Inuit leaders want Ottawa to ‘reimagine’ relations: Obed

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami Natan Obed talk as they overlook Iqaluit, Nunavut on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
A month after the signing of a landmark Inuit-Crown partnership declaration, Canada’s Inuit leaders will be watching closely the release of the federal budget next week to see if Ottawa was really serious about resetting relations with the Inuit, said the president of the national Inuit organization.

The Inuit Nunangat Declaration on Inuit-Crown Partnership was signed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Inuit leaders representing the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) and Canada’s four Inuit organizations – the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, the Makivik Corporation, the Nunatsiavut Government, and the Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated – on Feb. 9 in Iqaluit, the capital of Canada’s Arctic territory of Nunavut.

It called for the creation of the Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee to collaboratively identify and take action on shared priorities and monitor progress on implementing agreements.

Inuit leaders will create their list of shared priority areas and are working on the first joint work plan with the federal government that they hope to adopt at the next meeting with government officials tentatively scheduled for May, said Natan Obed, president of the ITK, the national voice of Canada’s Inuit.

Imagining a new policy space

Inuit leaders are also talking to “specific ministers” about investment in these shared priority areas ahead of the federal budget, which is expected to be released by Finance Minister Bill Morneau on March 22, Obed said.

“We have seen a willingness from the bureaucracy and from senior cabinet ministers within the Canadian government to reimagine the way in which they make decisions, and also to reimagine the policy space in which these decisions are made,” Obed said.

Click to listen to the interview with Natan Obed
“We’re imagining that there will be an Inuit Nunangat policy space, so there will be federal funding that will be directed specifically to our Arctic region of Canada,” said Natan Obed.
(Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

In the past funding and investments usually flowed to provinces and territories, and for Indigenous people funding usually flowed to First Nations on reserves because of the Indian Act that requires the government to fund a number of key things within First Nations communities, Obed said.

“We’re imagining that there will be an Inuit Nunangat policy space, so there will be federal funding that will be directed specifically to our Arctic region of Canada,” Obed said referring to an Inuit term that describes the Inuit homeland, encompassing both land and water.

“And it’s these types of conversations, this new imagination of what it means to have a partnership that will be put to the test very soon within federal budget announcements and other key points in time where Canada can do what it has always done with status quo or it can shift and become more enlightened to the Inuit reality based on the partnership that we have,” he added.

Working in good faith
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a signing ceremony with President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami Natan Obed following a meeting with ITK members as he visits Iqaluit, Nunavut on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

By signing the declaration in Iqaluit the parties committed to work in partnership, said Obed.

“The partnership is non-binding and it starts in the symbolism,” said Obed. “But it is basically a commitment to work together in good faith.”

Canada’s Inuit have various mechanisms to uphold their rights whether through the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, or the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or Canada’s Constitution and Supreme Court rulings, or the land claim agreements, modern-day treaties the four Inuit regions of Canada have negotiated with the federal government, said Obed.

“This partnership is an attempt to work together in good faith to satisfy all those different mechanisms but doing so out of the court setting, and not waiting for explicit compliance from the Supreme Court of Canada or from other mechanisms to work together on areas that we know we need to work together,” Obed said.

Implementation of land claim agreements

The four Inuit regions – Nunatsiavut in northeastern Labrador, Nunavik in northern Quebec, the territory of Nunavut, and Inuvialuit in northern Northwest Territories – cover about 33 per cent of Canada’s landmass, or  3.4 million square kilometres, a territory roughly the size of India, that encompasses about 50 per cent of Canada’s coastline, Obed said.

Canada’s Inuit co-manage the entirety of that land with the federal government, he said.

But the implementation of the land claim agreements the Inuit have signed with the federal government over the last four decades has been a source of contention between Inuit leadership and Ottawa, Obed said.

“Inuit have felt that the government of Canada has not been working in good faith to maximize the benefit of land claim agreements for Inuit but also for all Canadians,” Obed said.

And the issue was raised with Trudeau during their meeting in Iqaluit, he said.

Investment in social equity programs and infrastructure
The sun sets over Frobisher Bay in Iqaluit, Nunavut on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

“But we also talked quite a bit about social equity and the need to improve our standing within Canada on key benchmarks on health and wellbeing, and also for investment in the Arctic,” Obed said. “We have huge infrastructure deficits, a lack of ports, lack of housing, lack of infrastructure for goods and services to flow between southern Canada and northern Canada.”

The Inuit are also facing deficits in health outcomes, he said. For example, the suicide rate in Nunavut is 11 times higher than the national average, and in some Inuit regions it’s 25 times higher, Obed said.

About 70 per cent of Inuit households report food insecurity, he said.

“And also we live 10 years less than other Canadians,” Obed said. “We have a life expectancy of 70 versus 80 for the Canadian population.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canada’s Inuit hope Finland carries Indigenous suicide prevention torch further, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Indigenous rights under fire says Finnish Saami leader, YLE News

Greenland: What the EU seal ban has meant for Inuit communities in the Arctic, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Repressive policy deprived Sámi people of language, culture : Norway’s prime minister, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Sami Blood: A coming-of-age tale set in Sweden’s dark past, Radio Sweden

Russia:  Russia brands Arctic indigenous organization as “foreign agent,” Barents Observer

United States:  Arctic conference spotlights indigenous issues, Alaska Dispatch News

Levon Sevunts, Radio Canada International

Born and raised in Armenia, Levon started his journalistic career in 1990, covering wars and civil strife in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In 1992, after the government in Armenia shut down the TV program he was working for, Levon immigrated to Canada. He learned English and eventually went back to journalism, working first in print and then in broadcasting. Levon’s journalistic assignments have taken him from the High Arctic to Sahara and the killing fields of Darfur, from the streets of Montreal to the snow-capped mountaintops of Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. He says, “But best of all, I’ve been privileged to tell the stories of hundreds of people who’ve generously opened up their homes, refugee tents and their hearts to me.”

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