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Feds apologize to Qikiqtaaluk Inuit, provide $20 million for program funds

Twelve years after the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) launched a truth commission to record the federal government's systemic efforts to colonize Inuit of the Qikiqtaaluk region, the government issued an apology Wednesday.

The atonement included $20 million as an initial investment to begin correcting wrongs of the past.

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett made the apology in Iqaluit while standing before elders from each of the region's 13 communities.

John Amagoalik said, in relation to systemic wrongs the federal government visited upon Qikiqtaaluk Inuit, "In order for forgiveness to be given there must be truth and acknowledgement of what happened."
photo courtesy Qikiqtani Inuit Association

"It's another chapter in our history that we really are putting a closure to," Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) president P.J. Akeeagok told Nunavut News.

"An apology is more than just words. It really allows you to let go of the strings that you've been holding on to your whole life, really. Some of the experiences of Inuit, when they were kids, they're still holding on. The social issues that you see are directly linked to the experiences that they faced and that was told to the truth commission."

But Akeeagok said, while the apology is meaningful, more was required: "true investments to revive what was lost." What was lost includes Inuit dignity, autonomy and culture. He said future generations are the ultimate focus of the work QIA is doing as a result of the truth commission.

Read: Action on the Qikiqtani Truth Commission

Of the $20 million, QIA will place $15 million in its Legacy Fund, using roughly $600,000 of interest annually for programs.

"That's huge in what we're able to deliver in key programs based on the 25 recommendations (from the truth commission). This allows us to plan for the future, too, long-term and solution-oriented," said Akeeagok.

A further $2 million will be used for Inuit history and governance programs, and $2.9 million will go towards a qimmiit (sled dog) revitalization program – of which $100,000 annually for seven years will go to the Nunavut Quest dog-team race.

"I was very lucky and privileged to have gone to Arctic Bay this year when the Quest came from Pond Inlet to Arctic Bay. The spirit of the Nunavut Quest – you feel it. It's hard to even explain how much pride it gives you, how much sense of belonging you feel," said Akeeagok, adding organizers always struggle to fundraise each year.

The use of qimmiit is more than symbolic, he said, as young Inuit revive the use of dog teams, including for hunting.

"It's pretty special to see the next generation starting to take shape in terms of finding their role in what was almost lost," Akeeagok said.

Finally, $2 million will be devoted to a travel and healing program for Inuit impacted by the Dundas Harbour relocation, and the closing of Kivitoo, Paallavvik and South Camp communities. The details haven't been worked out yet, but the program is intended to mitigate the impact on Sanikiluaq and Qikiqtarjuaq families, for whom the past is still very raw and painful.

"We're really pleased to get this initial investment. The first two years are going to be really critical in terms of really laying out that foundation, that baseline in terms of really making an impact on every Inuk in this region," said Akeeagok.

Peace and healing, with an eye to the future 

Before the truth commission was established in 2007, the RCMP produced a report for Parliament in which the policing organization disputed Inuit allegations of qimmiit killing. The truth commission sought to tell the stories of those who had experienced devastating events which took place between 1950 and 1975.

"Around 350 Inuit were interviewed in terms of the colonial policies that really tried dismantling who we are as Inuit, whether it's your language, your culture, your mobility," said Akeeagok.

A timeline of the work the Qikiqtani Inuit Association has done, which ultimately led to the formation of the truth commission and the apology from the federal government issued in person to Inuit by Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett in Iqaluit Aug. 14.
image courtesy Qikiqtani Inuit Association

The stories included forced relocations and imposed sub-standard housing, the killing of dogs – a vital mode of transportation – and residential school.

In his speech Wednesday, Akeeagok referenced some of the truths told by Inuit.

"The report echoes voices such as Sanikiluaq’s Lottie Arragutainaq, who spoke about being forced to leave her home with only the clothes on her back," he said.

Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) president P.J. Akeeagok says the apology and compensation package from the federal government, as well as the memorandum of understanding signed to work towards a Saimaqatigiigniq Fund, is intended to benefit every Inuk in the Qikiqtaaluk region.
image courtesy Qikiqtani Inuit Association

"Voices such as Qikiqtarjuaq’s Jacopie Nuqingaq and Pangnirtung’s Solomonie Qiyutaq, who spoke about their struggle to survive after the slaughter of their qimiit – their primary tool for going on the land and harvesting food for their families."

Akeeagok expressed gratitude for the work of retired Justice James Igloliorte, who oversaw the truth commission, and Madeleine Redfern, who was the executive director, as well as Joanasie Akumalik, Stevie Aulaqiaq, Joe Attagutaluk, Phillip Paneak and Joanasie Karpik.

"The testimony you hear in the reports is very raw. We owe gratitude to those folks who allowed the space for Inuit to share their story," he told Nunavut News.

Akeeagok said QIA chose to be patient and steadfast, rather than going the litigation route.

"Going to a saimaqatigiigniq approach, which is having that mutual understanding of let's get to the root of this and really start building our future," Akeeagok said.

To that end, beyond the apology and $20 million, a memorandum of understanding was signed during the apology event between the QIA and the federal government to establish the Saimaqatigiigniq Fund. The fund "allows Canada and QIA to turn the page on the apology process and look toward the future well-being of Inuit with long-term support for core social and cultural programs, as well as innovation and capacity development initiatives," according to a QIA document.

The announcement follows QIA's ramped-up efforts, beginning in early 2019, to achieve saimaqatigiigniq with the federal government. Saimaqatigiigniq is also defined as "a new relationship, when past opponents get back together, meet in the middle, and are at peace.”

Akeeagok met with Bennett many times in 2019, though he says the Inuit organization has been working hard on the file since 2010, when the report was released. Former premier Eva Aariak led the QIA team. Inuit Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. president Aluki Kotierk and Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq sent letters of support for the QIA to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Bennett in January.

"The stars have to align for something like this, but it's not a full conclusion. It's very important to know it's an initial investment in terms of where we're going," Akeeagok said.

He adds the apology acknowledges the reality of all Inuit in Inuit Nanangat, and the negotiations between QIA and the federal government do not close the door for other Inuit to investigate compensation.