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Beaufort Delta, Canada's first marine protected area
Many in Tuk disappointed Prime Minister didn't announce highway funding

Katie May
Northern News Services
Published Monday, August 30, 2010

TUKTOYAKTUK - Most Tuk residents didn't get the announcement they were hoping for after waiting nearly two hours to hear Prime Minister Stephen Harper speak at Kitti Hall last week during his second visit to the community.

NNSL photo/graphic

Prime Minister Stephen Harper finds himself in the middle of a drum dance at Inuvik's Midnight Sun Recreation Complex Aug. 25, surrounded by Lillian Elias of the Inuvik Drummers and Dancers, front left, and federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq. - Katie May/NNSL photo

In front of an audience of about 150 who had travelled to Tuk from across the Delta region Aug. 26, the prime minister said his government plans to guard against harmful development in the Beaufort Sea by establishing 1,800 square kilometres of the Mackenzie River Delta estuary that flows into the sea as a federally protected zone.

The Tarium Niryutait Marine Protected area will be the first of its kind in Canada, and will encompass three marine areas called Niaqunnaq, Okeevik and Kittigaryuit. The waters are home to a large population of beluga whales, fish and water fowl on which coastal communities depend.

Harper said his northern tour announcements up to that point had focused on promoting Canada's Northern Strategy and Arctic sovereignty, but in Tuk he wanted to emphasize environmental protection.

"Our government has passed legislation to strengthen our control over Northern waterways in order to better respond to polluters and to help protect the fragile Arctic ecosystem," he said.

"Tuktoyaktuk, along with its neighbours Inuvik and Aklavik, is a model of balanced development in Canada's Arctic and it is that fine balance which informed the creation of the Tarium Niryutait marine protected area," Harper continued.

"It balances the beluga harvesting traditions of the Inuvialuit with the protection of a species that is threatened or endangered in other parts of the world. It balances the enormous potential of the petroleum industry in the Mackenzie Delta and the jobs and opportunities it potentially represents for the people of this region with our collective responsibility to preserve and protect the environment for future generations."

The area at the southern part of the Beaufort Sea is already protected under the Inuvialuit Final Agreement. In her speech following the prime minister, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea recognized the late Tuk elder Billy Day for his efforts to secure federal protection for the area as an Inuvialuit land claims negotiator.

When News/North asked Harper about the federal government's future commitment to the all-weather highway from Tuk to Inuvik, he replied, "As you know the federal government has commissioned a feasibility study into the potential extension of the highway. We have received that report and we're in the process of reviewing it now."

As Harper and his entourage flew off to Whitehorse, where the prime minister announced funding for Yukon housing during the final leg of his Arctic tour, Tuk residents gathered for an Oceans Day feast at The Point - a celebration that had been pushed up three days in honour of his arrival.

Many residents, including Roy Cockney, griped that Harper hadn't voiced stronger support for the long-hoped-for all-weather road or offered funding for local infrastructure.

Cockney said he'd hoped to hear about the road, and he wasn't impressed overall with Harper's visit.

"The (Canadian) Rangers do a lot of work, more than the government," he said outside Kitti Hall after the announcement. "They're here, on the ground, immediate help for our people and our land."

But hunter and tourism operator James Pokiak said marine protection is more important than a road.

"It is way more important, especially with the disaster that happened down in the States," he said. "With the road, it's going to have economic benefits but that's only short-term. The biggest thing is protection."

Pokiak said he felt it was important to speak up for the environment because of his late father, Bertran Pokiak, who also worked as an Inuvialuit land claims negotiator.

He said he doesn't think federal protection will take away from previous Inuvialuit efforts, only strengthen them.

"Up until now, we've ensured that those areas have been protected, but with the (marine protected area) signing, it gives us a lot more personal power."

Officials from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans were scheduled to meet in Yellowknife later this month to plan out how the government will actually implement the marine protected area.

Calvin Pokiak, James' brother, said marine protection was "a long time coming," but he, too, hoped to hear more about the road.

"I think a lot of people are disappointed. There's nothing really going on with industry here," he said. "Now, you'll see a lot of people are going to go on EI or income assistance," he added, explaining that Tuk residents need assurance about future projects because jobs are scarce.

"It should have come from the prime minister - at least give some hope to the people here."

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