05 Nov 2021 | Arctic History

This week, on November 7th, is International Inuit Day and we thought we would bring attention to the remarkable organization and movement for Inuit representation of the people of Nunavut. The word “Nunavut” means “our land,” and it is their right to take part in their government.

On April 1, 1999, Canada’s map was redrawn to include a new territory, Nunavut, a homeland for the Inuit. Originally, almost all of the Canadian Arctic was designated as one territory, the Northwest Territories, but this was run by a commission from Ottawa of non-First Peoples. Despite this attempt to manage the territory in a way that worked best for Ottawa, the people of the north were able to begin representing themselves.

This was not a simple process and required remarkable organization by the people who were most effected by their representation. The Northwest Territories was divided into two, the east with 85% of their population being Inuit would become Nunavut, and the west which holds a largely First Nations rather than Inuit population would remain the Northwest Territories.

Join us as we explore the inspiring movement that took place in Nunavut to build Inuit representation in the government.

 

The Fight For Representation

The modern Inuit are believed to be the descendants of the ancient Thule peoples who were actually relatively late and were possibly one of the last peoples to cross the ice bridge formed during the Ice Age over the Bering Straits.

A Medieval Warm Period opened the ice-locked north allowing hunters and families to travel west across the north of the continent and into the Arctic archipelagos. These groups would go as far west as Greenland and settle across what is now the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. These groups were well connected and often visiting family across great distances but as the Warm Period turned back to a colder period many of these communities became isolated and many of the hamlets that exist today.

So, there is no doubt that the Inuit have been here long before any Europeans claimed the country and many European explorers would only succeed and survive because of help adapting to the environment from the local peoples.

This presents the obvious fact that these people knew best how to govern themselves based on their culture, environment and needs. But as Europeans arrived and the Canadian government took control of this region they created governing bodies that spoke to the government’s interests. This is the story of how the Inuit people went from the government giving them number designations instead of by their last name to them creating a new territory that they could have a part in governing.

 

The Inuit Leaders & The Championing of Nunavut

Until 1921 there hadn’t been any federal representation or governing council in much of the north. That year an Ottawa-based council was appointed to begin actively governing the region and started a program of sending annual ship patrols that brought supplies and services to coastal communities.

The problem was that at this time the Northwest Territories made up 1/3 of Canada’s area and the government was initiating northern policies without consulting the Inuit. So by the 1950s the Inuit decided they had to become more politically active. They ran for local government and the jobs in administrative organizations like town councils.

Community organizers like Abraham Okpik led programs like the Project Surname to replace the identification numbers the government gave the Inuit, with their surnames and he would be the first Inuk to sit on the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories. In 1950 the Inuit became eligible to vote in federal elections and in 1966 the first Inuk, Simonie Michael, was elected to the Northwest Territories Council. And in 1967 the territorial government moved from Ottawa to Yellowknife.

Abraham Okpik
Photo: Abe Okpik (thecanadianencyclopedia.ca)

Successes like these led to the forming of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada. The organization became involved in preparing the first Inuit land claim. The proposal called for a land claim and the creation of a new territory, administered by a new government democratically elected still within the Canadian government. In this territory, the Inuit would have political representation through sheer numbers of voters.

The concept of Nunavut was growing thanks to the Inuit organizations leading the negotiations and in 1979, the Northwest Territories was divided into two federal electoral districts. The first member elected to this district was Peter Ittinuar who became the first Inuk to sit in the House of Commons.

Peter Ittinuar
Photo: Peter Ittinuar (thecanadianencyclopedia.ca)

By 1993 the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement passed becoming the largest Indigenous land-claims settlement in Canadian history, and the Nunavut Act, which created the new territory. Over the next couple of years, the Inuit organizations that led the way through the negotiations supported the forming of new government departments and led the training of civil servant employees. In February the first elections were held in Nunavut and Paul Okalik was the territories first premier. And in April 1999, Nunavut was officially separated from the Northwest Territories becoming the newest Canadian territory/province since Newfoundland and Labrador.

Paul Okalik
Photo: Paul Okalik (https://alchetron.com/Paul-Okalik)

Through political activism and long-term negotiations, the Inuit were able to gain control of their representation. Nunavut is more than the redrawing of the map, it is one of the most significant political stories as Canada grows.

Map of Canada

And after 20 years we look back on the formation of Nunavut and the people that made it possible. We at Arctic Kingdom depend on the expert knowledge and experience of our Inuit partners.  By hiring guides from the communities we work with it allows us to support local economies and organizations. Our work with Travel Nunavut and Destinations Nunavut continues to grow Nunavut’s tourism industry as a truly fantastic travel destination based on Inuit interests.

Please take the time to learn more about First Peoples history and the contributions of Inuit to Canadian culture, as well as, their own fight for equality. Arctic Kingdom cherish the friends we’ve made and appreciate the role of our Inuit partners.

By: Mat Whitelaw