In Staking the Claim today's young Inuit celebrate the generation who created Nunavut

When they were young and idealistic

By JOHN THOMPSON

The young Inuit sported bushy sideburns and wore aviator sunglasses, as if to shield their eyes from their bright future.

It was the 1970s, and they shared a dream that the Inuit of the eastern Arctic would control their homeland, and destiny, as they took on federal negotiators from Ottawa.

It's remarkable these Inuit in their early 20s succeeded in creating what we know as Nunavut today, even if realizing the dream of Nunavut has proven far more difficult than they imagined.

What's even more incredible is that these guys are still around. The sideburns are shaved, the sunglasses are gone, and they're no longer young. But they're here, sitting on the boards of Inuit associations, or serving as mayors and members of the legislative assembly.

They've gone from being bright-eyed idealists, inspired by the words of Martin Luther King Jr., to becoming part of the Nunavut establishment, perceived by some residents as an old boys' club that dominates the territory's politics.

Where are the young Inuit leaders of today, one wonders, while watching, Staking the Claim, a three-part documentary that tells the history of how Inuit land claim deals came to be.

Maybe they're busy making movies.

Stacey Aglok MacDonald, 25, is one of four young, bright Inuit who helped make the film. She marvels at the accomplishments of the generation who fought for Nunavut's formation.

"I can't even imagine being put in that position," she says. "It's a big responsibility."

She points out she would be an "oldie" compared to some of the Inuit who negotiated the land claim while they were in their early 20s.

"None of these guys are perfect, but they did some pretty amazing stuff."

She helped make the movie because, as she says, "It's a pretty sad fact that most of us don't know how Nunavut came to be."

This is no fault of Nunavut's children and young adults. It's probably because of a big hole in Nunavut's education system: there is no curriculum, and no textbook, to teach contemporary Inuit history.

The hole leaves some kids in Nunavut today wondering who they are. In the words of another of the film's four young Inuit guides, Pauloosie Akeeagok: "Learning about your past, you build pride. Being proud of your past, you gain faith. Without faith, there is no hope. And without hope, there is nothing."

Staking the Claim, and the accompanying lesson plans for teachers, is meant to plug this hole in Inuit history.

The hole may help explain why young Inuit seem strangely absent from politics in Nunavut today. This is especially odd given how Nunavut has the youngest population of any jurisdiction in Canada.

That's not to say today's generation are layabouts. There's lots of talent. Some young Inuit are, like MacDonald, making films. Others are break-dancing, performing rock concerts or playing in the NHL.

And many work for government and Inuit organizations, largely behind the scenes, to make, as MacDonald says, "cool projects" happen.

But not many young Inuit run for office. At least, not yet.

MacDonald knew little about Nunavut's history as a high school student in Kugluktuk. She hopes the film, which should reach Nunavut schools with an accompanying lesson plan before the start of the 2008 school year, will make today's students feel as proud of their history as she is now, after spending several years researching the subject.

MacDonald admits she didn't vote during the last territorial election. She offers a common explanation: she didn't feel she knew the issues well-enough to make an informed choice.

Her time in Nunavut Sivuniksavut, an Ottawa-based program that prepares young Inuit to work in government, changed this. Now MacDonald pesters friends to vote. And, next territorial election, she plans to cast her ballot too.

It's promising to hear, because voter participation has actually dropped since before the creation of Nunavut.

With such high hopes set by the creation of Nunavut, disillusionment is probably inevitably as residents realize big changes don't happen overnight. Many still remain poor, stuffed in overcrowded homes. Schools and courts don't feel much different than before.

Government may claim to represent Inuit, but it still often seems run by non-Inuit bureaucrats.

But government can also only do so much. It's easy to blame politicians for the many problems than exist in Nunavut's communities. It's a lot more difficult to take responsibility for the problems and work at fixing them.

"We can't just blame the leaders," MacDonald says. "We need to take a more active role."

As well, many young people today are politically aware but don't vote. This may, in part, be due to a lack of young politicians.

MacDonald, for one, has a lot of trouble relating to Tagak Curley's resistance to gay rights, as much as she admires the work he did to help establish Nunavut.

MacDonald suspects one day it will be her generation's turn to take charge. But, she says with a laugh, by then it's possible that "the youth will think we're too old."

Perhaps. But at least students of Nunavut soon won't need to travel to Ottawa to learn their territory's history, as MacDonald did.

Staking the Claim, produced by EnTheos Films, was largely funded by Nunavut's education department. It was finished thanks to money given by the Qikiqtani Inuit Association. The film will also be sent to schools in southern Canada.

Where are they now?

The four bright young Inuit behind Staking the Claim met while attending Nunavut Sivuniksavut in Ottawa. Since making the documentary they've gone their separate ways, but continue to work on different projects that affect the lives of Inuit.

MacDonald already has a new film in the works. It's a documentary on seal hunting, being produced by her and three other talented young Inuit women: Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Myna Ishulutak and Jolene Arreak.

The film is tentatively named Tajarniit, which means meat from the shoulder of a seal. "It's a woman's delicacy," MacDonald said.

As for her collaborators, who are all, like her, in their mid-20s, Tommy Akulukjuk is a CBC television reporter in Iqaluit, David Joanasie works on youth issues for Inuit Tapariit Kanatami in Ottawa, and Pauloosie Akeeagok works for Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. in Iqaluit, where he is helping develop plans for a cultural school for Nunavut.

 

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