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DFO leads the way in Inuit-Crown partnerships, while others lag behind

At an elaborate event at the legislative assembly Oct. 24, which saw government and Inuit leaders attend in great numbers, the federal minister of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the Coast Guard Jonathan Wilkinson and president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) Natan Obed announced a new Arctic region.

Michele LeTourneau/NNSL photo
Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Coast Guard Jonathan Wilkinson, left, and president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami Natan Obed, right, announced the creation of a new Arctic region in Iqaluit Oct 24. Gabriel Nirlungayuk, centre right, is the new DFO Arctic regional director-general based in Rankin Inlet, while new assistant commissioner of the Coast Guard Neil O'Rourke will be based in Yellowknife.

"The Government of Canada is committed to a new Indigenous to Crown relationship. We are committed to fostering this relationship built on mutual respect, cooperation and ever stronger trust. We are committed to improving the quality of life through economic opportunities, and imagining together a stronger way forward for Canada's Arctic future," said Wilkinson.

Wilkinson noted the Canadian government's failed policies of the past came from central agencies and political leaders in Ottawa who thought they had the answers.

"We now know this method does not work, and I’m here to reaffirm that Northern priorities require Northern priority-setting. Understanding the North requires true knowledge of the North, and Northern action requires Northern leadership."

The new region combines parts of four other regions – Pacific, central, Quebec and Newfoundland-Labrador – and follows the boundaries of Inuit Nunangat (the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut).

Former Nunavut deputy minister of Environment Gabriel Nirlungayuk has already been hired as the DFO's regional director-general for the Arctic to be based in Rankin Inlet, and more Inuit will be hired as the DFO and ITK work together to develop the new region and begin staffing it.

"We have been fighting since the beginning of this government, and even well before, to ensure that the federal government understands then addresses the distinctions-based concerns of Inuit within an Indigenous lens but, also, within a practical policy lens," said Obed, then listing the sheer vastness of space occupied, owned and co-managed by Inuit across Northern Canada.

"We as Inuit share a language, share a society, share a worldview and it only makes sense to create a policy space that is centred in the Inuit reality."


Nutrition North Indigenous working group lacks collaboration

Meanwhile, work with the federal government on the Nutrition North Canada Program has not yielded the same sort of relationship. Nunavut News learned Oct. 18 that Inuit organizations walked away from the Nutrition North Canada Indigenous Working Group in April.

"The Nutrition North Canada Indigenous Working Group is a voluntary, technical-level group working together to co-develop options to help Nutrition North Canada work better for Northerners. During this phase, the Inuit land claim organizations were a very important voice at the table," said media relations staff with Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada Stephanie Palma.

"In April 2018, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami advised that Inuit are declining further participation in the Indigenous Working Group, in favour of seeking an Inuit-specific process, which was declined."

NTI president Aluki Kotierk dismisses the idea Inuit had an important voice, a view publicly shared by ITK's Obed.

"We didn't feel there was collaboration, or people listening to what our views were. We were concerned that it was developed for optics and they were making decisions without listening to Inuit concerns and input," said Kotierk, adding the matter was discussed at the ITK board level and the decision was made to pull out of the group.

"It was a point to be made to the federal government that the purpose of having Inuit in the Indigenous working group has to be based on a real relationship."

Kotierk wants the federal government to truly engage with Inuit.

"About what it is that Inuit think should be addressed in Nutrition North Canada Program."

She cites as example, "how retailers are subsidized for food that is shipped rather than food that is sold or consumed," she said.

"The purpose of (the program) is to provide subsidies for nutritious processed foods that are bought in the stores. What I keep advocating for is if the whole premise is to provide nutritious foods, why are we so focused on retailers? Is there a way for us to address food security through other programs, such as the Nunavut Harvester Support Program … so hunters can purchase gasoline, so hunters can purchase the expensive hunting gear so they can go get their own nutritious food."

Kotierk says the solutions can be found within Inuit communities.


Questions about the federal Indigenous languages legislation

Similarly, the federal government has been working on an Indigenous languages legislation, and it's not clear Inuit voices are being respected there, either.

"Any Indigenous languages legislation would have to strengthen the rights Inuit already have for Inuktut within Nunavut. Inuktut is already recognized territorially as an official language. So one of the things I said to him (Arif Virani, former parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage) is it's not worth our while to put efforts into it if it's going to be a symbolic legislation," said Kotierk.

"It needs to have substance and it needs to have resources allocated to it to ensure – for instance in the education system or Inuktut as the working language for the public service – to be equitable with other official languages in Nunavut."

In April, Kotierk spoke at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, where she emphasized the need for the federal government to recognize Inuktut as a founding language of Nunavut.

She fears the government will go with the lowest common denominator "given that there are so many Indigenous languages (without protection) across the nation."

Kotierk says Inuit have advocated for a stand-alone Inuktut language act, or an Inuit-specific chapter in the Indigenous languages legislation focused on Inuktut across Inuit Nunangat.

"We've been trying to develop a co-development relationship with the government. I haven't lost hope. We're still working through that. The Inuit regions have provided proposed provisions as a starting point."

Obed was not available to reply to questions regarding the Indigenous languages legislation before the Nunavut News deadline.

Added to the mix, now, is the Supreme Court of Canada decision that federal government does not have to consult Indigenous groups when creating legislation.

"We still have to work with whoever is in power, and we want to. From our perspective, co-development is the way to go. That's what we continue to advocate," said Kotierk, adding that's what Inuit want for the Indigenous languages legislation and its regulations.