A Nuclear-Free Arctic: Interview with Dr. Nancy Doubleday


The Polanyi Conference on Science and Social Responsibility was held on November 15th at the Munk School of Global Affairs. It was modeled on the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, which were created in the wake of the nuclear catastrophes of the Second World War to generate scientific momentum against nuclear arms.2 The Polanyi conference brought scholars together to discuss the contemporary status of nuclear weapons. The conference casted a broader light on the socio-political role that scientists play in influencing the wider consequences of their work.

One of the speakers was Dr. Nancy Doubleday, a lawyer and biologist who holds the Hope Chair of Peace and Health at McMaster University, and who has worked extensively in policy development and human rights claims in the Arctic. Over more than three decades, she has worked on conservation and environmental impact assessment, land claims, Canadian constitutional amendment, and has been involved with numerous groups in terms of coordinating between Inuit interests and larger environmental policy changes.1

Dr. Doubleday’s brilliant panel discussion described the militarization of the Arctic during the Cold War and its enduring effects on the Inuit people. In conjunction, she presented a rational dissection of the need for human rights initiatives based on an understanding of the causal relationships between all people and communities. She discussed how complex interconnections exist between the most traditionally powerful and the most marginalized groups on the planet, showing that marginalization creates a long-range trajectory of injustice and instability that resonates on a global level. This analysis is incredibly important within the debate on nuclear policy, since it debunks the claim that a refusal to compromise human rights is not pragmatic within wider political spheres.

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Doubleday after the conference. She went into further detail about the ties between justice, resilience, and community empowerment through the lens of her long relationship with Inuvialuit communities in the Western Arctic.

She became involved with the Inuvialuit land claim process in 1980 when she participated in a critical meeting of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) – an international NGO that supports Inuit representation and drives political changes that protect the Inuit and the Arctic.

Very early on in the ICC’s history, a resolution was passed to establish the Arctic as a zone free from nuclear weapons, nuclear testing, nuclear dumping, and the mining of nuclear materials.3 This goal has also been taken up by the Canadian Pugwash Group through its former chair, Adele Buckley, who also spoke at the Polanyi conference.4 Dr. Doubleday emphasized that the ICC’s resolution reflects the often-ignored capacity of marginalized peoples like the Inuvialuit to hold informed, politically enlightened views on global politics and the ability to interact with global politics in a meaningful way, when they have the resources to do so.

“It’s my chance to do whatever I can to make opportunities for others – to have the potential for engagement, to understand that they have the capacity for engagement, and hopefully to put some tools in their hands so that they can be effective in the engagement,” she says.

What makes the Inuvialuit impetus toward a nuclear-free Arctic all the more important is just how deeply they have been embroiled within the nuclear issues of the past century, often without their consent.

“It was so interesting to hear the last speaker talk about […] the shift of the mine on Great Bear Lake from gold mining, which didn’t work, to uranium mining. Uranium from one of the mines in that vicinity in the Northwest Territories was mined by hand, carried by mainly Indians in burlap sacks to canoes and paddled out. And some of that uranium was processed into the fissionable materials that were used to bomb Japan. The people involved in that have been dying of cancers, and they [now] know about the history, so there have been attempts for reconciliation to take place among the survivors of the bombings at Hiroshima-Nagasaki and the people from this area, because the guilt is incredible. The sense of being an accomplice to mass murder is really strong.”

She also tied this in with the environmental pollution and staple food contamination that can result from unsafe mining practices.

“The environment becomes disturbed, then the health of the people is potentially adversely impacted, and then the state of mind is disturbed because of the lack of reliability and certainty about the food and about the environment. […] There are many, many, many youth suicides in the north. This is one of the great tragedies, and it’s partly, I think, because it’s difficult for youth to see a future for themselves. When you think your environment is at risk and you don’t see a place for yourself in any sensible economy, you feel like you don’t have a future.”

She said that issues like these – lying at the interface between health, environment and culture – are too complicated to give any concise explanation for, but that the problems desperately need to be addressed. “We have to find ways of listening and understanding and reconciling across the differences. If we don’t, we run the risk of further injuring those who are already marginalized.”

“We need to understand that interconnectedness is the rule,” She concludes. “The earth is a commons. The Arctic is a commons. We cannot have a common future unless we understand that bottom line. And we need to start behaving as if we were neighbours instead of enemies. I think that’s pretty simple.”

Note, updated: The Inuvialuit land claims process was separate to the Inuit Circumpolar Conference’s resolution on a Nuclear-Free Zone in the Arctic. Dr. Doubleday was involved with the Inuvialuit delegation at the ICC meeting in 1980 and from this began to work with them on land claims, but the resolution was a plank of the ICC as a whole, not only the Inuvialuit delegation.


  1. McMaster University. (n.d.) Nancy Doubleday Ph.D. (Queen’s University); Professor, Department of Philosophy; Hope Chair in Peace and Heath. Retrieved from http://www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~walucho/PhilosophyOfLaw/doubleday.html.
  2. Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. (n.d.). About Pugwash. Retrieved from: http://pugwash.org/about-pugwash/.
  3. Inuit Circumpolar Council. 1983 (adopted). Inuit Circumpolar Conference on a Nuclear Free Zone in the Arctic.
  4. Canadian Pugwash Group. 2007. Canadian Pugwash Call for an Arctic Nuclear-Weapon Free Zone. Available at: http://arcticnwfz.ca/.
  5. Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada. 2014. About ICC. Retrieved from: http://www.inuitcircumpolar.com/icc.html.