Arctic Futures: Health and Welfare of the Indigenous People of the Arctic

Part four of a multi-part series on Arctic issues

Inukshuk in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Canada. Inukshuk are stone structures constructed to communicate with humans throughout the Arctic. Traditionally constructed by the Inuit, the word means “to act in the capacity of a human.”

If a major principle for management and governance of the Arctic is the health and welfare of the indigenous population, what does that look like today? There have been various advances, including a major treaty initiative by the United Nations to protect the rights of indigenous peoples and various declarations, policies, and specific actions by governments. Notable among them are Canada, Norway, and Denmark; they have defined political boundaries, provided certain autonomies, set up regional legislative bodies, enabled certain administrative positions to be filled by local representatives, and provided funds to address identified specific needs with identified specific solutions. The paternalism inherent in this process is obvious. And those filling those positions and executing those policies are caught in in the middle of serving the agenda of the “paternal” government and providing something of value to their own communities. You see these good people at the international meetings presenting optimistic reports of limited success, sitting on panels surrounded by others, proudly wearing their traditional costumes, and doing their very best to represent a larger force in their favor that is to come. I always feel that there is evident in their behavior a terribly contradictory mix of possibility, ambivalence, and anger.

At the center of these best intentions are the principles of equity and justice for the benefit of communities that have occupied these remote places for eons. But the reality is mostly different. The appointed indigenous officials have delimited power; the percentages of ownership in foreign-financed projects are minimal; the prospect of jobs and physical improvements less than promised; the local profit share small compared with the extraction and export of the natural and financial returns sent abroad — in all, barely tangible as a whisper of progress, respect, and rejuvenation.

What really is left behind? Sustained poverty, unemployment and limited education, pollution, access to health care and counseling, family disruption, spousal and child abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, the diminution of native language and cultural traditions, and increasing high incidence of suicide among young and old. What is actually taking place is entropic social decline as quiet, relentless, and devastating as the parallel environmental decline brought about by climate change, exploitation of natural and financial capital, and the failure of government.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami’s model for the social determinants of Inuit Health
Source: Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2014

In a 2015 report conducted by an Inuit non-governmental organization, published by Statistics Canada, the following were listed as determinants of higher mental distress among indigenous people: Quality of early childhood development, food security, housing, mental wellness, availability of health services, safety and security, income distribution, education, livelihood, culture and language — the full spectrum of social expectation that we in the developed world tend to take for granted. It may be difficult for us to imagine such conditions even in our own country, but they are certainly there, on the reservations and neighborhoods of the urban poor. Such a thing cannot stand we say, and we expect our government to do something effective about it as a demonstration of our values.

Today I heard a most chilling proposal, that in the United States Native American reservations be “privatized” to be run by external corporations able to interpret historical treaty obligations, manage natural resource exploitation, and establish what would be a return to social repression and the assumption of all rights legitimately belonging to others. Are we to return to the age of imperial occupation of places away and the concurrent slavery however hidden in our justifications of financial efficiency and self-serving systems of order?

North Baffin Island | Isabelle DeSmet

No indigenous people can expect to survive under these subversive conditions. Again and again, these communities and cultures have cried out for justice. They have rebelled, collaborated, initiated, and declared the legitimacy of their own traditions, moral principles, and solutions, to be met with an ongoing history of compromised and reactionary response — again and again — against their enduring interest.


PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.”