By Terry Audla
It gets lonely sometimes,” Nellie Cournoyea said in 2009 during a grand celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement (IFA) that closed the streets of Inuvik to traffic. “I just think of all the people who were involved. I would like to see them here, but they’ve passed on.”
It is sometimes difficult to believe that the IFA will mark 30 years next June. Children who were in grade school when the agreement was signed have grown up and had children of their own. Many of the early negotiators have passed, but many, like Nellie, are still among us. Their knowledge and memories of those times are a gift.
The children who grew up among these giants became the next generation of negotiators, raised to negotiate the implementation of those hard-won agreements.
This month, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA) turns 20, and I look back on 20 years of work in different roles to support its implementation. I have waded through many legal arguments interpreting the NLCA, and I have seen the transformative impact the implementation of the agreement has had on the lives of Inuit.
My role now, as president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, is as an advocate for change. Indeed, that is the role that ITK has always played. This year, we recognize the passage of 40 years since Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC) as ITK was then known, began its landmark study, a comprehensive and verifiable record of Inuit habitation across Canada’s Arctic.
The Inuit Land Use and Occupancy Study, as it is known, laid the documentary framework for negotiations of both the NCLA and IFA. Without this proof, the federal government would not have begun negotiating our claims.
Since that time, the promise of the treaty relationship between Inuit and the Crown has been deeply eroded. Some 20, 30, 40 years later, we are still providing evidence (in court, in the case of Nunavut Inuit), to persuade the Crown to honour the spirit and intent of our agreements.
It is worth recalling the words of Brian Mulroney, Prime Minister of Canada in 1993, who famously signed the NLCA and lifted the document in triumph before a gymnasium full of onlookers. “We are forging a new partnership, a real partnership,” he said. “Not only between the Government of Canada and the future Government of Nunavut, but between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.”
That partnership remains a work in progress.
Nunavik Inuit continue to negotiate a self government agreement, and the Inuit of Nunatsiavut are still feeling the growing pains of a land claims agreement whose implementation is in its infancy. But from Arctic coast to Arctic coast, Canadian Inuit seek no less than true partnership with the Crown.
We know that the careful implementation of our land claims is a benefit to all Canadians. These agreements set out our ongoing relationship with the Crown and define how we should work together to manage our resources.
Our cooperation with the Crown lays the foundation for no less than Canada’s claim to sovereignty of the Arctic. What’s more, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has demonstrated a personal interest in Canada’s Arctic. So it is confusing and troubling that we face such struggles in meeting the core objectives of our agreements.
But, like those who have gone before us, we will not give up. Today we celebrate, but tomorrow we get back to work. There is much to be done, and we bring with us great experience and the wisdom of our elders in securing a more prosperous future for Inuit.