Home Arts, Culture & Education Watching history being made

Watching history being made


By Nick Newbery

May 25, 1993: The big day. Prime Minister Mulroney arrived at the parking lot in the front of Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit in a large black bulletproof vehicle that they must have flown up from Ottawa especially for the day. He got out, flanked by the usual contingent of intimidating men in dark suits (until we realized that most were just local Mounties who we all knew) and was then greeted by the usual dignitaries outside the building before striding into the school.

However, we, the teachers, had anticipated this event for some time and thought that since the school was playing host to history, then perhaps history could contribute something to the school. Inuksuk High had been looking somewhat tattered for quite a while. It had been due for a retrofit on more than one occasion but it just never seemed to get it. So, being teachers and thus a somewhat devious bunch, we decided to make it happen in our own sweet way. As part of the event planning for the prime ministerial visit to our school we had ensured that the country’s leader would have to proceed through as much of the building as possible,in particular through rooms and halls where the paint was peeling and the flooring shabby. Naturally the GNWT Department of Public Works did not wish to look inadequate so it spent a busy couple of months prior to the big event painting and repairing everything in sight and so we finally got the school retrofit done in our uniquely own roundabout way.

Once inside the building, Mulroney and the chief Inuit land claim negotiators ended up in the freshly painted staff room. There were only two others present, both photographers, myself and Terry Pearce. It was an interesting experience. Here was the culmination of two decades of negotiations crowded into a small teachers’ lounge, with the famous players so familiar to us from appearances in the media all standing quietly around an old worn table while the PM signed six copies of the land claim document. There was no clapping, no cheering, no overt emotion. Almost passing for innocuous, this little gathering was actually major history being made as if in slow motion, the first final steps of the most powerful and successful event to date in native politics in North America.

After the signing, the official group then proceeded to the school gym where a stage, dressed up with qamutiit, Inuit weaponry and seal and polar bear skins (that had mysteriously disappeared from various parts of the school over the previous three days) awaited the politicians. It had been just over 20 years since the Inuit Tapirisat ofCanada and the new young Inuit leadership had set the first political ball rolling towards a land claim and a reclamation of their own territory. Now, today, the buzz of anticipation that had been percolating in the gymnasium gave way to a roar when the northern leaders and the PM walked in.

The ceiling almost blew off with the noise of the applause combined with the swelling sense of pride and delight. Mulroney may, according to the media of that time, have been one of the most disliked men in Canada then — on that day, in that room, in that school, no such sentiment existed. For all the rhetoric of other political parties, it was Mulroney who actually got the land claim settled, albeit with a push from the poor press he got over the treatment of native people during the 1990 Oka crisis.

The gym had been divided into sections, for Inuit leaders, for elders, for school children, and for everyone else. The balcony was packed. It was later rumoured that the fire marshal might have been decoyed to another part of town that day so that he would not be aware of the possible threat to the gym’s capacity limits being challenged by the over-crowding in the school due to the huge public interest in this event!

Of the many speeches given that day, most of us liked best the one given by Annie Aningmiuq. Annie, dressed in a white amauti, speaking on behalf of Inuit youth, was poised, poignant and powerful and you could have heard a pin drop during her delivery. This land claim settlement and this newly proposed Nunavut territory offered Inuit hope and emancipation. And to non-Inuit, the event was also a source of pride, that, despite the many mistakes made in the recent past, at least Canada had finally recognized Inuit as full partners and was welcoming them into the Canadian federation.

After Annie’s speech, the representatives from the federal government, the GNWT and the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut all put their names to the six documents that Mulroney had first signed in the staff room. When Paul Quassa (the chief land claims negotiator) and Brian Mulroney held up signed copies for the crowd to witness, the roof almost came off the building. Then, to confirm that this was very much a Canadian treaty-signing occasion, Susan Aglukkaq, the ex-land claim worker and now famous singer, stepped up to lead a choir singing the national anthem in Inuktitut, French and English, a first-time event in Canada.There were tears in many eyes.

This was a day of great achievement, which came with happiness and a feeling of pride. For some, particularly those who had worked so hard for so long to make this happen, there must have been an undeniable sense of relief. Inuit had taken on a large, powerful southern government and negotiated the largest native land claim ever. It was the writing of a page of history. So when the signing event was over and as the signatories proceeded from the room, people rose to their feet to show their approval of their leaders and what had just occurred… that Inuit had agreed to join Canada but as equals, on their own terms.

Once more, after the event, the Prime Minister found himself in the parking lot at the front of the high school, this time surrounded by several hundred cheering elementary school children holding Canadian flags. For a short while, as his car tried to pull away, it was blocked by the enthusiasm of youth that wanted to peer and wave at him through the bulletproof glass. This was the North. We didn’t get Prime Ministers dropping in every day and naturally the kids wanted to take a look at the famous man who they only knew of from their television screens and who was only visiting for a few hours. Of course, eventually the men in suits had their way, law and order was somewhat restored and the Prime Minister of Canada was driven slowly away, having finally agreed to return to Inuit the inheritance and territory that was rightfully theirs.

Nick Newbery was a teacher in Nunavut for 30 years and was at Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit in 1993 when the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement was signed. Sensing the importance of the occasion, he took pictures of the events that day and was allowed behind the scenes with then Prime Minister, Mulroney, and the Inuit leaders. This story is a personal account of that significant moment in northern history.