Social Matters in Nunavut

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A dry red riverbed under a eucalyptus in the desert ranges of Central Australia seemed a strange place to be talking about the frustrations that had driven Inuit to push for creation of their own Nunavut government. However, it made perfect sense to the Pitjantjatjara elders seated in the riverbed to discuss their future. These Aborigines laughed with recognition to hear anecdotes from the Arctic about problems they knew too well, and then told their own.

That is the secret of indigenous internationalism. Problems that do not interest or seem important to governments at home often make good sense to people on the other side of the world. Greenlanders and Sami meeting in Copenhagen with Nunavut Inuit, Inuvialuit, Dene, and Métis in 1973 are generally thought to have started the world indigenous movement. Now there are such meetings every day, somewhere in the world.

Nunavut is first and foremost a solution to particular needs in a particular region, designed, led, and achieved by the Inuit living there. However, it is also an important symbol and inspiration for others.

Since Leif Eriksen decided that Nunavut was "good for nothing" a thousand years ago, as the sagas say, Europeans from across the sea and from Southern Canada have been getting things wrong. Even Eriksen and his descendants figured out quickly that Nunavut and Northern Greenland were full of goods that brought high prices in Europe.

Nunavut in Canada

More recently, Canadians have thought of the North as a poor place needing the ideas and lifestyle of the South as much as material things. But something went wrong with this notion, too. Inuit were glad to have useful new goods, but had their own hopes and ways of doing things. Southern people seemed to be causing as many problems as they solved, and obviously had no understanding of northern needs or the importance of the land and sea to Inuit.

So Nunavut is not simply another piece of Canada getting its own flag and licence plates. It is a very different sort of place. It does not have the same ideas about using resources or buying land. It has a different language, and stories about how things are and should be which are totally unknown elsewhere in Canada. It has a government similar to provincial and territorial governments, but with a second 'constitution' in the form of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA) enshrining the result of special Inuit negotiations with Canada.

Inuit have persuaded the government of a powerful industrial state that it is time for a new approach. During the 1980s, premiers and delegations at constitutional conferences were intrigued by Nunavut and wanted information. Nunavut has gone about its business quietly, and has been attacked within Canada by some other aboriginal groups with different legal doctrines.

That will soon change. As soon as Nunavut is up and running it will be studied, visited, and admired by indigenous peoples across Canada. All indigenous peoples want something similar. They may argue about symbols and theory, but they want to govern their own lives and their own territory. What is different about Nunavut is that it is bigger than any other single indigenous region will be in Canada.

Nunavut abroad

Nunavut is no longer simply an Inuit idea, or merely an important idea for Canada. It is an important idea for the wider world.

For the circumpolar community, it is an end to paternalism and rule of white experts. It means the taking over of the Arctic by arctic peoples. There is nothing frightening about letting the people of a region take charge of their own problems. That shows that white people have matured in their understanding.

Nunavut also shows that democracy and human rights are fundamental rights of all people, and not something which they have to wait to buy when they have a million settlers in their territory or when oil wells in their hunting areas produce a billion dollars worth of export earnings.

There are many examples of Nunavut's importance abroad. At one 1994 conference in Canberra, Australia with world constitutional experts, some persons writing South Africa's new constitution wanted more information after a talk on Nunavut, and used the books and articles mentioned by the speaker. At another held in Brisbane, Australia in 1996, the New Zealand judge who was creating a whole new system of conservation for that country was delighted by the success of Inuit and remarked that Maori would make significant progress along similar lines. Others at that conference were shocked when I said that similar solutions might suit the Australian state of Queensland, but later that year the highest court cleared the way for Aboriginal land ownership across much of the state. Now the government, Aborigines, and environmentalists are looking at Nunavut as a model, while the Australian Parliament has recommended that Nunavut be studied by Australia's Torres Strait Islanders, where sea mammal-hunting people live in their traditional islands and demand self-government and sea rights. Also, the Arctic Policy of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) — based heavily on lessons from Nunavut, Inuvialuit, and northern Quebec — is a valued and much-quoted document in some university research departments and indigenous organizations in the Southern Hemisphere.

In tropical swamps by the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia, people living their ancient traditions are now working with Nunavut concepts and Inuit practices of co-managing fish, wildlife, and environments so they can educate governments and save their region from construction and development projects. Halfway around the world, Indians in the Amazon are increasingly aware of how Inuit and governments have, in the NLCA and creation of the territory of Nunavut, worked out generous and large-scale responses to social, cultural, and resource-management conflicts.

As a matter of fact, as I write this, Aborigines and various experts are gathering at a small town south of Darwin in northern Australia to plan their constitutional future. They are looking at national and territorial change, and their resource material includes a number of papers specifically about Nunavut, and others based on Nunavut experience. In 1992, when John Amagoalik visited Darwin to speak about Nunavut, many of these same people were present.

However, helpful people are not the only ones to spread news about Nunavut. Some crazy Americans put out books around the world saying that Nunavut is a plot by Prince Philip and the Queen — whose name appears on the cover of the NLCA along with Cape Dorset artist Kenojuak Ashevak's artwork — to break up countries and steal their resources. Such stories apparently make money!

Even a former chief justice and a Northern Territory premier in Australia, people who should know better, find Nunavut threatening, and say so in speeches and press releases. They cannot imagine Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders equal to whites or having their own respected place in the nation, it seems. Let us hope that Inuit and democratic feeling continue to upset such reactionary people all over the world.

Still, it is not the specific lessons and details of Nunavut, but the grassroots discovery by isolated or powerless people of Nunavut's existence and the lesson it provides — that aboriginal people can regain control of their world — that is best of all. Former Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC) leader Rosemarie Kuptana once mentioned my work to Aborigines in Alice Springs in the middle of Australia's outback, leading them to invite me to a meeting. Some had read notes I had written on Nunavut, and all present were aware of Inuit efforts to create the Nunavut land claim and territory. But that Nunavut is above all simply a symbol of hope was underscored in one memorable exchange. "Come on, sis!" one enthusiastic Aborigine shouted to a timid soul at this meeting. "Them Eskimo mob have done it!"

That is the most important message for downtrodden people anywhere: Inuit have made Nunavut. Others can take courage and do it, too.

Peter Jull worked in the NWT and Nunavut on and off from 1961, and was founding co-ordinator of the Nunavut Constitutional Forum. Today he writes and teaches on Nunavut and world indigenous issues at universities from his new home in Brisbane, Australia.

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November 29, 2006 change by giorgio

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