[Nunavut in Canada]
dry red riverbed under a eucalyptus
in the desert ranges of Central Australia seemed a strange place
to be talking about the frustrations that had driven Inuit to
push for creation of their own Nunavut government. However, it
made perfect sense to the Pitjantjatjara elders seated in the
riverbed to discuss their future. These Aborigines laughed with
recognition to hear anecdotes from the Arctic about problems
they knew too well, and then told their own.
That is the secret of indigenous internationalism. Problems
that do not interest or seem important to governments at home
often make good sense to people on the other side of the world.
Greenlanders and Sami meeting in Copenhagen with Nunavut Inuit,
Inuvialuit, Dene, and Métis in 1973 are generally thought
to have started the world indigenous movement. Now there are
such meetings every day, somewhere in the world.
is first and foremost a solution to particular needs in a particular
region, designed, led, and achieved by the Inuit living there.
However, it is also an important symbol and inspiration for others.
Since Leif Eriksen decided that Nunavut was "good for
nothing" a thousand years ago, as the sagas say, Europeans
from across the sea and from Southern Canada have been getting
things wrong. Even Eriksen and his descendants figured out quickly
that Nunavut and Northern Greenland were full of goods that brought
high prices in Europe.
Nunavut in Canada
More recently, Canadians have thought of the North as a poor
place needing the ideas and lifestyle of the South as much as
material things. But something went wrong with this notion, too.
Inuit were glad to have useful new goods, but had their own hopes
and ways of doing things. Southern people seemed to be causing
as many problems as they solved, and obviously had no understanding
of northern needs or the importance of the land and sea to Inuit.
So Nunavut is not simply another piece of Canada getting its
own flag and licence plates. It is a very different sort of place.
It does not have the same ideas about using resources or buying
land. It has a different language, and stories about how things
are and should be which are totally unknown elsewhere in Canada.
It has a government similar to provincial and territorial governments,
but with a second 'constitution' in the form of the Nunavut Land
Claims Agreement (NLCA) enshrining the result of special Inuit
negotiations with Canada.
|Community-based Canadian Rangers,
a civilian division of the military, are trained in search and
rescue. Self-reliance is a must in the isolated North
Inuit have persuaded the government of a powerful industrial
state that it is time for a new approach. During the 1980s, premiers
and delegations at constitutional conferences were intrigued
by Nunavut and wanted information. Nunavut has gone about its
business quietly, and has been attacked within Canada by some
other aboriginal groups with different legal doctrines.
That will soon change. As soon as Nunavut is up and running
it will be studied, visited, and admired by indigenous peoples
across Canada. All indigenous peoples want something similar.
They may argue about symbols and theory, but they want to govern
their own lives and their own territory. What is different about
Nunavut is that it is bigger than any other single indigenous
region will be in Canada.
Nunavut is no longer simply an Inuit idea, or merely an important
idea for Canada. It is an important idea for the wider world.
For the circumpolar community, it is an end to paternalism
and rule of white experts. It means the taking over of the Arctic
by arctic peoples. There is nothing frightening about letting
the people of a region take charge of their own problems. That
shows that white people have matured in their understanding.
Nunavut also shows that democracy and human rights are fundamental
rights of all people, and not something which they have to wait
to buy when they have a million settlers in their territory or
when oil wells in their hunting areas produce a billion dollars
worth of export earnings.
There are many examples of Nunavut's importance abroad. At
one 1994 conference in Canberra, Australia with world constitutional
experts, some persons writing South Africa's new constitution
wanted more information after a talk on Nunavut, and used the
books and articles mentioned by the speaker. At another held
in Brisbane, Australia in 1996, the New Zealand judge who was
creating a whole new system of conservation for that country
was delighted by the success of Inuit and remarked that Maori
would make significant progress along similar lines. Others at
that conference were shocked when I said that similar solutions
might suit the Australian state of Queensland, but later that
year the highest court cleared the way for Aboriginal land ownership
across much of the state. Now the government, Aborigines, and
environmentalists are looking at Nunavut as a model, while the
Australian Parliament has recommended that Nunavut be studied
by Australia's Torres Strait Islanders, where sea mammal-hunting
people live in their traditional islands and demand self-government
and sea rights. Also, the Arctic Policy of the Inuit Circumpolar
Conference (ICC) based heavily on lessons from Nunavut,
Inuvialuit, and northern Quebec is a valued and much-quoted
document in some university research departments and indigenous
organizations in the Southern Hemisphere.
In tropical swamps by the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern
Australia, people living their ancient traditions are now working
with Nunavut concepts and Inuit practices of co-managing fish,
wildlife, and environments so they can educate governments and
save their region from construction and development projects.
Halfway around the world, Indians in the Amazon are increasingly
aware of how Inuit and governments have, in the NLCA and creation
of the territory of Nunavut, worked out generous and large-scale
responses to social, cultural, and resource-management conflicts.
As a matter of fact, as I write this, Aborigines and various
experts are gathering at a small town south of Darwin in northern
Australia to plan their constitutional future. They are looking
at national and territorial change, and their resource material
includes a number of papers specifically about Nunavut, and others
based on Nunavut experience. In 1992, when John Amagoalik visited
Darwin to speak about Nunavut, many of these same people were
helpful people are not the only ones to spread news about Nunavut.
Some crazy Americans put out books around the world saying that
Nunavut is a plot by Prince Philip and the Queen whose
name appears on the cover of the NLCA along with Cape Dorset
artist Kenojuak Ashevak's artwork to break up countries
and steal their resources. Such stories apparently make money!
Even a former chief justice and a Northern Territory premier
in Australia, people who should know better, find Nunavut threatening,
and say so in speeches and press releases. They cannot imagine
Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders equal to whites or having
their own respected place in the nation, it seems. Let us hope
that Inuit and democratic feeling continue to upset such reactionary
people all over the world.
Still, it is not the specific lessons and details of Nunavut,
but the grassroots discovery by isolated or powerless people
of Nunavut's existence and the lesson it provides that
aboriginal people can regain control of their world that
is best of all. Former Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC) leader
Rosemarie Kuptana once mentioned my work to Aborigines in Alice
Springs in the middle of Australia's outback, leading them to
invite me to a meeting. Some had read notes I had written on
Nunavut, and all present were aware of Inuit efforts to create
the Nunavut land claim and territory. But that Nunavut is above
all simply a symbol of hope was underscored in one memorable
exchange. "Come on, sis!" one enthusiastic Aborigine
shouted to a timid soul at this meeting. "Them Eskimo mob
have done it!"
That is the most important message for downtrodden people
anywhere: Inuit have made Nunavut. Others can take courage and
do it, too.
Peter Jull worked in the NWT
and Nunavut on and off from 1961, and was founding co-ordinator
of the Nunavut Constitutional Forum. Today he writes and teaches
on Nunavut and world indigenous issues at universities from his
new home in Brisbane, Australia.