Intellectual property: a different kind of Inuit ownership

Organizations want to stop southerners from making a buck off Inuit culture



OTTAWA – The inuksuk, a symbol of Inuit culture that appears on the Nunavut flag and directs hunters on the tundra, is somewhat of a marketing device in southern Canada. Its image is popping up on t-shirts and key chains, found on company logos and is even used to sell brands of beer.

And Inuit groups across the country don’t like the way non-Inuit businesses are exploiting the inuksuk to make a profit.

“The inuksuk is a big item when it comes to it being misappropriated by other individuals, non-Inuit or non-Aboriginals, for business purposes,” said John Cheechoo, a director at Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) who has been looking into ways to protect Inuit cultural symbols.

“It’s a problem and it’s been there for a while,” Cheechoo said in an interview in Ottawa.

The major Inuit organizations in Canada sent representatives to Ottawa last week to brainstorm ways to prevent Qallunaat businesses and companies from using Inuit symbols to promote and sell their products.

The Inuit groups want the law to protect what is known as their “intellectual property rights.” Current federal legislation designed to protect intellectual property covers art, trademarks, and technologies – but only if they are new or original. This makes it difficult to protect old designs, such as the traditional inuksuk symbol.

Along with ITK, Pauktuutit, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the Inuvialuit Regional Corp., the Labrador Inuit Association and the Avataq Cultural Institute attended the discussions with officials from the federal department of foreign affairs who specialize in intellectual property laws. Since this was a gathering of policy advisors, and not a meeting of politicians, the discussions weren’t open to the public.

Robert McDougall of the department of foreign affairs said the aim of the National Roundtable on Intellectual Property and Traditional Knowledge was to get the perspective of Inuit and First Nations groups.

It turned out they had much to say. Inuit organizations worry their cultural icons are being exploited. Sometimes that misuse is happening in their own communities.

In Labrador, for instance, some Qallunaat are making and selling soapstone carvings – an artform usually mastered by Inuit carvers.

“We were always concerned with the Japanese making plastic carvings. Now it seems we’ve got a fight on the other front. We’re now competing with non-Inuit soapstone carvers, especially in Labrador,” said Gary Baikie, a representative of the Labrador Inuit Association.

Baikie recounted how these soapstone carvings are being mistaken for genuine Inuit pieces. “A buddy of mine went into an art gallery and bought a carving and he was all happy about how he’d gotten this Inuk carving. I looked at the bottom of it and the name wasn’t even an Inuk one.”

Another sore spot for Labrador Inuit is when Qallunaat get access to traditional knowledge and then make money off it, Baikie said.

“The one thing that we noticed is that when we [published] our ‘Footprints are Everywhere,’ which is the basis of our land claim, it contained a lot of traditional knowledge talking about the best hunting areas and best fishing areas. All of sudden after that was published we see lodges popping up in the best hunting and fishing spots,” he said.

“So we became aware of how sensitive this information is.”

Since then, the LIA has adopted guidelines outlining how outside researchers can conduct studies in Labrador and what they can do with the information gathered.

It’s incidents like this that prompt Inuit organizations to take a look at how they can protect their intellectual property and traditional knowledge. Five years ago, Pauktuutit, the national Inuit women’s association, laid the groundwork. Pauktuutit made it its mission to protect the design of the traditional women’s parka, the amauti.

Veronica Dewar, Pauktutiit’s president, said Inuit women didn’t want to see fashion designers appropriate the design of the amauti.

“We’ve already lost our kayak design many years ago and we don’t want to go that route with the amauti,” Dewar said. “Inuit own that. But how do we protect it?”

In May 2001, Pauktuutit brought a group of Inuit seamstresses and intellectual property rights experts to Rankin Inlet for a workshop on current laws and regulations.

Indigenous women from Panama also attended, telling the Inuit seamstresses that their government has laws to protect their traditional clothing designs from exploitation.

Pauktuutit has invited the Panamanian women to another such workshop in Ottawa this fall. “We are really pushing this issue now,” Dewar said.

“We may not adopt their legislation, but we want some ideas on how to go about it.”

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