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Inuit Land Claims in Canada – Nunavut

February 28, 2010

Above: Terry Fenge is an Ottawa-based consultant. In October 2009 he visited Marine Affairs and Canadian Studies as a guest of the Wilburforce Foundation to speak about climate change and human rights and Inuit land claims in Canada.

by Terry Fenge

In mid-October Dr. Terry Fenge, an Ottawa-based consultant with extensive experience in Aboriginal and Arctic issues, spoke to students and faculty about modern treaties between Canada and its northern Aboriginal peoples. From 1985 to 1993 Dr. Fenge was the Director of Research for the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut, the Inuit organization that negotiated the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement that required the creation of the new territory of Nunavut. In his presentation, Fenge reviewed Inuit advocacy for Nunavut from the late 1960s, and noted that making treaties with Aboriginal peoples in Canada remains grounded in the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which many in the United States see as a grievance that contributed to the Declaration of Independence and the American revolution.

Representatives of the Crown made treaties with Aboriginal peoples in the 19th and early years of the 20th centuries in order to “extinguish” Aboriginal title to land. This allowed legal settlement and ownership of land by immigrants who, after the successful defense of Canada in the War of 1812, flooded into what would become Ontario and later the Canadian prairies. These treaties did not, however, cover the North.

In the widely referenced Calder case on land rights of Nisga’a Indians in British Columbia, the Supreme Court of Canada in 1973 affirmed the continuing existence of Aboriginal title. After a 50-year hiatus the Government of Canada was persuaded to negotiate “modern” treaties with Inuit and northern First Nations. In 1983 the Canadian Constitution was amended to protect and guarantee rights defined in modern treaties from legislative or executive action and in 1995 the Government of Canada agreed to negotiate self government for Aboriginal peoples as part of modern treaties.

The place of Aboriginal peoples in Canada has changed immensely, and for the better, in recent decades, in part as a result of modern treaties. Assimilation policies in the 19th and 20th centuries failed almost universally. While many Aboriginal peoples suffer still from serious social and health problems, economic disadvantages, educational deficits and more, Aboriginal peoples and cultures are resurgent in Canada, and
Aboriginal individuals are taking on national roles. For example, Canada’s current Minister of Health, the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, is a young Inuk woman from Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut.

The Nunavut story has captured the imagination of commentators worldwide. That Inuit, until the mid-1960s still largely nomadic and with only a handful of formally educated leaders, could persuade the Government of Canada through negotiations to set up a new jurisdiction covering more than 20 percent of the world’s second largest country (and in which they comprised 85 percent of the population) continues to surprise and amaze. Inuit now own more land outright than any other non-governmental interest worldwide!

Many non-North Americans consider Canada and the United States to be so similar as to be indistinguishable. The modern history of the relationship between Canadian Aboriginal peoples and the Government of Canada, exemplified by the Nunavut story, suggests otherwise.

This roundtable was supported, in part, by funding from the Center’s Program Enhancement Grant, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada and by the Wilburforce Foundation, Seattle.