Back where it began
The modern colonization of the eastern Arctic came about because of three world-historical events over which Inuit had absolutely no control: World War II, the development of the nuclear arms race, and the Cold War.
So it’s fitting that the reclamation of Nunavut by its own people will be marked at a place that owes its very existence to those events: a military hangar near Iqaluit’s airport runway.
World War II brought hordes of outsiders, Americans mostly, who built the infrastructure that the Canadian government would later use to assert its own presence in the Arctic. The nuclear arms race and the Cold War brought the Americans back in the 1950s to build the Dew line, thus creating more air strips, weather stations, and modern communications systems.
In reponse to all of that, the Canadian government set into motion a chain of events that changed the Inuit world forever. The American-built infrastructure made it easier for Canadian administrators to build nursing stations, schools, government offices and fixed communities, a new world in which Inuit were required to live whether they wanted to or not.
When all this began, Inuit did not have the right to vote in Canadian elections, and it was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that Inuit could even vote for their own territorial and municipal representatives. Inuit parents had no say in a federal school school system that swallowed up innocent unwilling children and spat out bitter, wounded and often badly-educated young adults. Some Inuit were not even free to travel or live where they chose — on their own land.
Ottawa turned its oppressive bureaucracy over to a territorial government based in Yellowknife, then controlled by non-aboriginal officials whose ambition was to create a northern provincial government that ignored aboriginal identity and could have crushed aboriginal rights forever. Under that government, an assimilationist ideology grew up, based on catch-phrases like “We’re all northerners together.”
That didn’t happen, thankfully, but the new Yellowknife-based bureaucracy did turn into a bloated, officious parody of its Ottawa counterpart.
If the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada had not developed the idea of Nunavut in the early 1970s, somebody else would have invented it. Though it was created with the best of intentions, mostly, the Yellowknife-based government of the Northwest Territories never did, and never could, win the hearts of Inuit.
It should never be forgotten that to get Nunavut, Inuit had to surrender the one thing that Canada could never take away from them without their consent: their aboriginal title. Those who remember the land claim ratification campaign in the fall of 1992 will remember the hard questions that many beneficiaries asked at that time. Before that vote, many beneficiaries searched their hearts deeply before deciding whether or not to surrender their aboriginal title in exchange for the rights written down in the land claim agreement, and a process that would lead to the creation of a Nunavut territory on April 1, 1999.
Now that the people of Nunavut have elected 19 of their own legislators, who in turn have elected Nunavut’s first cabinet, the sacrifice seems worthwhile.
We said already that a military hangar is a fit place to honour the reclamation of Nunavut by the Inuit. It’s also fit that Canadian military personnel are now scurrying around that building performing the menial but necessary work required to house a ceremony that will honour an Inuit creation: Nunavut.
Next week, you will not find an editorial on these pages. That’s because the next issue of Nunatsiaq News, dedicated exclusively in honour of Nunavut, will appear on April 1.
In Nunavut, the date “April 1, 1999” does not require any commentary. That date, and that day, makes its own magnificent statement. JB