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Jull, Peter --- "Reconciliation & Northern Territories, Canadian - Style: The Nunavut Process and Product" [1999] IndigLawB 30; (1999) 4(20) Indigenous Law Bulletin 4

Reconciliation & Northern Territories, Canadian-Style:
The Nunavut Process and Product

by Peter Jull

Recent Australian debates about Reconciliation, treaties, constitutional recognition, land rights, sea rights, autonomy for the Torres Strait, and conditions for Northern Territory statehood are familiar problems in Canada. Although the Canadian debate has been no less anxious and angry at times, the shape of outcomes is emerging. One of the largest answers in Canada is Nunavut, a common Inuit word for ‘our land’ but now denoting a new jurisdiction, a self-governing northern territory which commenced on April 1, 1999.

Nunavut is renowned for its bleak coasts, frozen seas, vast islands, myriad lakes, mountain ranges, glaciers, fjords, migrating wild caribou (reindeer), rich marine life, scattered villages, and no roads. Larger than Queensland or Canada’s largest province, Nunavut’s mere 27,000 people, 85% of whom are Inuit, are a cultural and political community who have moved fast. In the 1920s, a Danish team travelled the region finding isolated family hunting camps.[1] Contacts with a few trading posts for rifles, kettles, and tea in trade for furs were meagre.

The Second World War brought aviation, airfields, and contact with Canadians and Americans as Nunavut became a link in the war effort, particulalry for moving aircraft to Europe. The Cold War brought permanent weather and electronic installations in isolated locales, with Frobisher Bay’s base becoming the main town and capital under its Inuit name, Iqaluit. This town, with a population of 4300, highlights the regional contrasts. Traditional Inuit hunting culture collided with military, administrative, supply, transport, health and educational functions brought by outsiders. This produced a town of energy and surreal juxtapositions of lifestyles. Many short-term white workers in their cultural cocoon view ‘the natives’ as unfortunates or nuisances, while Inuit people struggle to bring balance to lives disoriented by change.

Nunavut is part of the process of finding equilibrium. It has been understood for decades, and agreed on all sides, that self-government – that is, full participation of Inuit in decision-making about their lives – is a big part of the answer. The question has been how to achieve this.

Initially the idea of a single large multi-racial territory built in the postwar spirit of material optimism was chosen. But Inuit and Indian peoples in the north saw that whites got the jobs, good houses, and high incomes, and the virtual right to make all decisions. The next step was an attempt to train Inuit and the other peoples of the north by means of local government councils as a step towards higher and broader political power.[2]

But Inuit did not want practise in choosing street-lights for hitherto unstreeted hamlets in a ‘sheltered workshop’ atmosphere. They had real and urgent problems. Children were losing their language and identity in the white man’s schools. Families were lost in rows of shacks in central places where nurses and administrators could check on them, far from their hunting places. Caribou and sea mammals were threatened by white men in ships, planes and tracked vehicles chasing down oil, gas, and minerals.

For a while, Inuit were stunned by all of this attention and activity, but the young people in school helped find answers. They learned how to talk to the white man and use ‘the system’. They saw that the discrimination, inequality and imposed authority in all areas of northern life were inconsistent with the white man’s own values, as well as the Southern Canadian enthusiasm for decolonising the British Empire and the American civil rights movement which was filling news broadcasts. Meanwhile, environmental outrages perpetrated by governments, industry and their so-called ‘experts’ radicalised less-educated and older people.

Encouraged by the fierce Inuit-led Alaskan land rights movement, Inuit across the Northwest Territories (NWT[3]) and in Quebec and Labrador, began meeting to discuss options. The one thing they wished to avoid was the Indian reserve system with its unhappy ghettoes, or the numbers of dispossessed and marginalised Métis and non-status Indians (MNSI) who were the shame of Southern Canada. Northern Indians no less than Inuit had no desire to relive the horrors of the reserve policies of Canada’s nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The NWT was the golden child of liberal Canada's constitutional culture. Like the Commonwealth Government briefly in Australia’s Northern Territory, Ottawa sought to do good and progressive things in the NWT, perhaps even shaming the provinces. What a hope! Like Australia’s states, Canada’s provinces are wealthy in the lands and resources of indigenous peoples, but deny responsibility for indigenous well-being insisting that those people be separately provided for by the Federal Government in Ottawa. In Australia, there is a common view which says Aboriginal people should be 'equal', but ignored. These two national syndromes of visual and moral terra nullius both have very similar outcomes.

In Canada, one segment of the national élite decided that the NWT would be different, and in the first flush of early United Nations idealism, they set out to create a model society. What went wrong was that indigenous peoples had no desire to be assimilated quietly into the white man’s frontier society, a society in which claims of white cultural superiority often vary inversely at an individual level with actual civilised conduct and ideals. Nor did northern peoples accept that their language, culture, traditions, and wildlife harvesting were the crude obstacle to progress which governments claimed.

In this context came the predictable woes of residential schools and hospitalisation far from home and the denigration of native tongues. These were all part of the modernisation and goodwill which a modern industrial country was determined to bestow on ‘backward’ northerners. But unlike Southern Canada and Australia, this phase was short-lived. The first generation of bright young people in the schools founded and led the Nunavut land, sea and self-government movement.

Nunavut and other ‘regional agreements’ in North America are not simply documents with clauses which can be run off on copiers and applied elsewhere. They result from processes of social and political change; the actual documents are only one aspect of a larger process.[4] A reader can be misled, missing quid pro quos and contexts.

In order to progress, northern and Canadian society had to change. The whole country grew in social and cultural awareness, as Australia has also been doing recently, but northern whites were reluctant to give up their hegemony and dreams of wealth on the back of resource extraction from indigenous lands and seas. This is typical of frontier contexts where national governments and institutions, whether Norway’s Labor Party, Canada’s government, the US Congress, or Russian academic institutes, are forced to anchor national policy and rein in self-serving latter-day ‘pioneers’.[5]

Indigenous people and their organisations also had far to travel. Although they were marginalised, isolated, uneducated, and poor, they had to be able to parley with sophisticated central authorities who knew little or nothing of their hinterland.

During the Canadian ‘reconciliation’ process, including Nunavut, there were bitter disputes and misunderstandings initially. But this led gradually to greater openness, and then to discussions of citizenship entitlements, indigenous rights, use and benefit of territories and resources and devolution of central administrative power to local and regional indigenous or indigenous-dominated political entities. Only in retrospect can we recognise the disputes as an implicit negotiation of difference and the basis for a relationship of goodwill.

The decisive factor on the Inuit side was a determination to recover control of their lands and lives, with a flexibility about means. On the other side, despite lapses by some officials and ministers, the Federal political establishment had a fundamental and bipartisan commitment to achieving social peace and avoiding indigenous marginalisation in the north. Also, Canada had realised long ago that indigenous policy is a political rather than a police matter and should therefore be directed towards creating full indigenous citizenship rather than controlling a marginalised people.

Work was also going on in the other three Inuit regions in Canada.[6] Other northern indigenous peoples were also active, especially those in Quebec, Labrador, Yukon, British Columbia, and the Western NWT, and those in other provinces fighting forestry and hydro-electric projects.[7]

Inuit worked on many levels at once from the mid-1970s to achieve Nunavut.[8] They were active and played an early leadership role in the redrafting of the Constitution to include indigenous rights. Athough this was an objective in itself, it was also significant because it enabled the Inuit to establish their executive credibility and commitment to Canada, and to clearly define a national political agenda. Here their skill in avoiding undue noise and confrontation in favour of more diplomatic means contrasted markedly with some other groups whose more heavy-handed tactics often toughened government resistance.

The long, hard and seemingly futile campaigns against government-backed schemes to explore, extract, and transport oil, gas, and minerals, especially by sea, won Inuit moral authority among Canadians. Their knowledge and love of their land and sea territories won support internationally and gradually isolated the die-hards in Canadian governments. The simple justice rather than ideological fervour of their cause won over a public and officialdom tired of bombast, whether from Quebec separatists, Western Canada premiers, or strident indigenous leaders. However, they had to struggle long and hard to get to the table to negotiate Nunavut self-government.

Many tough issues remained. Ottawa refused to consider granting the Inuit decision-making powers over resource management, including wildlife, so Inuit held out for years until they won it. That power is now available to all other indigenous groups across Canada as a result, as is the fundamental Inuit demand, also long and furiously rejected in Ottawa, that the sea and its resources must be included in claims. Federal politicians on both sides of politics came and went but were usually amenable enough when fully informed, with notable exceptions. However, a knot of junior and middle federal officials who believed they represented some higher patriotism kept bringing up the same old obstacles, slipping them into documents and cabinet submissions when they could. They, and some ill-informed but vehement Indian opponents of Nunavut, were good for Inuit morale and kept the movement grimly-focused on real outcomes.

Nunavut is a land of isolated villages with a population wandering from a sea and land hunting lifestyle towards an as yet unknown cultural future. Unemployment and under-employment are high. The evidence of global climate change is irrefutable in high latitudes, it seems, and a range of other Arctic environmental problems flowing in from outside are frightening.[9] The Nunavut Tunngavik Inc, the main land claims body, has sent the uranium exploration industry flouncing out of the region after refusing its charms.[10]

In the end, the Nunavut Act setting out the framework for the new territorial government and Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act embodying the 17-year negotiated settlement of ‘land claims’ issues, including marine matters and much that in any other jurisdiction is considered a matter for generally elected legislatures, went through Parliament easily in mid-1993.[11] Then a busy implementation phase began – training Inuit personnel, preparing the takeover of functions by the new government, building facilities, and implementing the novel Inuit-government co-management bodies and régimes.

It will not be easy reconciling the two parallel authorities in Nunavut; the territorial government serving everyone on the one hand, and the claims structures on the other hand which serve Inuit only, but which have many governmental and quasi-governmental powers. The Arctic political economy is heavily dominated by the public sector, and so government will be everywhere. It is essential that the government is just as ‘Inuit’ and attuned to the region as the claims structures. The claims bodies have the advantage of large discretionary funds, relatively less public scrutiny and accountability, and some robust role models in other parts of the Inuit world.[12] It is most important that both of these Nunavut structures work cooperatively because the problems Inuit face are large enough to engage all the creative energies both sides can offer for years to come. They were conceived and pursued as two sides of one coin. In tandem they should be able to move mountains.

The work of the Nunavut Implementation Commission headed by long-time Nunavut guiding spirit, John Amagoalik,[13] and more recently the Office of the Interim Commissioner, that is, the Federal ‘Governor’ overseeing official preparations, have had their own dramas. The OIC's task of shaping a new sense of the Nunavut collective involves moving away from more parochial traditions where each village would fight for its local goodies with no thought of larger issues. This emphasis on local authority did much to undermine the old NWT government, but it must not undo Nunavut. The OIC has been criticised for importing Ottawa-style cronyism and big-spending habits into Nunavut which is, after all, a product of Inuit rejection of past Federal and territorial styles.

On February 15 the nineteen members making up the first Nunavut legislative assembly were elected. The Nunavut newspaper, Nunatsiaq News, commented in its editorial:

Congratulations, Nunavummiut. You did it. ... Few regions in Canada can claim to have ever achieved an 88 per cent voter turnout in an election. In these times of cynicism and disillusionment, few regions can claim to have achieved such faith in government.[14]

On 3 March, those nineteen new MLAs met to elect the first premier. The young Inuit lawyer, Paul Okalik, an enthusiastic visitor to Australia and one who has won many friends here through his participation in conferences and workshops, defeated the former Nunavut MP in Ottawa who has most recently been the Federal government’s man heading the interim Nunavut administration. Commentators present during the question-and-answer period and the vote report that the freshness, sheer worth, and humility of Okalik appealed in the new Nunavut more than the all-too-seasoned veteran with his political baggage. As the same editorial continued:

Nunavut's new cabinet members will have to put several months of hard work into the development of a common vision and a realistic political agenda for the new government. ... [T]hey know that whatever they do, they must do it differently than the GNWT [Government of the NWT], and that somehow they must put a more human, and a more Inuktitut [the Inuit language], face on government. But remember, the nineteen MLAs you elected this week will need all the patience and forbearance that you can muster.[15]

To conclude, Nunavut is indeed a wonder: a large region of a modern industrial state inhabited by a hunter-gatherer people disadvantaged by most social and educational criteria but who possess enough pride in their language, culture, environmental protection, and their right to be themselves to tackle the power and money of giant corporations and stern governments, and win. And that was the easy part. Now they have to tackle the countless large and small problems in their midst which the best wills, generous budgets and expert panels of a large country were unable to solve.

Peter Jull is Adjunct Associate Professor, Department of Government, University of Queensland. In the 1980s he was secretariat head of the Nunavut Constitutional Forum among other Inuit advisory roles and earlier a Prime Minister’s department adviser on indigenous and northern territory affairs.

[1] Rasmussen K, Across Arctic America, (Putnam, New York, 1927). See also the detailed reports of this Fifth Thule Expedition which are mainstays of Inuit anthropology.

[2] Recommended by the Carrothers Commission in 1966 and implemented by senior governments undaunted by the costs of setting up ’town halls’ with all the trimmings in even the most remote hamlets. See Carrothers AWR et al, Report of the Advisory Commission on the Development of Government in the Northwest Territories, 2 vols, (Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Ottawa, 1966)

[3] Despite its plural name, the Northwest Territories has been a single political jurisdiction, although until the 1970s it was in two separate chunks in practice; most of Nunavut was administered directly from Ottawa, whilst the Mackenzie, or Western NWT, was administered from Fort Smith. In essence Nunavut is not ‘separating from’ the NWT, as many claim, but simply returning to its traditional status.

[4] Jull P & Craig D, ‘Reflections on Regional Agreements: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’, (1997) Australian Indigenous Law Reporter, Vol. 2, No 4, pp 475-93.

[5] Cf Jull, P, ‘The Settler North’, The Politics of Northern Frontiers, (Australian National University North Australia Research Unit, Darwin, 1991) pp 8-11.

[6] The other three regions are the Inuvialuit area of the Mackenzie River delta and Beaufort Sea coasts which finalised a claims settlement in 1984; Northern Labrador which is at last making serious progress in recent months on its claims (announcement of completion on December 18, 1998, see ‘What’s New’ at; and Nunavik, or Northern Quebec, which was the subject of Canada’s first modern land claim settlement in 1975. The Northern Quebec twenty-year claims experience is reviewed in a special issue of the Quebec Inuit magazine, Makivik News ( Nunavik also has a marine and coastal claim under way in a framework agreement of interest for Australia.

[7] See Innu Nation ( and Quebec Cree ( Also for the long-running work over more than a century of the Nisga’a of northern British Columbia, whose Calder case in 1973 was Canada’s ‘Mabo’ decision and which reached fruition in 1998, see :

[8] For the qualities required in their long campaign, see Dr Terry Fenge’s summary to a Darwin audience, ‘The Nunavut Agreement: the environment, land and sea use and indigenous rights’, Surviving Columbus: Indigenous Peoples, Political Reform and Environmental Management in North Australia, (Australian National University North Australia Research Unit, Darwin, 1994) pp 31-37. For the contours and scope of Inuit political work in Canada, see Jull P, ‘Redefining Aboriginal-White Relations: Canada's Inuit’, (Spring 1991), International Journal of Canadian Studies, No. 3, Ottawa, pp 11-25.

[9] ‘Arctic Contaminants: An Unfinished Agenda’, being Northern Perspectives, Volume 25, No. 2, Winter 1998, (Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, Ottawa):

[10] ‘Uranium mining giant Cameco Corporation pulls out of Nunavut’, Nunatsiaq News, (Iqaluit, March 5, 1999).

[11] Nunavut Act: and Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act: with the full Nunavut land claims agreement at together with a graphic of the seasons in Nunavut by Nunavut’s (and Canada’s) greatest artist, Kenojuak of Cape Dorset.

[12] The Makivik Corporation in Quebec, Inuvialuit bodies in the Western NWT, and Alaska’s Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and NANA Corporation have never lacked for pizzazz and have often upset the faint-hearted with their aggressive and high-profile styles of combat on Inuit behalf.

[13] John Amagoalik, significantly known to all as ‘John A’, i.e., the usual appellation for Canada’s founder and long-serving first prime minister, John A Macdonald, is remembered for his inspirational talk in Darwin in 1992 on the achievement of Nunavut, see Amagoalik J,: ‘Canada's Nunavut: an indigenous northern territory’, Surviving Columbus: Indigenous Peoples, Political Reform and Environmental Management in North Australia, ed. P Jull et al, (Australian National University North Australia Research Unit, Darwin, 1994) pp 23-25.

[14] ‘Congratulations, Nunavummiut’, Editorial, February 18, 1999.

[15] Ibid.

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