There remains an unease among many Inuit that the territory is not reflective of the goals set out in the Nunavut Agreement, says Aluki Kotierk.
“Many of the things that were aspired for or hoped for have not become reality. Inuit continue to live in very desperate circumstances: living under the poverty line, living in overcrowded houses, having food-insecure homes. There’s a great gap between the median salary of Inuit and non-Inuit in the territory and it seems to be widening,” says Kotierk, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI), in an interview prior to Nunavut Day. “I think more and more people are becoming more vocal about how things are not getting better.”
She cites stagnation in Inuit employment within the Government of Nunavut, particularly among senior managers.
“So the majority of people who are in decision-making positions to design and develop programs and services are non-Inuit,” she says.
She also points to Inuktut not being the working language of the territory, meaning that many Inuit cannot receive many essential government services in their preferred language. In addition, Inuktut is not the language of instruction throughout the education system.
“Inuit have lots of expectations and hope. I think part of that expectation was that by having a public government where Inuit are the public majority, de facto Inuit priorities would be the priorities of the public government. But I think over a period of 22 years, we’ve realized that many of the priorities of the government are not Inuit-centred,” she says.
It is for these reasons that NTI is examining its self-government options, such as developing its own independent programs to serve Inuit or forging new terms with the federal government and the Government of Nunavut through an intergovernmental services agreement. No decisions are expected to be made until NTI’s next annual general meeting in October, says Kotierk, who was re-elected in February with 69 per cent of the vote.
October will also bring an election for the territorial government. Asked what advice she would give to Nunavut’s next prospective MLAs, Kotierk replies, “Think about why Nunavut was created. Think about who you’ll be representing and keep that front and centre in your mind and in your heart when you’re doing your job as an MLA.
“I think if there was a way in which the public government was more Inuit-centred and not rely on the phrase ‘We’re a public government’ when they’re making public policies, that would positively impact on the public majority and then all of us would be able to move forward and know that our needs are being met as Inuit.”
Prior to the federal budget, NTI called upon the Government of Canada to allocate $500 million for Inuit housing to address the shortfall of homes in the territory, estimated at between 3,000 and 3,500.
Instead, Ottawa designated $25 million in what Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal described as a “down payment.”
“Of course we’re disappointed that there was not even an acknowledgement of our $500-million ask for Nunavut Inuit,” says Kotierk. “We know that $500 million sounds like a lot of money but it would not even (fully) address the needs that we have in Nunavut.”
However, she says she’s pleased that Vandal proposed a working group comprising NTI, the GN and the federal government to look at ways to improve the housing crisis. It was that approach that led to the development of an addictions and trauma treatment centre for the territory, which is expected to open its doors in 2025.
There’s been no meeting of the housing working group scheduled as of yet.
In Ottawa, Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq has tabled Bill C-309, an Act to amend the Canada Elections Act, which would put Inuktut on ballots for federal elections. It’s a move that NTI supports.
“How else can Inuit participate in the democratic process if they don’t understand and cannot read English or French, which are the two official languages of Canada?” asks Kotierk.
She has also urged federal Official Languages Minister Melanie Joly to give Inuktut full standing in Nunavut through a revision of Canada’s Official Languages Act.
“It needs to recognize that in Nunavut, both official languages of Canada are minority languages. There needs to be equality, equity provided to Inuktut and Inuktut needs to be recognized as an official language of Canada in Nunavut. The idea behind that is it would allow for resources and support to be afforded equitably to Inuktut as it is to other language minorities. I really think Inuktut needs to be absolutely everywhere in Nunavut.”
Managing a pandemic
As a majority of adult Nunavummiut are now vaccinated and COVID-19 restrictions are easing, Kotierk said the emergency that transpired over the past 15 months has been illuminating in some respects.
“I think one of the big lessons we have learned from this global pandemic is that when there’s political will, everyone can rally towards making sure there’s a solution and can be responsive and efficient,” she says. “I think the great positive outcome has been the co-ordination and the intergovernmental relationships between Inuit organizations, the territorial government and the federal government, because we all had a common goal to ensure (the virus) didn’t come into Nunavut communities and to ensure Inuit understood what it meant, how it behaved and what the public health measures were.”
She hopes that other pressing issues can be tackled in the same fashion, such as tuberculosis, the high suicide rate and the housing crisis.
“Together, we’re able to accomplish much more than working separately,” she says.
Nunavut Day is often a celebratory occasion across the territory but Kotierk says this year has brought much to contemplate as the pandemic has changed lives and the discovery of Indigenous children’s graves at former residential schools in the south has resulted in a “collective sombreness.”
“I think it would be a good day to be gentle with ourself and to people around ourself, and to be compassionate and to celebrate in small bubbles of family, but to work on strengthening our complex interpersonal kinship systems that we have as Inuit. Because I think, ultimately, our family networks are where we get our strength.
“At this time, although we’re still celebrating Nunavut, we also need to reflect on the Inuit who worked hard to get Nunavut, where we’ve come from and what we’ve gone through to (get) where we are today.”