Blog Summary  

Inuit sovereignty is disempowered by the Canadian state as their sovereignty would threaten and compromise the state’s consolidation of the Arctic and its very profitable natural resources and waterways. Historically, Inuit self-determination and traditional economies have been overshadowed by the Government of Nunavut and the federal government and, in the wake of increasingly ambitious extractive agendas that seek to exploit the Arctic’s natural resources and endanger Inuit lives and their homeland, it is imperative that the Inuit are afforded greater capacity to self-govern and self-determine. The state must recognize the Inuit as a fully sovereign people and their Arctic homeland as Inuit territory. Only with internationally-recognized sovereignty may the Inuit have the autonomy and legitimacy to regulate the extractive projects that threaten their homeland and the authority to pursue self-determination on their own terms.

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Background 

Indigenous self-governance structures in Nunavut operate within a historical context of state colonization over and exploitation of the Inuit. In the twentieth century, as foreign states began to challenge Canada’s sovereignty over the Arctic, the Canadian government began to fix the Inuit’s fluid boundaries into more sedentary settlements across the region in order to mobilize their occupancy as a persuasive reason to be granted sovereignty over the Arctic (Altamirano-Jimenéz; Gordon). For example, in the wake of concerns over possible Danish or American claims to the Queen Elizabeth Islands in the early 1950’s, Canada relocated seventeen Inuit families to the Islands in order to be able to claim jurisdiction over the territory (Byers). Importantly, as Byers notes, Inuit occupancy is often the “only dimension of [Canada’s] legal position” over the Arctic, and the government exploits the Inuit as flagpoles accordingly.The Inuit are pulled to sedentary settlements on dependence of some services provided by the federal government and not only has the government refused to fulfil its promises, but neoliberal policies implemented through the Canadian Arctic have also restricted employment insurance and social assistance and have resulted in cuts to health care, education, and housing (Altamirano-Jimenéz). These are the contexts of historical state manipulation through which Inuit self-governance structures operate.

The current framework of governance in Nunavut reproduces “basic colonial structures and behaviours” that compromise the potential for Indigenous self-governance and self-determination (Altamirano-Jimenéz). Although the territorial government incorporates the concept of Inuit Quajimajatuqangit (IQ) (Inuit ways of doing things, values, and beliefs) in its vision statement, “it provides no clear guidelines for how IQ should operate in everyday decision making” and thus the actual impact of IQ depends largely on the Inuit’s ability to influence government (Altamirano-Jimenéz). Moreover, Nunavut is governed jointly by the Government of Nunavut (GN) and the Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI). The GN has powers over education, finance, environment, and social services, while the NTI represents the Inuit beneficiaries of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA) and ensures that the stipulations of the NLCA are implemented by the GN and the Government of Canada (Alcantra and Wilson). Problems arise between these two bodies because they are often motivated by different interests (Alcantra and Wilson), and because the GN often undermines Indigenous self-determination and autonomy by failing to properly include Indigenous knowledge in decision-making (Kuokkanen). Importantly, as Altamirano-Jimenéz notes, “that Inuit knowledge has not been fully incorporated into Western government structures raises questions about whether this is actually possible within the current framework and existing power symmetries between Inuit and Western knowledge and between Inuit and non-Inuit bureaucrats”.

The NCLA also relegates an insufficient amount of power to the Inuit. In exchange for surrendering their lands to the federal government, the Inuit are supposed to enjoy a particular package of rights; yet, many of them are unfulfilled (Altamirano-Jimenéz). The provisions of the agreement also conceptualize land in capitalist terms that encourage extractive development and undermine Indigenous governance and traditional economies (Kuokkanen). The Indigenous authority enabled by the NLCA “comes with strings attached”, and must be reconfigured to allow Indigenous peoples more capacity to self-govern (Kuokkanen).

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Yet, resource extraction projects are often endorsed by the Inuit. Although concerned with climate change, Inuit leaders often push for expanding their rights and jurisdiction to benefit from development so that they may use the money to alleviate the dire socioeconomic circumstances experienced in their communities created by historical and ongoing processes of colonialism (Altamirano-Jimenéz; Kuokkanen). However, the Inuit want more control over how development is conducted on their land (Altamirano-Jimenéz). The power of Indigenous self-government needs to be exponentially increased so that the Inuit may have greater influence on extractive projects. As of now, the Inuit participate “in structures and procedures designed, constructed and executed by others (often governments or industry itself) that may have very little, if any, deeper or contextual understanding of the scope of impacts extractive industries have on Indigenous peoples’ lives” (Kuokkanen).

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Wrapping It All Up

The governance structures maintained in Nunavut replicate colonial orders that disempower the Inuit. The Canadian state purposefully relegates soft power to the Inuit’s self-governing structures because their sovereignty would threaten precisely what the Canadian state competes with other circumpolar states to secure: jurisdiction over the Arctic and its very profitable natural resources and waterways. Instead, Canada has and continues to attempt to colonize over the Inuit through oppressive policies and exploit them as flagpoles to assert their own sovereignty. 

Simply put, ‘Aboriginal self-government’ is a title too generous for the superficial amount of power relegated to the Inuit. Instead of being self-sufficient, the Inuit find themselves competing against the motivations of the federal government, regulatory bodies, industry, and even their own territorial government that often pursue policies that subjugate the Inuit into a colonized imbalance of power. In the wake of increasingly adamant neoliberal initiatives that would produce life-threatening consequences to the Inuit, it is urgent that the Canadian state relegate greater political capacity to the Inuit.

The Canadian state must grant full sovereignty to the Inuit people and recognize their Arctic homeland as Inuit territory. The Canadian state cannot continue to attempt to colonize the Inuit and dispossess them of their lands. Indigenous self-determination and resurgence cannot blossom within the structure of settler-colonialism institutionalized in Canada; no policy could create the conditions for Indigenous liberation. Decolonization is the precondition to Indigenous sovereignty. Stephen Harper famously stated in 2007 that “Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty in the Arctic: either we use it or we lose it” (Byers). I suggest we lose it. Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic entails colonization and the exploitation of natural resources that produce dire consequences to Inuit persons and to the environment. No economic benefit (and a temporary one, I would like to add) justifies these crimes against humanity. Canada must decolonize the Arctic. 

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