Nunavut at 20

Screen Shot 2019-03-28 at 10.58.02 AMToday marks twenty years since the Canadian map was redrawn and the Inuit territory of Nunavut was created. The following is a guest post by Robert Comeau, an Inuk student of the Nunavut Law Program. Since 2016, Robert has travelled with Adventure Canada as a member of the onboard expedition team, where he shares his culture and experience in the North with travellers.


 

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My name is Robert and I am an Inuk. I was born in Frobisher Bay in the Northwest Territories.

In 1999, my family and I were living in beautiful British Columbia. That’s the year my mom, Udloriak Hanson, travelled home to what is now called Iqaluit—the capital of Nunavut. Just as Inuit reclaimed the Inuktitut name for Iqaluit in 1987 (instead of Frobisher Bay), 1999 marked another immense shift: Inuit had claimed their position within Canada through the creation of the separate territory of Nunavut. In the twenty years since the creation of Nunavut, Inuit have continued to claim our space within Canada—not only through politics, but also through practicing, protecting, and sharing our unique culture.

In the early nineties, a referendum was held, and Nunavut charged ahead. The Nunavut Agreement was signed in 1993, one year after I was born. On April 1, 1999, Nunavut became a territory. During this exciting time my mom, was coming into her adulthood. My mom was excited to return to her home and wanted to bring us back with her—but as a university student, she could not afford the travel across the country with a family of four for this celebration. What she did bring back to us in BC was an unmistakable pride in our home territory of Nunavut. After she earned her first university degree, my mom went on to work for public governments and Inuit organizations, always using her privilege to advocate for and better the position of Inuit. This is something that has stuck with me as I follow in her footsteps with my own advocacy.

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But until I entered university, neither the Nunavut Agreement nor Nunavut as a territory had much of an impact on my life. Looking back now, however, I can see the immense importance it held for mom and the rest of my community. We created our own territory as an Indigenous group; this accomplishment cannot be overstated. In the 1970s, while many Inuit were still living on the land and sustaining themselves by harvesting, there were other Inuit using their residential school educations to become lawyers. They would go on to create the means for protecting our unique lifestyle—such as the Nunavut Agreement and the creation of our own territory.

 

For me, this protection means safeguarding our language and our harvesting rights. Inuit society depends on our connection to each other and our environment. These connections come from knowledge produced since time immemorial. Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit is what Inuit know to be true, also referred to as Inuit Knowledge—our own form of science, you could say.

This knowledge system is what guides our language and harvesting. When we harvest other animals that sustain us—like fish, caribou, seal, or whales—our respect for the animals is front of mind. We are taught to use every part of the harvest, from the meat to the bones. Our elders teach us which parts to share with who and why. Each season, I give my first catch to my Auntie Kathy because she is my Arnaqutik. This means that she was there during my birth. This is one of the special relationships that I carry with me and is but one example of a complex family support systems that comprise our unique worldview.

 

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What do Nunavut and the Nunavut Agreement mean to me? It is the living process of Inuit planning and doing what is needed in order to protect our way of life. Inuit express these ways of life in myriad ways. To this day, we create amazing music, we perform tremendous athletic feats, and we produce gorgeous clothing and works of art. We revere the knowledgeable hunters supporting their families. We respect our change-makers who work to incorporate Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit into the everyday functioning of our territory. So, on the twentieth anniversary of Nunavut, it is important that we keep acknowledging these achievements and our values that guided them.
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The Inuit in Nunavut have always worked and fought for the betterment of our own people. If it wasn’t for the hard work of Inuit who fought for equal recognition of our Inuktitut language, we would not be where we are today—with Inuktitut joining English and French together on territorial documentation and policy. If it wasn’t for those Inuit who fought for education rights, we would not be where we are today with our right to determine our own scholarly destiny. Now that I am able to understand the history of colonization in Canada and the impact it has had on my family, I need to make the conscious choice to use my privilege. How can I work to make things better for Inuit? One answer that I’ve been working on simply talking with other Canadians about it. The more we can raise awareness about our challenges and achievements as Inuit in Nunavut, the better the chance that when Inuit speak, the south will listen.

This is where I challenge you to go beyond celebrating twenty years of Nunavut. No Canadians should ignore the great achievements made by Inuit—and no Canadians should ignore the immense challenges we face. For a country that prides itself on a Northern identity, there has been little effort to learn about the peoples of the North. This process is not a comfortable one. It means deconstructing your preconceptions about us. It means active listening role instead of deigning to tell us how we should fix the problems we face. With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, or the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples’ 440 recommendations, there are ample resources for each Canadian to have a direct impact on how we move forward together.

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One of the other ways you can support this work is by finding out upon whose traditional territories you live. Is there a treaty? What is the expectation of you as a treaty person? Celebrate the anniversary of their treaty or important date. If there is no treaty, you can still learn about about those Indigenous peoples. The twenty-year history of Nunavut marks the continuation of a tradition of resilient self-learning that has defined our culture for thousands of years—and will continue to do so for thousands more. As we pause to acknowledge these achievements, it also marks how far we still have to come as a country.

Robert is an Inuk law student studying in his hometown of Iqaluit as a student of the Nunavut Law Program. He graduated from Carleton University in 2017 obtaining a Bachelor of Arts with a major in History and a minor in Political Science. A staunch advocate for Inuit rights, Robert immerses himself in the dialogue by publishing, attending conferences, and facilitating workshops. He is a founding board member and the current Vice-President of the Qajakkut Society based in Iqaluit. In this work, Robert supports the delivery of qajaq building programs as well as Paddle Canada certifications. He enjoys any activity that gets him out on the water such as hunting, fishing, or paddling. This summer, he will travel with Adventure Canada aboard Into the Northwest Passage and High Arctic Explorer.

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