Nunavut Day represents many things to Nunavummiut. For many it represents a territory Inuit can call their own and for the current Speaker of the Nunavut Legislative Assembly, it represents getting back land that always belonged to Inuit.
“To me it always reminds me of getting back to our land, back to the Inuit. That’s what Nunavut was all about, it was returning and enhancing our way of life, our language and our values. Those were the main things we wanted to get a hold of, control rather than being controlled by the outside, that’s what Nunavut was all about,” says Paul Quassa. “It was returning what we already owned, returning our independence and the land our ancestors live on for thousands of years.”
Quassa was one of the chief negotiators for the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, which included the creation of Nunavut under the Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut (now Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, NTI). He is the regular member for the Aggu riding and was Nunavut’s fourth premier before current premier Joe Savikataaq. He is also a residential school survivor.
Canada’s newest and largest territory, based on the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement signed on May 25, 1993, officially separated from the Northwest Territories on April 1, 1999.
A government with Inuit politicians, ministers and legislation was one of the goals of Nunavut, said Quassa, and it has partly reached those goals.
He added that much legislation in the young territory was made for Nunavut, in Nunavut, saying “We didn’t want to live under legislation that was made in Ottawa or Yellowknife.”
Inuit-owned organizations have also been built up with their own infrastructure, with various fisheries being established in the territory and agreements with mining companies being established to benefit Inuit.
However there are still quite a few things he would like to see more of taking place, such as language revitalization in work and legislation.
“We are still quite a bit behind in terms of our government using Inuktitut as a working language. Our government is still an English-speaking government, our government also seems to put policies and regulations that are very European. Certainly there’s still a lot of work that still has to be done on that end.”
The presence of Inuit organizations within the smaller communities outside of Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay he adds is also lacking.
“The smaller communities haven’t really seen the benefits NTI is supposed to delivering. NTI’s not building infrastructure in smaller communities,” Quassa said.
“We have gone far from 1993, the day we signed the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and we have still got a ways to go.”
Despite everything though, he maintains a sense of optimism looking forward.
“We cannot give up on something just because we still haven’t gotten it. We have to be optimistic, there’s still a lot of room to improve, I certainly hope our future will focus on that.”
With most of Nunavut being Crown Land, Quassa says the next step is for Nunavut to become a province and take the next step in reclaiming Inuit control over Nunavut.
“We cannot be a territory forever and a day, if you look at some of the histories, for example Manitoba. Manitoba had a population of only 60,000 when they became a province and that’s our next goal, is to become a province. Our territorial government will have total control over the territory,” he explained.
In terms of reconciliation, Nunavut’s creation was a step forward, he said, though there’s still a long way to go.
“To me that was some form of reconciliation, Certainly there’s still a lot of things that still need to be reconciled but I believe the whole land claims process is a part of our reconciliation because our goal was to become more independent.”
In 2000, July 9 was designated Nunavut Day, the year following Nunavut’s creation in 1999, before and after Quassa said it has been a accepting place.
“Nunavut has always been welcoming territory,” he said.
When outsiders first started rolling in, Quassa said Inuit helped them survive the winters and welcomed them.
“When we go way back to the early 1920s when RCMP, the Hudson’s Bay clerks, missionaries came up, we welcomed them, we clothed them, we made sure they survived during the harsh winters. Inuit have always been welcoming and we still are. Our territory is so huge, we got lots of room up here.
“I certainly hope by welcoming people of different nationalities that they respect our culture and try and learn our language, that’s the least they can do.”