Inuit sovereignty and the Arctic

We were not conquered. We lost no wars, surrendered no rights, signed no treaties.

By: /
4 November, 2021
Baffin Island, Nunavut. Christopher Morris - Corbis/Getty Images

Inuit, a distinct Indigenous people living across the circumpolar Arctic, have a history in what’s now Canada since time immemorial. But it’s only in the last 70 years or so, since that 1950s, that we have become part of Canadian society.

Before then, Inuit might have interacted with the Canadian government and the non-Inuit world at trading outposts throughout the Arctic but that was all. Ottawa, however, was already trying to integrate Inuit into the rest of Canada by issuing them “Eskimo Identification Tags,” discs with numbers on them instead of names, because government agents couldn’t pronounce or understand Inuktitut names. But these efforts were not very successful and many Inuit continued to live in their customary ways.

Then, in 1953 and 1955, the Canadian government ordered relocations of Inuit from the east coast of Hudson Bay to the High Arctic to assert Canadian sovereignty there. My grandfather, John Amagoalik, who was born on the land north of what is now Inukjuak, Quebec, was one of approximately 92 Inuit who were coerced into this relocation with the promise that they could return after two years if they didn’t like their new home some 2,000 kilometres farther north.

After those two years were up, they were given the option to return but told they would have to pay their own transportation, which was not feasible. Those communities, Resolute and Grise Fiord, are still populated today.

It wasn’t until these relocations that Inuit in what’s now the territory of Nunavut truly became regarded as part of Canadian society. Not because Inuit were conquered, had lost any wars or surrendered any rights, but because we were Canadian flagpoles in the High Arctic, signaling to the rest of the world that this vast, desolate area belonged to Canada. Inuit became Canadians not because anyone asked them to, but because it was convenient for Ottawa to say they were.

“We were Canadian flagpoles in the High Arctic, signaling to the rest of the world that this vast, desolate area belonged to Canada.”

This relocation triggered other moves aimed at solidifying Canada’s position in the Arctic, including the forced transition from living semi-nomadically in seasonal camps to living in settled communities. Inuit were previously free to visit trading posts whenever they wished and leave whenever it suited them. That changed when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and other authorities shot and killed hundreds, maybe thousands, of Inuit sled dogs in the 1950s and 60s. This was like cutting off the Inuit’s legs. They could no longer move and had to make lives living and working in settlements. Zacharias Kunuk’s film One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk is an excellent account of how one band of Inuit were coerced into such conditions.

All this took place during the Cold War. Canada was worried about a perceived Soviet threat in the Arctic. It was also thinking about the potential for resource exploitation there. Ottawa saw the Inuit as tools to be used and moved around like pieces on a chessboard.

Canada’s efforts to assimilate the Inuit included forcing Inuit children to attend residential and day schools that were notorious for abuse — a reality that’s been highlighted this year with the discovery of the unmarked graves of children on the grounds of former residential schools for First Nations children in the South.

This tragedy had severe, long-lasting effects on Inuit that are felt to this day. But Inuit have also used what they learned in those schools. Inuit knew they had never been conquered or surrendered their rights through treaties. As the world took renewed interest in the Arctic, Inuit realized they had to claim sovereignty over what has always been our home.

Inuit, including John Amagoalik, my grandfather who had been forcibly relocated as a boy, toured Canada and beyond to educate others on who the Inuit are and what Inuit wanted to achieve through various land claims. They tried to explain that while we’re content to remain contributing members of Canadian society, we must have our rights respected. Considering Inuit populations in Canada range from the northeast coast in Labrador to the far west of the Northwest Territories, this had the potential to vastly change what Canada’s North looked like to the rest of Canada and to the rest of the world.

Negotiations about the creation of Nunavut, which means “Our Land” in Inuktitut, lasted decades, until the signing of the Nunavut Agreement in 1993 and the official declaration of Nunavut as a territory in 1999. Today, Nunavummiut (Inuktitut word for a person from Nunavut) are still on this journey, still working to claim and defend sovereignty in our own land.

China’s interest in the Northwest Passage, oil and gas companies’ interests in new exploration opportunities and mining companies seeking to extract natural resources all have the potential to challenge Inuit sovereignty in the Arctic. Interest in mining, in particular, is increasing, and there are several mines that operate in Nunavut today. Some companies have good relationships with Inuit while others are struggling — not financially, but with that relationship.

Typically, mining companies in Nunavut must sign Inuit Impact Benefit Agreements that stipulate a percentage of profits be paid to Inuit organizations. This is to ensure Inuit also financially benefit from mining operations in their territory.

It’s not just financial matters that companies must negotiate. One of the most contentious points about resource extraction in the North is its environmental impact, whether it’s from shipping that affects marine mammals, trucking that affects caribou migration or dust and runoff that can affect nearly everything. 

This past year, Inuit blockaded the airstrip of one mine because they were concerned about the environmental impact of expanding operations. They braved temperatures of -36C and near 24-hour darkness. It’s not easy or cheap to get material in and out of the North, which means these sorts of blockades can be very costly. When there’s so much money on the table for companies that want to operate in Nunavut, what can they do to ensure operations are mutually beneficial?

“Inuit have always worked together. It is how we survived for thousands of years in a landscape that at first glance looks uninviting and empty.”

The answer is simple. Be considerate and collaborative. Given the history of Inuit and the relationship we’ve had with those who come into our land, it’s the least you can do. Inuit have always worked together. It is how we survived for thousands of years in a landscape that at first glance looks uninviting and empty. There’s beauty here knowing you can see the horizon from anywhere. Work with us on any project you want to bring to the Arctic.

You’ll also have to be creative. Yes, monetary royalties are important to providing Inuit with the funds we need for the necessities of life, but cooperation is about much more than money. We are a people. That’s what the word Inuit means in our language: people. Inuit are still learning what it means to be a distinct people in a global economy. We’re learning how the things we do impact others and how the things others do impact us. Creativity is key to ensure we thrive in our relationships and that they are mutually beneficial.

So, if you’re looking north, whether it’s for a once-in-a-life-time trip (and it will be once in a lifetime when you look at the cost of air travel) or you have an interest in developments across various industries and sectors, all I ask is that you follow these simple rules: Be considerate. Be collaborative. Be creative. That will go a long way toward respecting the Inuit’s journey as we assert our sovereignty, and toward respecting us as a welcoming people who continue to reclaim our culture.

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