Fifteen Years of Nunavut: A Look at Canada's History with the Inuit

Tuesday marked the fifteenth anniversary of the creation of Nunavut, Canada's newest territory, and the largest land claim in Canadian history. At least, by territory – there are some 33,000 people spread over 2 million square kilometres in Nunavut. On April 1, 1999, the federal government finished a decades long process over the recognition of Inuit peoples as an indigenous group by the Canadian government. Nunavut was split off from the Northwest Territories as the Canadian government as a negotiation over land ownership. Part of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement that gave Inuit the ability to govern themselves was that they also had to “cede,release and surrender ... all their aboriginal claims, rights, title and interests.” This post looks at part of the process that gave them those rights.

In the early 1930s, the Conservative government of R.B. Bennett was desperate to shore up the dismal accounts of the Canadian government. Canada was one of the countries hardest hit by the Great Depression. As an export nation, the sudden stillness of international trade hit the northern Dominion harder than most. Prime Minister Bennett's solution was to cut expenses across the board. Bennett - a long time corporate leader and millionaire – tried to run the country the way he would run his business as did many Western leaders in the 1930s. It made sense to many during the Depression that if the government had less money flowing in, it should cut down on money flowing out. This would prove to be false, as the better solution turned out to be the government reviving the economy be putting money into it, not out of it.

One of the expenses that Ottawa wanted to discard was the administration of relief in Arctic Quebec. In 1931, the federal government decided that Quebec should pay for the welfare of those Inuit (though they would have called them Indians or Eskimos at that time) communities and at first they agreed. Within a year, the Quebec government wrote back to the federal government noting that it had no responsibility in the matter of Inuit administration. On 7 July, 1932, Ottawa replied: "Eskimo not classed with Indian in British North America Act and Indian Act does not apply to Eskimo. Eskimos own property and operate businesses in their own names and have all rights of citizenship. Debates in Dominion House show contrary intention with respect to Indians. Eskimo is not ward of Crown." Effectively, Ottawa was saying that Inuit did not fall under the definition of “Indian” and thus the federal government had no responsibility to them. As Inuit continued to starve, a stalemate over jurisdiction issues developed and neither side was willing to budge.

This continued until 1933, when Quebec Premier Alexandre Taschereau referred the case to the Supreme Court, asking whether the term 'Indian' used in section 91 of the British North America Act included the Inuit residents of his province. The case wouldn't be heard until 1935 and it was only in 1939 that a judgement was rendered.

The federal government argued that the Inuit were a different 'race' than Indians, that there had been no Inuit within the borders of the Dominion in 1867 so it could not apply, and that the Inuit had traditionally been treated "differently" than other Aboriginal (as poor, destitute Canadians, rather than how they treated other Aboriginal peoples, which was effectively as a lower class of citizen under the state - not a shining moment in our history). Quebec argued that the term Indian had been applied to the Inuit before 1867 and that many other Indians had lived outside the boundaries of Confederation but were now beholden to its laws.

In the final decision by Chief Justice Lyman Duff, Duff clearly explains that yes, Inuit are Indians. The Hudson Bay Company had for a long time treated them as such. In 1867, the Canadian Parliament passed legislation outlining its responsibility for Indians in the Hudson Bay's Ruperts Land when it took that territory over, which it did in 1870. Effectively the justices of the Supreme Court researched and argued a historical debate! They pored over Canadian legal documents and accounted for how Indian had been used within them as well as how Inuit had been addressed, then argued that history demonstrated the term Eskimo was consistently conflated with Indian. The Inuit, regardless of legal definitions outside of legislation (or asserted by politicians in Ottawa), had always been considered the same as Indians throughout Canada's legal history. Any distinction between them was accidental or non-binding. Thus, the federal government would be responsible for administrating Inuit people.

In 1939 the Canadian Supreme Court was not the highest court of the land though. The federal government could still appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, United Kingdom. They did, but the Second World War kept the British Government a bit occupied, so their appeal was unable to be heard. After the war, concerns about elections politics and debates over whether or not the Privy Council should even be Canada's final judicial arbiter kept the appeal on hold. When the Supreme Court of Canada was officially established as the highest court in the country in 1949, their appeal to the 1939 decision was made retroactively final. (Or perhaps dismissed, we are not clear on what happened to pending appeals)

But all that did was establish the federal government's jurisdictional responsibilities under constitutional documents, not bind it to any legal obligations concerning its far-flung Northern peoples. They did not have to deal with aboriginal title for instance. So as a new Indian Act was debated in 1950-51, the question of "Inuit Affairs" was effectively ignored. As a result they are excluded from the 1951 Indian Act. In other words, they were ignored and given as little help as possible. According to the government:

If an Eskimo Act were to be enacted, there would be a need for a definition of the term "Eskimo." If, however, we accept the fact that they Eskimos are not wards of the Canadian Government, but simply a small, under-privileged group, living in a very difficult environment, then there does not seem to be any need to define the term any more than there would be to define what is meant by a French-Canadian, Chinese-Canadian or any other ethnic group.

The government was recalcitrant to spend money keeping the people populating these seemingly barren northern lands alive, which in the naturally avaricious eyes of a government in Ottawa was a terrible burden. This sort of Not-In-My-Backyard approach left many of Canada's Inuit people neglected by the federal government. The combination of the government's lack of interest in the North or its people, their legal limbo as a result of the 1939 decision, and arguably a bit of racial prejudice, culminated in their exclusion from the Indian Act to keep them at arms-length in 1951.

At the same time, the concerns of the post-war era over national defence and resource exploitation in the north led to a reinvigorated government interest n the Arctic and its northern peoples. The DEW Line was established to hunt Soviet bombers and new areas were opened up to mineral or oil extraction all encouraged the government to change its approach to the Inuit. Just a few years after the Indian Act, in 1955 the Minister of Northern Affairs and National Resources Jean Lesage said the government would fix the “almost continuing state of absence of mind” in which Inuit had previously been governed. Government funding and “care” for the Inuit increased over the next few decades that coincided with increasing awareness of the plight of Canada's Indigenous peoples.

Inuit autonomy was first raised in the 1970s by the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (now the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a national Inuit organization that represented their concerns to the federal government). A 1973 Supreme Court case called the Calder decision ruled that Aboriginal land title was not solely restricted to the limited terms of the 1763 Royal Proclamation, but could in fact exist prior to it and thus continued to exist to the present day. The decision greatly helped Inuit efforts to seek autonomy over their claimed land in the north, and by 1982 a plebiscite was held where the majority of the population was in favour of creating the territory of Nunavut, which translates to “Our land.” After a long negotiation process, in 1999 the territory was officially created.

So hopefully Canadians remembered the fifteenth anniversary on April 1. The process behind Canada's is a long one, longer than we can do justice here, but it's important to highlight two points about this post. One, despite any descriptions we have made or quoted, the North in not a barren wasteland. As with any gathering of human communities, there are unique cultures, histories and environments in the north as vibrant as any other. Two, despite the fact that we have described a process where Inuit where recognized as people legally in Canadian legislation, it is vital to remember that Inuit were not bound to Canadian law to justify their existence. They have always lived in the north for untold years, and their culture and history did not disappear because it wasn't valued by a government thousands of kilometres away in Ottawa. In time the government was forced to recognize that fact under the law. It is perhaps an important reminder that Canada's indigenous peoples exist independent of Ottawa and act of their own accord.  When dealing with Canadian indigenous peoples, it's important to remember that laws may define how we act in the world, but they do not change the world itself.