Narwhals in Starn's Fjord, Ellesmere Island. Photo: Eric Solomon.

As we’ve said before, there is no such thing as a purely environmental issue – or cultural, political, economic, or social issue for that matter. This complex interconnectivity of cultural, social, political, economic and environmental issues is demonstrated daily in the north.

One example flows from a situation that we can expect to continue to generate passionate disagreements and conflict: the rights and obligations set forth in the northern land claim agreements sometimes conflict with Canada’s international obligations set up through participation in international agreements such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) among others.

The recent Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) decision to ban export of narwhal products from 17 Nunavut communities provides our example. DFO is exercising its international responsibility, on behalf of the Government of Canada, to uphold our end of international Conventions and agreements through the setting of management regimes and regulations. At the same time, the Canadian Government is bound through domestic laws and agreements to provide Inuit with certain sustenance harvest and consultation rights regarding wildlife in the Settlement Regions. Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) has filed a challenge in federal court on the grounds that consultations were not conducted and the decision violates the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. The cultural, nutritional, and economic relationship many Inuit have with narwhals is complex and the ban will have deep impact.

The resulting conflict places DFO in a dilemma with real social, cultural, economic and political implications for several northern communities. And of course, there’s another important, if less vocal stakeholder, the narwhals of the eastern Arctic. Finally, there’s “the rest of us” who must sift through what we read and see in the papers, on TV and online and build an informed opinion–often looking to decide who’s right and who’s wrong and move on.

If there’s been a common theme to recent Arctic Connections posts, it’s that the hotly discussed and debated issues in today’s headlines and soundbites are more complicated than most media can easily convey. In our day-to-day attempt to make sense of it all, it’s our human nature to try to shift several shades of gray to simple black and white. On the one hand, this makes everything easier to digest and fits our usual and comfortable methods of distributing and consuming information. On the other hand, resisting that temptation leaves the door open for better public understanding and for true dialogue; but it requires getting comfortable with answers like, “well, it depends,” and “it’s just not that simple.” We think that’s a good thing.

Because, quite frankly, it depends; and it’s just not that simple.

This post was updated February 17, 2011

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