the former mayor of Clyde River, Nunavut, and his community began a court challenge few thought they could win. Together with the hamlet of Clyde River and the Nammautaq Hunters and Trappers Organization, Natanine asked the Supreme Court of Canada to overturn the National Energy Board’s decision to allow seismic testing in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait.

The area is a vital overwintering site for sea mammals and birds, and Inuit have been hunting there for generations. Natanine and other community residents worried that the sonic blasts used to detect undersea oil and gas deposits would harm the wildlife.

Working with Greenpeace, an organization once despised by many Inuit in Canada’s Eastern Arctic – the group’s anti-sealing campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s harmed traditional livelihoods by deflating the market for seal skins – Natanine and the people of Clyde River recently won their case. On July 26, Canada’s highest court declared that the energy board had failed to properly consult with Inuit and quashed the decision allowing seismic testing.

Arctic Deeply spoke with Natanine about the court ruling and his new relationship with Greenpeace.

Arctic Deeply: What prompted the decision to fight the National Energy Board?

Jerry Natanine: When I was a mayor in 2014, the National Energy Board came up and they said there is a project that’s going to happen, it’s seismic testing. They told us this is what’s going to happen, this is what they’re going to do. They told us what a seismic ship is. And that’s what they called their consultation.

At that time, I was really excited to hear that. I wondered if there’s anything under our ocean, I wondered if we had oil. After that night, I went to see my father (Salamonie Natanine) and I told him what they want to do with the seismic testing. I thought he was going to be joyful but he wasn’t. He told me, “You’re going to have to fight this, because in the 70s when they did it, seals got deaf and their ears started bleeding. This is going to be terrible for our narwhals and sea mammals.” And that’s how it all got started.

Arctic Deeply: What did the National Energy Board representatives say when they visited Clyde River for a community consultation about the project?

Natanine: They came in and they told us, “This is what’s going to happen, this is the company that wants to do the project and this is how they’re going to do it.” Basically that was it. There was an opportunity for questions, and we were asking very simple questions like, “Will the seismic cannons kill off the shrimp? When you fire the air guns, how is it going to affect the halibut that are swimming on the ocean bottom? Is it going to change the migration route of narwhals? Is it going to kill narwhals?” And there was no answer. Nothing at all. The answers they gave us were like, “We don’t specialize in that field, we’re not biologists, we don’t know, nobody knows that.” Things like that that helped us to realize that they’re not here to benefit us or serve us in any way.

Arctic Deeply: How are Baffin Bay and Davis Strait important to Inuit?

Natanine: There are wintering homes for whales, narwhals, beluga, walrus, bowhead whales and other birds and sea fowl, eider ducks.

They winter there when all the Arctic is frozen over, there’s polynyas [areas of open water] all year round and it’s a very important ecosystem for all of the Arctic.

Clyde River Inuit, they traditionally lived around the Clyde River area, north and south of it, and they were living there because of the animals that they hunt, all the whales that are there.

They were nomadic people traditionally, hunting and fishing. This culture of hunting and gathering is still going on today. The food source we get from hunting and gathering is very important, not only culturally, but because the food prices in the stores up there are very expensive.

Arctic Deeply: Which organizations helped you when you started looking into filing an appeal?

Natanine: When the National Energy Board gave the permit, we had 31 days to appeal it. We found out that we needed to get a lawyer and we needed to get all this money to file the appeal. We didn’t have that, so we were calling and writing to our Inuit organizations and others to see if they wanted to help us to appeal it and we couldn’t find anyone.

Arctic Deeply: How did Greenpeace get involved?

Natanine: Greenpeace had come out with an apology for the anti-sealing campaigns and I didn’t read it. Then one day I went to my office, there were only two more days left for us to put in an appeal and we had nothing, we had no lawyer, we had no money to do this. I read the paper of Greenpeace’s apology and it really touched me. All my young life I blamed them for all our poverty. I thought they were to blame for that.

Then that day I went to go see my father and I told him, “Greenpeace has come out with this apology, I wonder if I can contact them and see if they can help us to put in our appeal?”

I thought he was going to tell me no, but to my surprise, he said, “Yes, if you can get them to help you to help, you have to.” The struggle didn’t end there and so I went back to my office because we’re rushing now. I wrote to Greenpeace and reached out to them, asked them if they can support us in this and it worked out really good.

Arctic Deeply: What was Greenpeace’s role in the appeal?

Natanine: They paid for our legal fees, our lawyer fees and anything we had to spend, they paid for. They found us a great lawyer and also all the media work, they handled all that. It’s been such a great relationship. I had to approve all the media releases before they released them. They didn’t come in and take over. We always had the last say.

Arctic Deeply: Do you have a message for other groups who are facing similar challenges?

Natanine: Unity has been our great strength. In our community, we have been united in wanting to fight this and that’s what I would say: Be united. Reach out and see what kind of support you can get, reach out to anyone, publicize it, get other people involved. With something so serious, we shouldn’t treat it lightly.

Arctic Deeply: Clyde River’s appeal was done in companionship with the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation appeal that sought to prevent Enbridge Pipelines from modifying a pipeline on their land, but they lost their appeal. What is your message to them?

Natanine: I want to express gratitude to all of the supporters everywhere and the First Nations group, the Chippewas of the Thames that we partnered with. Their case was rejected and that’s very disappointing and makes our victory bittersweet. We’re going to keep fighting on with them, keep supporting them in their fight.

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