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Aboriginals call for Arctic energy moratorium as circumpolar leaders meet

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A growing number of Arctic aboriginals have called for a moratorium on energy development in the North in a statement that seeks an end to offshore drilling and a pause in northern energy projects unless local aboriginals consent.

The statement was released Monday in Kiruna, Sweden, two days before leaders from the eight circumpolar nations meet and hand over chairmanship of the Arctic Council to Canada. It also comes after repeated statements by federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who will lead the council during Canada's two-year stint, that northerners support her pro-business agenda.

"It is time that we join forces and demand that the oil companies and the Arctic states change their path and start to listen to the voices of the indigenous peoples residing in these lands," the statement reads.

It has 42 signatories, including major aboriginal groups from Russia, the United States and Canada, as well as aboriginal leaders from Scandinavia.

Aboriginals from every Arctic Council nation are represented. The signatories range from reindeer herders and private citizens to aboriginal environmental groups, international organizations and members of aboriginal parliaments.

Two groups that have signed on — the Arctic Athabaskan Council and the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North — are permanent participants on the Arctic Council. The other four aboriginal permanent participants have not signed.

The statement demands an end to all offshore drilling in Arctic waters. It says methods to clean up inevitable spills haven't been developed yet. It adds that drilling on traditional aboriginal lands should also end until governments and industry demonstrate better environmental standards.

It concludes that any development that does go ahead should only do so with the full consent of local aboriginals, who must also benefit from the deal.

That caution from aboriginals contrasts with Canada's official agenda for its two-year term.

Aglukkaq has said she plans to establish a business forum for the council to bring industry leaders together to spur northern development. A federal discussion paper on Canada's agenda for its term echoes that.

"The development of natural resources in a sustainable manner, in which northerners participate and benefit, is central to the economic future of the circumpolar region," it says. "Arctic Council initiatives could be built around and support Canada's priorities to increase investment and development in the northern resource sector."

Bill Erasmus, who signed the statement on behalf of Canada's Dene Nation, said that "(Aglukkaq) will find out very quickly that when she speaks, she doesn't speak for the Dene."

While acknowledging the situation of aboriginals in Canada is much different than that in Russia, he said all governments need to give more weight to those voices.

"Indigenous people have difficulty with industrialization as it's being permitted, which is basically boom and bust," he said from Kiruna.

He called on Arctic Council members to think about a more sustainable way to develop the North.

"We can't continue as we are."

The council meeting begins Wednesday.

In addition to handing over the chairmanship to Canada, the council members are also expected to sign a binding agreement on oilspill preparedness and response and deal with the issue of observer status for non-Arctic states, such as China.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said council members were expected to sign a binding agreement on oilspill prevention.

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