​Remote Inuit Community Takes on Canada and Big Oil in Court Over Seismic Surveying

Seismic surveying is globally controversial technique as the blasts have the potential to kill animals at close range, disable animals or alter migration patterns.

by E.K. Hudson
Apr 20 2015, 1:35pm

Beyond the Wall in Baffin Island. Photo via Flickr user Mike Beauregard.

The last time Jerry Natanine witnessed his remote Inuit community come together in protest, he was 12-years old.

Now, Clyde River is home to about 1,000 people and Natanine is mayor. Located on the northern side of Baffin Island, the community faces Baffin Bay with Greenland in the distance. Sitting a world away from Clyde River in a Toronto community centre, he relives the second protest he'd ever seen. In fact, he instigated it.

Last July, Natanine went on the local radio station and told his community it was time to show their frustration over the years-long ordeal they'd gone through with representatives from a consortium of oil and gas companies looking to survey Baffin Bay.

"And if you want to back us up we're going to have posters and walk around," he said, mimicking his radio announcement.

The group marched in a circular path chanting 'Where's Leona?' in reference to Leona Aglukkaq, the Conservative environment minister, of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, the Arctic Council and their MP. Occasionally, the march stopped so people could make speeches. He described it as energetic and fun.

"Elders came out and it was just really amazing," he told his Toronto audience.

Natanine is currently in Toronto to testify in court against the National Energy Board's decision to give the consortium's a five-year license to search for oil and gas on the seafloor of Baffin Bay using a seismic surveying. After Monday's hearing a judge will decide to quash the NEB's approval of seismic surveying or uphold it.

It's a controversial survey method in which air guns shoot compressed air into the water at 230 decibels so that the sound waves go through the seabed to reverberate off the solid rock strata below. The reverberation is recorded to map whether gas or oil deposits exist below the rock. The waves are shot into the water every 13-15 seconds for 24 hours a day over weeks or months, according to lawyer Nader Hasan, who will represent Clyde River in court.

The NEB is purported to be an at-arms-length federal body that considers development proposals based on environmental, human and economic factors, but that isn't the case according to Hasan.

"In recent years it's enjoyed a reputation as having a very cozy relationship with the Harper government and the oil industry," he claims.

That coziness is how Hasan explains the NEB's decision to approve a license to the consortium in light of every governance body in Nunavut opposing the proposal.

Though Natanine now leads the opposition, he was one of the project's supporters initially. He noted the 100-house shortage in Clyde River, the lack of paved roads and so little infrastructure that airlines looking to update their planes can't because of the gravel landing strip.

"We were hoping we could benefit from oil and gas," he said.

But the project lost Natanine and others' approval when it became clear the company wasn't interested in supporting the community and their specialists' responses to questions and concerns didn't add up. Clyde River is not opposed to development, said Natanine, they just want it done right, which, for now, means stopping seismic surveying.

"We've never fought like this before," he said. "We're fighting for our life, our way of life."

Natanine reached out to Greenpeace, weeks after the organization issued an apology to the Inuit for its campaign to end the seal hunt, to team up to challenge the consortium's proposal for seismic surveying and Canadian government in one fell swoop.

A petition, circulated on Clyde River's behalf, has garnered more than 100,000 signatures to date and a solidarity statement boasting names like activist and author Naomi Kleinand even Xena the Warrior Princess actress Lucy Lawless.

Seismic surveying is globally controversial technique as the blasts have the potential to kill animals at close range, disable animals or alter migration patterns. In Trinidad, fisherman have tried to stop seismic surveys by surrounding surveyors' boats by water.

Natanine remembers hearing stories from his father and uncle after seismic surveying was done in three locations during the 1970s.

"Winter came, spring came and they were hunting seals and the seals were deaf. They would try to hunt them and catch them and they wouldn't even move. They were not affected by gun shots or noise," he said.

When animals' health or migration patterns change, ramifications are huge for Natanine's community where most follow a traditional diet consisting largely of seal, fish, polar bear or caribou (seasonally dependent).

"If we weren't eating traditional food, I don't know, we'd probably starve," he said.Food imported from southern Canada is extremely expensive, as in $19 for a bag of grapes expensive.

The impacts wouldn't be isolated to Clyde River either. The 30,000 Inuit living in Nunavut who rely on regular migration patterns and healthy animal populations would also feel the effects of the surveying.

Beyond the food security of thousands, at the heart of the case are the Inuit's constitutionally entrenched rights to live off the land according to their traditional way of life before colonization and Canada's duty to consult them on activity that would affect those rights.

"Those words mean absolutely nothing if those words can't be enforced. And that's really what this case is about—it's about enforcing those rights," said Hassan. The case could also represent an important precedent for projects like the Line 9 reversal, Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan.

If Clyde River wins the case, the consortium's license will be revoked and any future development starts from square one. If they lose, Hasan said they will appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

"Win or lose, the fight's not going to be over," he said.

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