Inuit delegates pleased with circumpolar visit

“This is the best dollar Canada has ever spent”


AKUREYRI, Iceland – After 25 days in Russia, Finland and Iceland, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson’s circumpolar state visit finally ended on Oct. 15, leaving the three Inuit who accompanied Clarkson throughout her entire tour tired, but pleased with the results of this high-profile trip.

“If the Governor General sees us as important players, it sends a message to the Russian, Finland and Icelandic governments,” said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, in Iceland, shortly before she, Peter Irniq, the Commissioner of Nunavut, and Mary May Simon, Canada’s ambassador for circumpolar affairs, were to head home.

The circumpolar state visit to the three northern nations was well worth its cost because it succeeded in “opening new doors for us,” said Simon.

On this state visit, Clarkson’s fourth since she took office in 1999, she sparked controversy even before she left for Moscow on Sept. 22. Alarmed by word that the trip would cost more than $1 million, the House of Commons operations and estimates committee started to examine spending in the governor general’s office during the state visit.

However, Watt-Cloutier said Clarkson deserved a lot of credit for the state visit, which provided “priceless” opportunities for Inuit members of the official delegation to network at the highest levels of government.

“To me, you can’t measure that in terms of the value and the knowledge that you build,” Watt-Cloutier said. “It just goes so far. This is the best dollar Canada has ever spent.”

The three, who were also joined in Russia by Pita Aatami, the president of Nunavik’s Makivik Corp., participated in panels, met the presidents and leaders of Russia, Finland and Iceland and were able to speak about contaminants, climate change, education and Inuit culture with a wide variety of audiences.

They said the connections formed with other official delegates on the state visit, such as federal environment minister David Anderson, Maurice Strong, the United Nations Under-Secretary General, and retired general Roméo Dallaire, will be particularly useful in the future.

For Irniq, the state visit’s most memorable moments included an unexpected reunion with his former schoolmate Mattiusi Iyaituk from Ivujivik. The two hadn’t seen each other since 1964 when they were both students at the Churchill Vocational Institute. Iyaituk, a noted artist and the president of the Inuit Art Foundation, came to Reykjavik, Iceland, to build an inuksuk at the Canadian embassy.

“I couldn’t help but cry,” Irniq said.

In Salekhard, a Nenets community in northern Russia, Irniq, Watt-Cloutier and Simon were able to visit the home community of Sergei Haruchi, the leader of the Russian association for indigenous peoples. There, the traditional clothing worn by the Nenets as well as their country foods diet struck the visiting Inuit.

In the Saami region of northern Finland, the connections between northern indigenous peoples also were evident. For example, Irniq saw an older woman sewing reindeer skin mittens in the same way Inuit women make caribou mitts.

Simon was able to witness a different view of the countries than she had seen before – particularly in the Russian North, where she noted how much a difference economic prosperity can make to a community. Salekhard is surrounded by some of the richest oil and natural gas fields in the world.

“It was a bit of an eye-opener,” Simon said.

The final day of the state visit brought the Canadians to the home of the Hofsos Icelandic Emigration Centre, a non-profit museum with exhibits on the lives of the thousands of people who left Iceland for other countries. Since its opening, the centre has managed to rejuvenate the surrounding community. In 2002, it drew more than 10,000 visitors to the isolated fiord on the northern coast, whose population has been forced to abandon fishing, mainly due to changes in the Icelandic fishing industry.

“Economic viability doesn’t have to be from a large industry,” Simon said at a round-table discussion at the centre. “We need to learn from you.”

Simon, Watt-Cloutier and Irniq are hopeful that new cultural, social, educational and economic contacts will come out of the circumpolar state visit, which is due to continue with visits to Denmark, Norway and Greenland in 2004.

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