Canada has a critical opportunity to protect healthy Arctic homeland

Originally published in The Hill Times  
Co-Written by David Miller and John Amagoalik, the former Chief Commissioner of the Nunavut Implementation Commission and recipient of the Order of Nunavut.
The eastern gateway to the Northwest Passage, Lancaster Sound (Tallurutiup Tariunga in Inuktitut) is more than just a region of awesome coastal beauty — it’s also one of the Arctic’s most biologically productive areas, and is recognized around the world for its rich marine environment and iconic species.

Lancaster Sound
Aerial view of Narwhal group migrating, Lancaster Sound, Canadian Arctic. © / Doug Allan / WWF

Remarkably, 70,000 narwhals – three-quarters of the world’s population – make their summer home in Lancaster Sound. The sound is also home to more than 7,000 bowhead whales, famous for their size and ability to break through thick sea ice. Year-round, the largest Canadian sub-population of polar bears is found in this area, as well as millions of sea birds and significant populations of seals and walrus.
This abundance of marine life has enabled Inuit to flourish here for thousands of years. The Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) reminds us that Lancaster Sound is a homeland, where people and nature have sustainably coexisted for generations.
The federal government has been considering the protection of the sound since the late 1970s, and the good news is, it is nearing designation as a National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA). NMCAs are areas established by Parliament to help support ecologically sustainable use and conservation-oriented management practices in marine environments. With the federal government’s renewed commitment to protecting Canada’s natural heritage through the 2014 National Conservation Plan and creating new marine protected areas, there is momentum to make this happen, now.
Inuit communities have long supported the designation of Lancaster Sound as an NMCA because it provides the legislative tools needed to shape the management of the Inuit traditional homeland: It establishes protection from oil and gas development, while allowing development desired by local communities such as fishing and shipping. Conserving the sound also means sustaining access to culturally important marine species necessary for livelihoods and subsistence for generations to come.
In 2010, the government of Canada announced its most recent boundary proposal for the NMCA, and Parks Canada, the government of Nunavut, and the QIA embarked on a joint feasibility study. The study considers the ecological, cultural, and economic factors relating to the sound and integrates both Inuit traditional knowledge (Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit) and scientific research.
One of the foreseeable challenges is that QIA would like to expand the proposed boundaries of the NMCA farther west into Barrow Strait and east into Baffin Bay, to include areas identified as highly important by Inuit communities. The release of the feasibility study is a critical next step in the NMCA process, and given the long history of Inuit and the federal government finding working solutions together, there is hope that the long-awaited designation of a robust conservation area will finally occur.
With marine protection in place, there will be more certainty for sustainable economic development to proceed in the region, and Canada will further exercise its sovereignty over the Northwest Passage and Canada’s internal waters in the High Arctic. As the largest of many marine protected areas currently under consideration, designation will also significantly contribute to the government’s target of protecting at least 10 per cent of Canada’s oceans by 2020 – an international commitment made through the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. There is a growing international movement to safeguard important marine environments – but still only about 1 per cent of Canada’s oceans are protected.
With Lancaster Sound, Canada has an opportunity to protect a homeland. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to this region, and to the people and nature who have thrived there in harmony for thousands of years.
David Miller is the President and CEO of WWF-Canada. John Amagoalik is the former Chief Commissioner of the Nunavut Implementation Commission and recipient of the Order of Nunavut. Join WWF and the All Party Ocean Caucus on Tuesday, March 31 for an ‘Oceans on the Hill’ event highlighting the cultural and ecological importance of Lancaster Sound.