January/ February 2011 | by Mary Simon
For thousands of years we governed our lives, our land and our resources according to our needs and our ways. Many of these customs continue to guide our relationships today. But when Southerners arrived in our homeland, they brought a set of unwritten rules and regulations that reduced us to the margins of power.
Soon we began to confront the legacy of colonization and regain a share of control over our lands, our waters — and our lives. The first step in this process was to come together and join our voices.
This year Inuit celebrate an important milestone. As Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami marks its 40th anniversary in 2011, the Inuit political voice comes of age. This is a time to look back, but also to look forward.
During those early years, we challenged hydroelectric and mining developments proceeding without our permission. We negotiated a chain of contiguous land claims agreements that stretch across Canada’s Arctic, as well as other self-governance arrangements, including joint management boards, regional government institutions and the territory of Nunavut.
Inuit were early and consistent supporters of the patriation of the Constitution in the early 1980s, including a Charter of Rights and the equal treatment of men and women in provisions relating to aboriginal peoples.
We have stood up for Canada’s fundamental rights in Canada’s Arctic on many occasions when they have been questioned from abroad, including matters relating to the Northwest Passage and the ability of Canada to control marine traffic through the Passage.
But as we begin this momentous year, a year that will be marked with celebration (during the second annual Taste of the Arctic in February) and study (during a conference on Inuit political action and change in November) I find myself wondering what lies ahead. What is the new frontier for up-and coming Inuit politicians and policy minds? I believe it must be in reclaiming our health and graduating our children. And I believe that we can do this, just as we reclaimed our land and resources 40 years ago.
The policy discussions that will establish new benchmarks for Inuit must be driven by a new wave of leadership that explores the innovations that have mobilized positive change. A formal step in that direction took place just a few months ago with the Government of Canada’s adoption of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Inuit are at a threshold. Our homeland is the focus of highly visible, overlapping national policy discussions with international dimensions, the outcomes of which will directly affect our communities. The next generation of Inuit leaders will confront many interconnected challenges facing our communities.
So let us celebrate our achievements, but let us do so with the knowledge that there is much more work to be done. Let the lessons of the past inform the actions of the future. And let this be a year to inspire and be inspired.