By Terry Audla
One of our key strengths as a people, whether domestically or in the circumpolar arena, is unity. Inuit have worked steadily over many decades to achieve and maintain unity among our people. We come to you today as a unified group of Inuit leaders representing 53 communities across the four Arctic regions of Inuit Nunangat.
That’s how I opened a discussion with Prime Minister Stephen Harper this past summer in Rankin Inlet, during his annual Northern Tour. The “Arctic Leaders Working Meeting” included members of the ITK Board of Directors and some of the Prime Minister’s most senior members of cabinet around a single table at the Siniktarvik Hotel. The meeting had little in the way of ceremony. The Governor General did not attend, though Inuit would have welcomed him. There were no questions from journalists, though cameras were allowed for the first 10 minutes.
Yet the five-hour meeting — longer than scheduled — was groundbreaking in many respects. We hope it is the start of a new process and an improved working relationship between the federal government and the Inuit of Canada. I have had the opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Harper a few times since becoming President of ITK last year. Inuit leaders have been meeting with Canadian Prime Ministers since our national organization was founded in 1971, and well before that. Still, there is something to be said for presenting a united front.
We talked about the intersection of geography and policy-making, in particular, how Nunavik and Nunatsiavut are excluded from federal programs designed for the Arctic because those regions are in provinces not territories. We emphasized an Inuit-specific model designed to work with the four Inuit regions of Canada, an area we know as Inuit Nunangat.
On the wall of the meeting room was a map of the four regions, and at one point in his comments, the Prime Minister himself explained the concept of Inuit Nunangat to the flickering cameras.
The disadvantages of the current policy approach are easily seen in federal housing programs that outline funds for Nunavut, while funds designated for the provinces get eaten up by big-city social housing projects, rarely making it to Inuit regions. An Inuit specific approach would earmark a portion of funds for Inuit regions to ensure annual progress in social housing construction, augmented by a home-ownership program to help develop a private housing market in Inuit Nunangat.
We also advocated for the implementation of Inuit-first procurement policies, using the logic that government-funded projects in Inuit regions provide greater economic opportunities when executed in partnership with Inuit. Such agreements provide a balance between government’s procurement objective of having a competitive process and the Inuit objective of ensuring meaningful and significant participation by Inuit.
In my closing remarks, I suggested that much of our discussion could be material for the Speech from the Throne (and as it turned out, it was), and certainly, for the next federal budget. The Prime Minister visits the Arctic every year. My hope is that the process that began in Rankin Inlet this summer will also continue annually and that the Prime Minister’s Northern Tour will come to encompass the entire Arctic.
Every trip provides an opening for discussion, like when the Prime Minister wonders why there aren’t more Inuit working in local hotels and retail stores or when the power and phone service goes out in the middle of the day.
Big-city news crews get an education as well, with reporters making comparisons to time spent working in war-torn countries and being forced to improvise when the only restaurant in town runs out of food. Those experiences can set the tone for discussions on, say, employment and training or telecommunications or emergency preparedness or food security.
Prime Minister Harper has travelled to Nunavik, and this year’s tour included a stop at the Raglan Mine. Next, we need to get him to Nunatsiavut. But there’s a problem: I don’t think his Hercules aircraft can land on the region’s short gravel runways. That’s the perfect opening for a discussion on infrastructure.
Follow National Inuit Leader and President of ITK, Terry Audla on Twitter: @taudla