QIA’s private business?
It’s likely that many Inuit beneficiaries in the Baffin region will object to the free Olympic Games trip that Okalik Eegeesiak, president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, along with two senior officials at the Qikiqtaaluk Corp., accepted recently from Arcelor Mittal, majority owner of Baffinland Iron Mines Corp.
But those who are tempted to condemn that decision might first wish to give it some careful thought.
Yes, if any publicly-elected official — such as Leona Aglukkaq, Eva Aariak or John Duncan — were ever to accept such a lavish gift, especially in exchange for influence, their political careers would end in disgrace.
But Nunavut’s Inuit organizations are different. Eegeesiak and her colleagues at QC are not the elected leaders of a government. They serve as officers within private corporations.
That’s how the Nunavut land claims agreement was intended to be implemented — by private entities acting under the theoretical control of Inuit beneficiaries.
The land claims agreement contains little or no detail about how such control ought to be exercised. This means ethical issues, such as the conduct of elected officers and employees, are essentially private matters to be worked out between Inuit beneficiaries and the organizations created to represent their interests. Whether they like it or not, this is what Inuit beneficiaries accepted when they voted yes in the ratification vote held in October 1992.
There’s just one problem. In the eyes of many beneficiaries, leaders like Eegeesiak enjoy the same status as public figures who serve in government. For this reason, beneficiaries expect their leaders to conduct their private affairs according to the same standards that apply to public government officials.
And the Olympic Games is a sports competition, created and marketed for mass entertainment and pleasure. A free trip to London to attend this event cannot be construed as anything other than a generous gift.
But in accepting such a gift, are the QIA and QC officials putting themselves into a position where Arcelor Mittal executives may, in exchange for their generosity, obtain favorable decisions on the Mary River iron project?
In her defence, Eegeesiak told Nunatsiaq News, and CBC Nunavut, who first broke the story, that her trip to London will have no influence on the Nunavut Impact Review Board’s consideration of the Mary River project.
On that point, she’s right.
In the board’s recent environmental review of Mary River, QIA acted as just one stakeholder among many. At the same time, QIA’s staff and consultants exposed many weaknesses within Baffinland’s environmental impact statement and showed no hesitiation in presenting them to the review board. QIA maintained a position that calls for careful monitoring of the mine at all stages. These are not the actions of an organization that’s been bought off.
Besides, it’s the NIRB’s staff and lawyers, not QIA, who will craft the Mary River mine’s recommended licencing conditions. And it’s AAND minister John Duncan who will make the final decision.
For her part, the president of QIA appears to hold the honest belief that her trip to London, which was approved by QIA’s board, is in the best interests of beneficiaries. As for Qikiqtaaluk Corp., that company has been in business with Baffinland for several years. There’s little doubt that QC executives also believe the trip is in the best interests of beneficiaries.
But there are two pieces of business between QIA and Baffinland that remain unfinished.
One is an Inuit impact and benefits agreement. The other is a commercial lease for Inuit-owned lands. Will Arcelor Mittal attempt to influence the outcome of these talks during the QIA-QC visit to London?
It’s impossible to imagine that they wouldn’t.
Arcelor Mittal is a global behemoth that controls an estimated $122 billion worth of assets in 60 countries. The Mittal family achieved this because, among other things, they’re shrewd, daring negotiators.
Inuit organizations in Nunavut always conduct IIBA and commercial lease negotiations in private. Such agreements, once reached, are never completely disclosed, if disclosed at all. This means most beneficiaries will never be able to tell if the QIA-QC officers were influenced by the gift they received from Arcelor Mittal.
In the end, it’s up to the Inuit of the Baffin region to decide if they want their leaders to accept such gifts from mining companies. But the confidential nature of the agreements in question mean beneficiaries will never gain access to the information they need to make the necessary assessment.
On that point, it’s worth recalling that Eegeesiak last won her position, on Dec. 13, 2011, by gaining only 36 per cent of the vote in an election during which just 32 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots.
Nearly, 9,000 people were eligible to vote that day. But to claim the QIA presidency, Eegeesiak needed only 1,053 of them.
This reveals that at least two-thirds of the Baffin region’s beneficiaries don’t care who becomes their organization’s president. This suggests they also may not care much about how that president conducts the organization’s affairs. JB