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From the Torngat Mountains to the Labrador Sea, a new Inuit-led protected area takes a step forward

A marine conservation area covering 16,791 square kilometres of ocean off the Nunatsiavut coast has been deemed feasible and desirable — a key part of establishing the project led by Labrador Inuit

A massive study of the ocean environment off Torngat Mountains National Park has come to a conclusion: an Inuit-led marine conservation area here should move ahead.

The Torngat Mountains — Torngait in the Inuttitut dialect — span the northern tip of Labrador and eastern Quebec. On the Labrador side, they’re within the Inuit region of Nunatsiavut that stretches to the Quebec border and south to central Labrador. On the Quebec side they’re within Nunavik. Inuit from both regions have used this area for thousands of years.

There are no settlements within the park borders anymore but many people trace their roots back to these lands and waters, and some grew up in camps and communities in and around the Torngats.

The Narwhal visited the area last summer to meet the people who call this place home, and those who have been advocating its protection. 

On March 15, a joint announcement from the Nunatsiavut Government and Parks Canada confirmed the viability of protecting 16,791 square kilometres of the Labrador Sea at the shore of the Torngat Mountains.

Here’s how the Inuit-led protected area has taken shape, and why this recent announcement is significant.

Two maps showing location of Nunatsiavut in northern Labrador, In Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada
The proposed boundaries of the Inuit-led conservation area are shown prior to the recent announcement that the feasibility study for the project is complete. Through that process, the boundaries have been slightly redrawn. Map: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal

Who is involved in establishing an Inuit protected area in the Torngats?

The Nunatsiavut Government has led the charge to create a marine conservation area, working in conjunction with Parks Canada — which falls under Environment and Climate Change Canada. Currently, in order for Indigenous-led marine conservation projects to be federally recognized, a federal agency has to be a partner, be that Parks Canada or Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

“We do keep referring to it as an Inuit-protected area,” Isabella Pain, the deputy minister of the Nunatsiavut Secretariat with the Nunatsiavut Government, previously told The Narwhal. “We were the ones who developed this plan. As Inuit, we went to the government to say we want to have a protected area.”

Two zodiacs heading out on the water in Saklek fiord in the Torngat Mountains
A base camp in Kangidluasuk, or St. John’s Bay, just beyond the southern boundary of Torngat Mountains National Park, houses researchers and visitors, and will be the base of operations for the Inuit protected area. Photo: Pat Kane / The Narwhal

Other stakeholders in this agreement include Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Makivvik Corporation, which represents Nunavik Inuit, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and various industry groups and other organizations.

Through the feasibility study, which launched in 2019, more information was gleaned about the unique cultural and ecological importance of the region, Rodd Laing, director of environment for the Nunatsiavut Government, said. The proposed boundaries were adjusted as a result. A portion of the border was also carved out due to concerns around impacts on commercial fisheries. (While fishing is generally allowed in national marine conservation areas, bottom trawling — used for scallop and shrimp — is not.)

Why do Inuit want to protect the waters of the Torngat Mountains?

In 2005, the Nunatsiavut Government established the Torngat Mountains National Park Reserve in their land claims agreement, and called it “the Inuit gift to the people of Canada.” But the protected area ends at the low-water mark.

Home to polar bears, ringed seal, beluga and minke whales, narwhal, fish and many, many seabirds, these waters support both wildlife and the people who rely on them. That’s why the Nunatsiavut Government has been advocating to expand protections beyond the shore.

The area is also a shipping corridor, a gateway to the increasingly ice-free Northwest Passage. Despite that, Pain said, there’s no spill response equipment in the region.

Protecting these waters means bringing resources and people here to watch over the environment, to better understand it and how it’s changing, and to respond to what they see. Pain told The Narwhal once the protected area is established, “we want Inuit to be on the land, on the ocean to monitor, to be Guardians.”

Establishing this marine conservation area would also contribute 0.29 per cent to the federal government’s stated goal of protecting 30 per cent of land and water in Canada by 2030. As of January 2023, just under 15 per cent was protected.

What has happened so far?

Since 2016, the Nunatsiavut Government has been working on a marine plan called Imappivut, to determine the use of the waters surrounding Nunatsiavut’s shore. The Torngats marine conservation area falls under this larger project, which expresses the Labrador Inuit jurisdiction over the marine environment.

In 2022, the Nunatsiavut and federal governments signed a memorandum of understanding to consider the feasibility of establishing the marine protected area.

A 15-chapter research document that gathers all western and Inuit Knowledge on the Torngats marine environment was produced as part of this, and the team working on the project travelled up and down the coast, visiting the five communities of Nunatsiavut to gather information and opinions.

“It’s been a true co-developed process,” Laing said, with a great deal of input given by Labrador Inuit, external stakeholders, researchers and beyond. “That’s a really important piece.”

That culminated in last week’s announcement, when Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe and federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault declared the protections are feasible, and furthermore, people want to see it happen.

People walk in a line towards a cliff in Torngat Mountains National Park with the Labrador Sea and mountains in the distance
Sallikuluk, or Rose Island, is a sacred place in Torngat Mountains National Park, with important burial grounds and archeological sites including a former sod home. Photo: Pat Kane / The Narwhal

What happens next?

Negotiations can now move ahead to determine what a protected area here might look like: the boundaries, what activities are permitted within them and how the area will be managed and by whom. There are also impact benefit agreements to be sorted out and a formal establishment agreement.

“This announcement today is an important one, not only in the protection of our homeland, but for the preservation of our culture, traditions and Inuit identity,” President Lampe is quoted in the press release saying. “We have worked hard to reach this milestone and will continue to do so as we finalize the memorandum of understanding that will see the establishment of this Inuit protected area. We are glad to see this achievement become a reality today, and proud to take steps forward in ensuring our true Labrador Inuit way of life is maintained for future generations.”

The final step of the process is to secure these protections by designating the site under federal law, such as the Canada National Marine Conservation Area Act, explained Sigrid Kuehnemund, who manages establishment in the Atlantic with Parks Canada. While that designation is underway, work can begin on the ground to develop the site.

Parks Canada has committed to establishing 10 new national marine conservation areas by 2025 — the new Inuit protected area is one of them.

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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