Arctic: technical progress versus indigenous people


The Arctic Council (AC), international organization which monitors the maintenance of the ecological balance and the sustainable development of the polar territories, includes not only eight Arctic countries and the European Parliament, but also six indigenous Human Rights organizations. At the same time, three such organizations represent the interests of the indigenious peoples of Canada – the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Gwich’in Council International and the Arctic Athabaskan Council.

It would seem logical, as 40% of Canada’s territory is considered Arctic, and more than half of the Canadian Arctic population are indigenous people (51%). The largest indigenous people in Northern Canada are the Innuit inhabitants, who belong to the Eskimo-€“Aleut family, while the Gwich’in and the Athabascans belong to the Native American group.

When in 2013-2015 Canada chaired the Arctic Council, it highlighted among its priorities: strengthening Ottawa-Indigenous relations; development of partnerships of Arctic Council with indigenous peoples; promoting cooperation between indigenous peoples and Arctic states; protection of indigenous habitats, including the reduction of soot and methane emissions, and the prevention of oil pollution.

However, behind Ottawa’s touching concern about the future of the indigenous people lies the tragedy of the past of the aborigines who faced harsh discrimination. For example, for hundreds of years of Canadian colonization, its northern territories were considered the wildest region of the New World. According to the colonizers, it was necessary to bring to this backward region the progress caused by the developed civilization of white people. The colonizers were convinced that only Christianity, technological innovation, and market economy could snatch the northern territories of Canada from the clutches of savagery and darkness. There was also a tacit agreement that if the iron step of progress did any harm to the aborigines, it would be considered “acceptable sacrifice.”

Later, the dreams of Canadian industrialists to transform the northern territories came true: the rapid development of the economy, the diamond boom (Canada ranked third in the world for diamond production), the discovery of mineral deposits, in particular hydrocarbons. 80% of the indigenous population extinct, the survivors were displaced into reservations, and the culture of the indigenous people virtually disappeared – that was the “reasonable price” of the progress in the Canadian Arctic. For example, today 60% of Canadian Eskimos and Indians consider English their native language and no longer speak the language of their ancestors. According to some estimates by 2050, only 4% of Inuit will speak their native language.

The whole world knows the terrible consequences of the inevitable contradiction between the development of technological progress and respect for Aboriginal traditions. However, in public mind of the Western people, this is no longer relevant today, the forgotten “sad pages of the distant past”, tied to the 18th-19th centuries. But the “distant past” can suddenly catch up with us and become relevant!

The case is the scandal surrounding the discovery of mass unnamed graves of Aboriginal children who were brought up in Catholic boarding schools. For more than a month, Catholic churches have been burning in the territory where the indigenous people of Canada live; an Aboriginal delegation went to the Vatican to discuss a number of sensitive issues; Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Pope Francis to personally come and apologize for the actions of Catholic boarding schools; Vatican maintains “holy silence”; ordinary Canadians are shocked and suffering from pangs of conscience due to a number of aspects of the internal politics of their state.

Colonial policy in Canada was not limited to the adoption of the Aboriginal Act, which allowed the seizure of indigenous lands for the needs of the government. From the 1840s and till the end of the 20th century, special educational institutions operated in Canada under the control of the Catholic Church, which served to assimilate the native population. Autochthonous children were forcibly taken there in order to integrate them into Canadian society. More than 150 thousand children were forcibly excommunicated from their families, and they never returned back.

Pupils of boarding schools were forcibly converted to Christianity, they were forbidden to speak their native language and practice their customs. Indigenous children lived in unbearable conditions, and many of them were emotionally, physically and sexually abused. In addition, the children were deprived of proper medical care. As a result of regular beatings, acts of violence and lack of necessary treatment, at least 6 thousand students died in boarding schools.

The government of Canada pleaded its guilty before the indigenous peoples only in 1994 for the first time! At the same time, the last special educational institution for children forcibly removed from Aboriginal families was closed in 1996!

In 2015, the Canadian authorities made the conclusion that the impact of the special boarding system on the lives of indigenous peoples was tantamount to cultural genocide. Finally, it was not until 2017 that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued an official apology for the government’s actions against Aboriginal children.

The discovery of about a thousand unmarked children’s graves in the provinces of Saskatchewan and British Columbia in June 2021 brought attention to this tragedy again. Indigenous peoples called on Ottawa to organize a search for graves near the boarding schools; Ottawa urged the Catholic Church to release all boarding records; the UN has called on Canada and the Vatican to investigate the deaths of Aboriginal children.

As a result, Canada Day – July 1, 2021 – was probably the saddest in the history of this major national celebration. Moreover, many Canadians totally refused to celebrate it, expressing solidarity with the indigenous peoples and looking for ways to make amends to the indigenous peoples.

Democratic, tolerant and multicultural Canada several decades ago was not sinless. But, at least today, Ottawa makes every effort to correct the mistakes of the “€œsad past”€ – both in its domestic policy and at the “€œArctic Council”€ level.

In turn, the Russian Federation, which became chairman of the AC in May 2021 for a two-year term, keeps adhering to its policy of complete disregard of the rights, freedoms and interests of the indigenous peoples of the North.

First, the word “federation” in the name of the state is just a beautiful declaration that has nothing to do with reality. De facto Russia is a fiercely centralized unitary state with an authoritarian form of government. Both the government in Moscow and the authorities of the existing constituent entities of the Federation are defending the interests of the Slavic people, Eastern orthodoxy, and the resource-based economy by thoughtlessly pumping out the natural resources of the North for the needs of the state budget. Naturally, no one in the Kremlin care about blatant violations of environmental norms during uncontrolled mining. As a result, the indigenous peoples of the North receive a deteriorating habitat, permanently deteriorating living conditions and a pocket change for the development of valuable deposits of their land.

Secondly, Moscow, in connection with the melting of ice and improving climatic conditions in the Arctic, has high hopes for further pumping of natural resources, especially hydrocarbons, in the northern latitudes of Russia. Accordingly, indigenous peoples with their rights are not only uninteresting for the Kremlin, but they prevent it from continuing its expansionist policy in the Arctic. Thus, Moscow allows the existence of only those NGOs of the indigenous peoples of the North of the Russian Federation, which are totally obedient and hand-feed. If, on the other hand, NGO is really attempting to defend the interests of the aborigines of the North, the Russian authorities are quickly finding various ways to eliminate it.

For example, the Moscow City Court has recently liquidated the NGO Center for Assistance to Indigenous Minorities of the North, which has been operating for 20 years. The court closed the Center, satisfying the claim of the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation. In turn, the Ministry of Justice demanded the liquidation of the NGO on formal grounds – due to some outdated provisions of the charter (for example, the Center changed its symbols, but had no time to include its description into the charter), undelivered reports and irrelevant legal address. Moreover, having reviewed the claims of the Ministry of Justice, the Center immediately provided documents to eliminate all shortcomings, but the court refused to give time to make changes. Although, even in this case, the court had to temporarily suspend the activities of the Center, while the complete closure of the NGO looks oddly enough.

The center was established in 2000 as part of the Canadian-Russian Arctic Indigenous Institution Building Project. The co-founders were the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation. In 2015, the Center was included into the list of the so-called “foreign agent organizations”. After that, the Center immediately waived foreign funding and after a while it lost the status of “foreign agent”. However, generally, it did not help him much.

Head of the Center, Rodion Sulyandziga, explained what was happening by the fact that the authorities had shut down the unwelcomed NGO. According to him, the Arctic and its resources mean a lot to Russian business and the state budget, so companies look at indigenous peoples as a barrier to their activities in the Arctic region. According to Rodion Sulyandziga, the true reason for closing the Center is that it has been long protecting the rights of the small people of the Far North, has access to federal and international forums, where its staff speaks explicitly about all existing violations. Given this, the head of the Center is convinced that shut down of the NGO is a revenge of the authorities for its direct activities.

At the same time, the authorities have repeatedly interfered in the work of the Center and obstructed its activities in various ways. For example, when the director of the Center planned to fly to New York for the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (under the auspices of the UN General Assembly), Russian special services withdrew his passport at Sheremetyevo Airport, and quietly returned the document with a blank page later. As a result, the passport was declared invalid upon registration and R. Sulyandziga was unable to participate in the conference, which was covered by the world media.

At the same time, the Center did not disseminate any overt information about the deliberate genocide of the small people of the North of the Russian Federation by the government in Moscow. R. Sulyandziga generally focused on well-known facts. For example, he repeated the fact that in the Arctic territories of the Russian Federation there is a constant outflow of population.

That is, more than 350 thousand people left the Murmansk region for the last 25 years, and for the last five years more than 4 thousand leave annually (according to official statistics only). Severe climatic conditions, lack of infrastructure, quality education and health care, uncompetitive salaries make their impact. All this forces residents of the Far North of Russia, including local aborigines, to move to other regions of the country.

The center also voiced one of the main reasons for this state of affairs in the Russian Arctic – most of the money (72%) allocated by Moscow for the development of the northern regions accounts not for increasing investment in human capital, infrastructure, environmental balance, but for the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation! The Kremlin is investing most of its money in the Arctic in the development of the Northern Fleet, polar aircraft, military bases and nuclear-power icebreakers.

In the eyes of the Russian government, the Arctic is associated exclusively with the struggle for the territorial expansion of Russia’s borders, reservation of its zone of influence in the Arctic Ocean, the extraction of huge hydrocarbon reserves, the development of new shipping routes and full control of the Northern Sea Route. Naturally, Moscow is in no way interested in protecting the rights and interests of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic.

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