In 2011, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) celebrated its 40th anniversary as the national organization representing Canadian Inuit. This year, the Institute for Research on Public Policy celebrates the same milestone. From one frisky 40-year-old to another: Happy birthday!

The history of European expansion into the New World is one of appropriation: appropriation of ancestral lands and resources; appropriation of governance of those lands and waters and the peoples and communities that they sustain; and, all too often, appropriation of the identity, sense of purpose and self-worth of the Aboriginal occupants.

In some cases, this appropriation was only partial; in some cases, largely complete; in other cases, total. Sadly, many Aboriginal societies are remembered only as footnotes in history or as geographic place names preserved in the languages of European settlers.

Not surprisingly, the appropriation of Aboriginal lands and resources, and of the colonization of Aboriginal peoples, was most thorough in those parts of North America best suited to agricultural use and agricultural settlement. Parts of Canada — the Canadian Shield, the mountains of Western Canada, the sub-Arctic and the Arctic — have faced less intense and more recent pressures.

That pattern has been particularly apparent with respect to Inuit. Our contact with European peoples — whalers, traders, military, missionaries, police, public servants and resource developers — came much later than that of most Aboriginal peoples in Canada. There are Inuit elders, born on the land and alive today who can recall never meeting a qallunaat (non-Inuit) before their adolescence. These realities have had profound consequences for Inuit, for our relationship to Canada and for our circumstances, priorities and aspirations within Canada.

There have been some consequences that have held us back. For example, anyone visiting our communities cannot help but see the lack of physical infrastructure that is taken for granted in much of Canada, and even in other parts of the Arctic. Visitors from nearby Greenland are always shocked that Iqaluit, the biggest Inuit community by population, lacks a dock to allow the direct offloading of goods brought in by ship.

There have been other consequences that have preserved for Inuit a range of political possibilities not so readily available for Aboriginal peoples living elsewhere. We have not been demographically displaced. We are still the large majority — up to 85 percent, depending on region — of the population of Arctic Canada, the traditional and contemporary Inuit homeland that we call Inuit Nunangat. This fact is of central importance to the future of the Canadian Arctic.

It is fair to say that our marginalization has had a range of consequences. It is also fair to say that Arctic policy-making in Canada has, throughout Canadian history, also been at the margin.

Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent referred to Canadian governance over Arctic regions as having been carried out in a “fit of absence of mind.” For Inuit, the more striking absence of mind has been revealed in the ways in which legislative, administrative and financial powers and discretions have been exercised by the federal and, more recently, provincial and territorial governments in relation to Inuit Nunangat and, more specifically, the Inuit of Inuit Nunangat.

For better or worse, there has never been an Inuit act. There has never been a federal government department or agency devoted to Inuit Nunangat or to Inuit. Paul Martin, when serving as prime minister in the middle part of the last decade, was shocked to be told by then ITK president Jose Kusugak that, out of approximately one-quarter million federal public servants, not one appeared to have a job description devoted exclusively to the federal government’s relationship with Inuit.

Moreover, not until the post-1975 era of comprehensive land claims agreements (modern treaties) were the political and jurisdictional boundaries within Canada — or, for that matter, between Arctic states — drawn up with any attention to the linguistic and cultural unity of Inuit. Provincial and territorial boundaries were set, and sometimes extended, through political processes played out far, far away. Residents of Nunavik, in Arctic Quebec, find some humour in saying that, on a far-off date at the beginning of the last century, they went to bed living in the Northwest Territories and woke up living in Quebec. And without ever moving camp.

None of these evolving political and jurisdictional arrangements, struck through a combination of intergovernmental agreements, legislative activity and court decisions, involved even the pretence of consultation with Inuit. For most of Canada’s history, paternalism was both a given and a constant.

The history of Inuit living at the geographic and psychological margins of Canadian society shows up today in the mishmash of laws, policies and programs, conceived and largely oriented elsewhere, that have been made to apply, often awkwardly and incompletely, to Inuit and Inuit Nunangat. This is evident in a wide variety of ways, but it is useful to offer some illustrations.

One is that Inuit have the same access to noninsured health benefits as status Indians, but Inuit communities are not eligible for a wide range of other health and social programs that are defined for First Nations (Indians), particularly First Nations populations situated on Indian reserves.

Another example is the current federal government’s emphasis on the Arctic and sub-Arctic — its Northern Strategy. Whatever its other merits, this strategy is limited to the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, leaving out Inuit and regional Inuit homelands of Nunavik and Nunatsiavut (northern Labrador). Equally troubling, the strategy largely overlooks the reality that Inuit are a heavily ocean-oriented people; studies show Inuit have used and occupied marine areas larger in size than terrestrial areas.

A final example concerns language policies. The federal government offers comparatively generous financial support for education and other language programs for anglophones and francophones living in Inuit Nunangat. Yet there is almost no federal funding support for the Inuit language, despite its being the majority language in Inuit Nunangat. This is a major problem of economic and social development, as well as a problem of principle and respect. Persuasive reports have shown that the absence in Inuit Nunangat of educational systems that take account of students’ maternal language contributes to the lack of success of an unacceptably high proportion of Inuit students. Lack of educational success, of course, feeds into unemployment and other economic and social problems and becomes a vicious cycle that is hard for communities and households to break. When the passage of foreign-flagged ships through the Northwest Passage awakened enormous concern among Canadians as to unresolved questions of sovereignty in relation to Arctic waters, Inuit made statements highlighting the fact that Inuit use and occupation of waters of the passage had a long history, which is the foundation of Canada’s claim to these waters as internal waters unencumbered by foreign transit rights. In more recent times, Canadian Inuit joined with Inuit from other parts of the circumpolar Arctic to provide the world with the Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic. This declaration is an Inuit position on sovereignty in the Arctic that thoughtfully and judiciously balances the rights and responsibilities of Arctic states with the rights and responsibilities of Inuit under international law and human rights instruments, including the core Inuit right to self-determination.

While the absence of a clear and coherent body of Canadian laws, policies and programs in relation to Inuit has not inhibited us from formulating and pursuing a core set of objectives and priorities, the absence of greater clarity as to Canada’s future relationship with Inuit is likely to become increasingly problematic.

Inuit in Nunavut looked past some of the rigidities of federal government policies in relation to comprehensive land claims agreements in the 1970s and 1980s to insist that any modern treaty between the Crown and the Inuit of Nunavut would have to commit the Crown to the creation of a new territory and government of Nunavut. Throughout the negotiations, federal policies failed to provide for such a commitment; indeed, even at the signing of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement in 1993, the creation of Nunavut fell outside the scope of formal federal government policies.

Arctic realities sometimes demand that political progress break free from the boundaries of one-size-fits-all federal policies. One seasoned leader from Nunavik calls this “constructive damage to the status quo.” Inuit from the other three regions that make up Inuit Nunangat — Nunatsiavut, Nunavik, and the Inuvialuit Region — have also been creative in negotiations and deal making with public-sector and private-sector partners, setting new precedents and benchmarks.

Creativity in the face of legislative, policy and program gaps and anomalies in relation to Inuit and Inuit Nunangat has been greatly assisted by structural and day-to-day coordination among the Inuit organizations that represent Canadian Inuit. Canadian Inuit have built and operate highly integrated representative organizations that reach to the circumpolar, national, regional and local levels.

Sustaining unity over immense geographic distances and jurisdictional differences is, of course, something that requires a steady investment of time, energy and, occasionally, a little bit of patience. But that effort has paid off in numerous and rich ways. There are no nonstatus Inuit. There is lively debate among Inuit, but there are no disaffected outsider organizations. Our representative organizations can speak with considerable confidence backed up by considerable depth. At the circumpolar level, this unity was demonstrated once again in the adoption, in May 2011, of a second major Inuit declaratory statement, the Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Resource Development in Inuit Nunaat (the Inuit homeland in Canada, Greenland, Alaska and Russia).

Former Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Mary Simon in the House of Commons accepting the apology to victims of residential schools from Prime Minister Stephen Harper on behalf of the Government of Canada, June 11, 2008.

While the absence of a clear and coherent body of Canadian laws, policies and programs in relation to Inuit has not inhibited us from formulating and pursuing a core set of objectives and priorities, the absence of greater clarity as to Canada’s future relationship with Inuit is likely to become increasingly problematic in the future. And it is likely to carry an increasingly heavy cost.

It is well accepted that, for a variety of reasons ranging from global climate change to the growing appetite for the Arctic’s nonrenewable resources, the Arctic is increasingly important in world affairs and will continue to be so. Lloyd’s and Chatham House in the United Kingdom recently completed a report entitled Arctic Opening: Opportunity and Risk in the High North. The report offered the following conclusions:

  • Rapid and disruptive change in the Arctic environment presents uneven prospects for investment and economic development.
  • The Arctic is likely to attract substantial investment over the coming decade, potentially reaching $100 billion or more.
  • Significant knowledge gaps across the Arctic need to be closed urgently.
  • Arctic conditions will remain challenging and often unpredictable.
  • The environmental consequences of disasters in the Arctic are likely to be worse than in other regions.
  • The politics of Arctic economic development are controversial and fluid.
  • Governance frameworks in the Arctic should continue to develop in their current direction and be reinforced where possible.
  • Risk management is fundamental for companies to work safely, sustainably and successfully in the Arctic.

Quite apart from the content of these conclusions, the very fact that Lloyd’s has produced such a thorough evaluation of risks, with corresponding messaging to
the world’s insurers, is a very telling indicator of the Arctic’s elevated profile and increasing importance.

In an Arctic featuring growing complexity and stakes — for good and for bad — it is in our interests as Inuit to have our act together. It is in the interests of Canada as an Arctic state and its federal and other levels of government to have their acts together. And it is in the interests of Inuit and of all Canadians that the relationship between Inuit and the Crown be a solid, reliable, creative and mutually beneficial one.

In an Arctic featuring growing complexity and stakes — for good and for bad — it is in our interests as Inuit to have our act together. It is in the interests of Canada as an Arctic state and its federal and other levels of government to have their acts together.

We need a win/win relationship. But how do we get there?

No approach should become a straitjacket; we will always need the insight, will and skill to adapt and improve. But here are a number of practical things the Government of Canada can do right now to put the relationship between Inuit and Canada and to put Inuit Nunangat on a stronger footing:

  • In every way possible, recognize the unity and integrity of Inuit as a single people within Canada, and Inuit Nunangat as the traditional and abiding Inuit homeland within Canada.
  • Acknowledge the reality that Inuit are a circumpolar people and that the close relations between Canadian Inuit and other circumpolar Inuit are natural and positive. Respond to that reality by consciously building an ongoing Inuit dimension to Canada’s foreign relations, in the same way that English and French as official languages at the national level, and our historic ties to Great Britain and France, are part of how we see and present ourselves in the world.
  • Make the protection, promotion and vibrancy of the Inuit language a national priority.
  • Accept that sustaining the Inuit majority in Inuit Nunangat and sustaining our environment and economy are key components to determining an appropriate level of nonrenewable resource development and other forms of development in Inuit Nunangat.
  • Accept that major nonrenewable resource development projects in Inuit Nunangat must be supported by Inuit, not just to give active effect to the “free, prior and informed consent” commitments of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but, more fundamentally, as part of how Canada defines its relationship to Inuit.
  • Allow core regional and community needs in Inuit Nunangat to have first claim on public-sector revenues derived from development. At a time when Inuit lag so far behind other Canadians with respect to core markers of economic and social well-being — housing, health, education, income and others — it would be immoral and unethical to allow an unreformed set of jurisdictional and financial arrangements to deliver substantial royalty cheques outside Inuit
  • Nunangat while leaving so many Inuit living in poverty within. Respect and implement the five Inuit comprehensive land claims agreements, or modern treaties, in accordance with their fundamental objectives. These must be key building blocks to the enduring relationship between Inuit and the Crown, representing the Canadian state and people. It is unacceptable, and corrosive to that relationship, that Inuit have to bring major litigation to enforce our rights under these signed agreements.
  • Invest in education and training. There are many examples of failed regional economic development strategies around the world. Investment in education and training is the only one with proven across-the-board benefits. Article 9.7 of the Inuit Circumpolar Council’s Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Resource Development in Inuit Nunaat calls for the establishment of Inuit education funds derived from the benefits of resource development in the Arctic.
  • Finally, Parliament and the government of Canada should live up to their extensive jurisdictional capacities in relation to Inuit (section 91 [24] of the Constitution Act, 1982. These include powers to implement land claims and other agreements and the federal spending power, to name just the most obvious. It does Canada no credit, in the eyes of Inuit or the world, not to be implementing such responsibilities.

I make these suggestions with abiding confidence in the goodwill and good judgment of Inuit and of Canadians as a whole. I invite elected leaders, and my fellow citizens, to give them consideration. Taima.

Photo: Shutterstock

Mary Simon
Mary Simon was national Inuit leader and president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami from 2006 to 2012. She was president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Canada’s first ambassador to the Arctic, and Canada’s ambassador to Denmark.

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