• Photo: mikebaird/flickr
    Photo: mikebaird/flickr

Lancaster Sound (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic)

Last summer was a stressful time to be the mayor of Grise Fiord, a tiny hamlet on Nunavut’s Ellesmere Island. Meeka Kiguktak was keeping tabs on a research vessel motoring to Lancaster Sound to conduct seismic testing. Kiguktak and others in Grise Fiord and nearby communities were worried that the federal government scientists aboard would discover oil and gas deposits, putting an end to a proposed marine conservation area for the sound, which is sandwiched between Baffin and Devon islands.

Kiguktak is sleeping much better these days. In December, then Environment Minister John Baird announced that Ottawa is prepared to give up potentially lucrative petroleum deposits in the sound in order to protect a place that is home to most of the world’s narwhals, 40 percent of its belugas, massive bowhead whales, walruses, polar bears and seals. The government has proposed the creation a national marine conservation area, a designation that was put forward as far back as 1987.

“When I saw the news, I said, ‘Is this for real?’” says Kiguktak. “You don’t know how happy I am.”

The announcement follows an August court injunction against the planned seismic testing, obtained by the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) just days before the research ship was due to arrive. QIA president Okalik Eegeesiak described her group’s appeal to the courts as a “last resort” after nearly a year of inaction on a 2009 agreement Ottawa signed with QIA and the Nunavut government to begin work on establishing a conservation area in Lancaster Sound. “We’re very optimistic now,” says Eegeesiak. “We hope this reannouncement will speed up the process.”

Kevin McNamee, director of Parks Canada’s parks establishment branch, says the conservation area’s boundaries — expected to take in an area twice the size of Lake Erie — must be determined through research and consultation with QIA, the Nunavut government and several federal agencies. “It’s difficult to say there will be a ribbon cutting in two years,” he says, “but it’s not out of the question.”

While few are happier than Kiguktak about the progress, she is keenly aware that despite the ban on oil and gas drilling in marine conservation areas, a spill from nearby operations could be devastating. There is currently no offshore drilling in the Canadian Arctic, but last year, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada auctioned off $103 million in exploration rights to 205,000 deep - water hectares in the Beaufort Sea, to the west of Lancaster Sound. Moreover, U.K.-based Cairn Energy is conducting seismic testing to assess the potential for oil and gas development off the coast of Greenland.

“The ocean is connected. The animals don’t stay in one place,” says Kiguktak. “A spill in Greenland will affect Lancaster Sound. We will not be naive about that.”