As the month of January came to an end, so too did Duane Smith’s 14-year run as president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.
“I think I’m going to be just a little bit busy as the chair and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation,” he said, his dry sense of humour palpable. “It’s going to take 110 per cent of my time, just because I have to put all of my time and focus on this.”
In a Jan. 25 election, Smith won the position with 23 out of 42 votes from directors of community corporations throughout the Inuvialuit settlement region; 10 more than his closest competitor, Vernon Amos of Sachs Harbour.
“I’ve been asked to run for this by a lot of beneficiaries within the community and the other communities within the region. I decided to do so and they’ve given me this work.”
As Smith narrows his priorities from the international Inuit population to that of his home region – he hails from Inuvik – his top priority remains increasing the human capacity of Inuit peoples.
Already he has discussed his goals with other Northern leaders, as well as federal ministers and the prime minister, in a meeting hosted by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami in Ottawa last week. It’s an organization Smith is also familiar with; as president of the ICC, he was named vice-president of ITK.
“The first and foremost priority is working to implement our respective land claims,” Smith said. For him, this means the Inuvialuit Final Agreement. “The land claims cover pretty well every issue that’s going on within the Arctic. It’s an obligation to have all levels of government ensure that they are being implemented properly and it’s felt, to date, that it hasn’t been in some areas and it can be improved upon. We looked at developing a strong, positive, proactive relationship with the prime minister and the respective federal departments that have respective responsibilities to conduct activities within the North, as well to look at how to address the high cost of living throughout the Arctic and it’s not just one issue, it’s everything.”
On a more localized level, this means teaching a new generation of leaders and beneficiaries to understand and carry out the agreement. It also means providing youth with a holistic network of support systems, to promote healthy living and continued education.
“We do have an Inuvialuit education foundation that can support them, as well as other ways and means of trying to assist them, but we’ve heard from our members that it could be improved upon, which is what I’m trying to do right now. I’m exploring how we might be able to give additional support to beneficiaries. A large amount of them live in the communities in the region so they have somebody they can go and talk to for guidance if they’re taking post secondary education in those communities.”
When asked how this compared to his own experience pursuing education – he is a graduate of the environment and natural resource technology program at Adult Vocational Training Centre (now Aurora College’s Thebacha Campus) – his humour came out again.
“Well, now you’re trying to date me,” he said. “There was the federal support through IAND but, at the time, I was not eligible because it was focused on First Nations and the Inuvialuit people are not First Nations. That program didn’t apply, or made us ineligible. I just had to stick to student financial assistance to depend on and it wasn’t that much, so I had to find work on the side and during the times when I wasn’t going to school. Hopefully a lot of kids are doing things in a similar manner so that they keep some independence and self-reliance and build their character as well.”
At the helm of the IRC, Smith is also tasked with stimulating economic activity in the region. Faced with increased pressure to consider oil and gas exploration, Smith noted that his decisions would be directed by the needs and wants of his constituents.
“The Inuvialuit have a lot of history and experience dealing not only with onshore but offshore oil and gas exploration,” he said. “In regards to the offshore, there has been some reluctance from beneficiaries and the communities at large because of the potential negative effects of a spill or a blowout. We have a strong cultural relationship with the marine ecosystem which provides a lot of our daily diet and we need to ensure that continues. If they want to support any future shallow or deep-water exploration because of the fact that it may affect the health and wellbeing of the ecosystem that we depend on.”
Smith is a champion of the local environment, especially the marine biosphere. In 1992, he was named to the Inuvialuit Game Council (IGC), eventually becoming its chair and serving until 2003. He was party to the official signing of the Inuvialuit Inupiat International Beluga Management Agreement as well as a revised agreement on polar bear management.
Currently, he is part of a multi-year, Canadian-led international research body, coordinating and documenting data on the Arctic through traditional knowledge and Western science. He is also a former co-chair of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Arctic Specialist group Sustainable Use Initiative.
Smith knows he has big shoes to fill as his predecessor Nellie Cournoyea makes her exit from the organization, but it’s a challenge he says he is ready for.
“She had her style and her way of conducting activities. I have my own and I’ll try to live up to what is expected of me the best that I can and we’ll see where that goes.”