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40 Years of Inuit History


November/December 2011

During the first week of November delegates to the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami conference will take some time to reflect on the work we as Inuit have done over the past 40 years. The first of November marks the 40th anniversary of our incorporation as the national Inuit organization. Our role, then as now, is to speak with a unified voice for Inuit advancement.

To mark the anniversary we are holding a conference in Ottawa from November 1-3, at the National Arts Centre. We are calling it, “From Eskimo to Inuit in 40 Years”. When the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC) began its work in the early 1970s the word “Eskimo” was still commonly used. Over time, we have adopted the term “Inuit” which is the term used in Inuktitut to describe who we are — a people with a distinct culture, language, and identity. We wanted the conference title to reflect both this evolution and the 40 years of history that has taken place.

We’ve worked to ensure founding members of ITC will be present at the conference to reflect on what’s been done in the past four decades. Tagak Curley, now a Minister in the government of Nunavut, will be present to open the conference at the “Founders Panel”.

We will also have past ITC presidents such as John Amagoalik, Rosemary Kuptana, and Mary Sillett speaking. They will address key moments of Canadian history, notably the inclusion of Aboriginal Rights in the Canadian Constitution, and representing Inuit during the Charlottetown Accord negotiations.

All of ITC’s past presidents have been invited to the conference. We will also take time to mark the passing of our last president, Jose Kusugak. His wife Nellie will introduce someone Jose knew well, and worked with as Prime Minister — the Right Honourable Paul Martin, the keynote speaker at our closing dinner.

We intend to give full voice to our Inuit youth at this conference. We’ve worked with the National Inuit Youth Council (NIYC) to identify top speakers for the Youth Panel. They include the Mayor of Rankin Inlet Pujjuut Kusugak, NIYC President Jennifer Watkins, Marie Belleau a young Inuit lawyer, and Johnny Kasudluak who recently ran in the federal election as a candidate in the huge Nunavik riding.

We’ll also look “Beyond our Borders” with a panel of Inuit and guests who’ve specialized in the international arena. Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sheila Watt-Cloutier will be with us to speak as part of this panel, as will ICC (Canada) President Duane Smith; Tom Axworthy, Chair of the Walter and Duncan Foundation; and Professor Brad Morse, Dean of Law at the University Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, who will provide a comparison of the Inuit, Aborigine, and Maori experiences.

I’m also looking forward to the “Polar Pundits” panel, to be moderated by the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, host of The National. Journalists are sure to have their own perspective on the past 40 years, and we will no doubt push them to gaze into the crystal ball for the next few decades. Joanna Awa, William Tagoona, Whit Fraser, and Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail are the “Polar Pundits”.

The current ITK Board of Directors will conclude the conference with a panel that will be visionary in scope. As leaders we are consumed with the present and managing future projects. We are in the “post land claims era” and thus have our sights set on the work that must be done in the next few decades to build on the work of our founders. Our Board members on this panel are: Nellie Cournoyea, Chair and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation; Cathy Towtongie, President of Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated; Pita Aatami, President of Makivik Corporation; and Jim Lyall, President of the Nunatsiavut Government.

To inject some humour, we will unveil a special exhibition of Inuit editorial cartoons spanning the past 50 years on the evening of November 1st. This collection of 100 cartoons presented in ten thematic panels was compiled with the assistance of Terry Mosher who draws as “Aislin” for the Montreal Gazette.

We’ll also hold a “Film Night” in collaboration with the National Film Board to officially launch a collection of retrospective Inuit documentary films on November 2nd. This project is a joint effort of the NFB, ITK, and the Inuit Relations Secretariat of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. The project is called Unikkausivut: Sharing our Stories.

If you can’t be present in Ottawa to share in this event, we intend to document it so that the past forty years of Inuit history is written into Canadian history. The names of our Inuit leaders should become synonymous with those of other famous Canadians.

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