A Plain Language Guide to the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement

In the seven years since my move from Iqaluit to Yellowknife, I’ve often been struck by how behind the N.W.T. appears — or rather, how far ahead Nunavut is — when it comes to language, culture and Indigenous rights. 

It’s an odd realization because as a reporter in Nunavut I became accustomed to the idea that statistically, Nunavut would fare worse than anywhere else by almost any measure: homicide, suicide, poverty, unemployment. These stats are all skewed by the fact that the territory of “Nunavut” is really measuring an Indigenous homeland (and thus a historically deprived and negatively acted upon region), which is just not comparable to other provinces or territories. But even setting that aside, most people don’t live in a world of statistics. They live in the world of things that really aren’t measured: attitudes, perceptions, expectations. And in this regard, Nunavut ranks among the best in several aspects.

A small example: In Iqaluit, one expects to hear Inuktitut spoken at public meetings, and puts the earpiece in upon arrival so as not to have to fumble around and miss out on the translation when this occurs. In the N.W.T., Indigenous languages are spoken, but nobody anticipates this and the fumbling for earpieces always consumes the speaker’s first several sentences. Witness what happens each time Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty addresses the legislature in Tłı̨chǫ. He now signals when he’s going to do this — “Mr. Speaker, I’m going to speak in my language” — perhaps so that people are done with their needless fumbling by the time he gets to what he actually wants to say. 

The Nunavut government has a policy that makes Inuit-owned businesses more likely to win government contracts. That policy is not universally beloved, but it is surprising that the N.W.T. government has nothing of the kind, despite the obvious inequality in the territory between the Indigneous and non-Indigenous groups, and the fact that several N.W.T. land claims agreements require this. (MLAs recently agreed with this point and are investigating a new procurement policy that will include Indigenous incentives.)

But perhaps the best examples comes from everyday life. In Iqaluit, it is broadly understood that visiting small communities is essential for understanding the territory. Nunavut’s communities hold the balance of power in the legislature and a certain moral authority within the territory’s politics at large. Though the N.W.T. communities are valued, I have not quite encountered this same abstract reverence here.

One more example: the many Inuit words that have made their way into casual English conversation. 

Obviously there are many reasons for all of this, not least of which is the fact that Nunavut consists of one people sharing one language (though riven by dialect), who make up the majority of Nunavummiut. The N.W.T.’s deeply-rooted settler population is a factor, as are the many Indigenous languages spoken, often by small populations. Another major reason why cultural and political attitudes are so different in Iqaluit and Yellowknife is that the latter capital is not currently part of a comprehensive land claim, though that will change when the Akaitcho agreement is signed and comes into force. 

So let me present one more small example: A Plain Language Guide to the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement

This well-written and beautifully packaged book was published by Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the Nunavut land claims organization, in 2003 — five years after Nunavut was created and 21 years after the Nunavut Agreement was signed. “Inuit have asked us for a simplified version of the agreement and this is it,” reads the opening page. “Finding out what the agreement says is the first step for anyone wanting to use their rights and benefits.”

Though written expressly for beneficiaries of the agreement, the book seems to anticipate just how important it is that everyone understand the land claim’s purpose and goals. In 88 pages (the back half of the book has the same text in Inuit syllabics), the book summarizes all 42 articles of the Nunavut agreement (NTI prefers this term over “land claim” because the agreement is about much more than land). The agreement offered ownership of 18 per cent of the land in Nunavut (and subsurface rights for two per cent of the land); a cash settlement of $1.173 billion; and the creation of a new territory in which Inuit would be the majority. The agreement also sets out rules for managing wildlife, Inuit employment, contracting and processes for decision-making on big developments and who gets to benefit from them. 

Reading the plain-language guide served, for me, as a reminder of just how radical the Nunavut land claim was, and how much it resets the terms for Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations. It is a shared vision that must be implemented by all.

If you live north of 60, you really should read at least one modern land claim. A Plain Language Guide to the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement is probably the easiest place to start. 

(This book is the most detailed summary I’ve found but you can also read this summary of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement; or the N.W.T. government’s summary of the Tłı̨chǫ Agreement; or this summary of the Sahtu Dene and Metis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, also by the N.W.T. government; or the Gwich’in summary of their Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement. The Gwich’in Social & Cultural Institute has even more great reading material.)

Tukisittiarniqsaujumaviit? A Plain Language Guide to the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement
Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., 2003
In English and Inuktut
88 pages (x2)
Contact NTI for a copy or read it here.

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