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An Overview of Inuit Governance Organizations in the Arctic

May 7, 2020


Caitlin Clarke

Inuit have been thriving in the Arctic for millennia, since long before any nation-state had laid claim to Arctic territory or international organization had been involved in Arctic politics and governance. Inuit have a unique understanding of their homeland, rooted in the sustainable practices that have allowed them to thrive in a region that most would consider uninhabitable. However, due to the effects of colonization, Inuit have only recently become involved in Arctic governance at the state and international level. How have Inuit been involved in Arctic policy at these levels, and how has this affected governance in the Arctic? This paper will explore this question through an examination of three different governing structures that Inuit have achieved. First, at the international level, Inuit have been involved in policymaking through the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), a Permanent Participant on the Arctic Council. Second, Inuit have been involved at the state level in Canada through the national Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK). Third, Inuit organizations have been involved in regional governance decisions in Canada through their management of four Inuit land claims agreements.


Inuit Circumpolar Council

The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) is the international association that represents Inuit around the world. The ICC was formed in 1977 and is a representative organization for Inuit in four different countries: Canada, Russia, Greenland, and the United States. The intention in creating the ICC was to provide for a new Arctic vision, one that valued “Inuit autonomy, Arctic economic development, and environmental protection” (Shadian 2006, 256). This original vision has grown and changed over the years, now with climate change, increasing shipping activity and tourism being top concerns (Meakin 2020). However, the main idea behind the ICC has remained the same: providing an integrated Inuit perspective on Arctic policy and governance.

The ICC has, through various policy reports, promoted this essential perspective on Arctic governance over time. One of the most influential policy reports by the ICC was the 2010 Inuit Arctic Policy. This comprehensive and extensive document outlines an Inuit approach to policy in the Arctic. This is considered a ‘living and evolving document’ that requires updates as matters in the Arctic change and Inuit sovereignty grows (ICC 2010). One important point to take away from this document is that it clearly states the position of Inuit around the world as both Indigenous peoples of the Arctic and as citizens of the states in which they reside (ICC 2010, 102). This means that there is no intention by the ICC to create a nation-state for Inuit around the world. Instead, Inuit are afforded all of their rights as Indigenous peoples, as well as all of their rights as citizens of the states in which they reside. This is just one document that shows the ICC’s commitment to Inuit sovereignty and self-determination in the circumpolar Arctic region.

Another very influential document by the ICC is A Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic. This document was released in 2009, shortly after the United Nation General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. It outlines Inuit rights to the Arctic and acknowledges Inuit knowledge and self-determination as integral aspects of any policy approach to the Arctic (ICC 2009). This is a crucial point, especially relating to climate change. Inuit have an unmatched understanding of the Arctic environment and ecosystem. This is knowledge that has accumulated over the thousands of years that Inuit have lived sustainably in the Arctic (Simon 2011, 880). While the rest of the world is scrambling to respond to the effects of climate change and understand how it can be mitigated, Inuit and many other Indigenous peoples around the world are maintaining practices that have existed sustainably for thousands of years. This is why an Inuit perspective of Arctic governance is crucial, especially with concern to efforts that attempt to respond to the effects of climate change in the Arctic region.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council has contributed immensely to Inuit sovereignty and self-determination in the Arctic. Their status as a Permanent Participant on the Arctic Council has allowed for these contributions to be heard by the international community (Shadian 2006, 257). As the Arctic continues to become more prevalent on the international stage, the ICC continues to ensure that Inuit perspectives are heard and Inuit knowledge is valued in any policy decisions that impact the Arctic.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami

The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) is the national association for Inuit in Canada. It was created during a 1971 meeting and aims to protect and advance the rights and interests of Inuit in Inuit Nunangat, the homeland of Inuit in Canada (ITK 2020). The ITK works very closely with the Government of Canada to produce policy that both acknowledges the inequalities between Inuit and non-Inuit in Canada as well as acknowledge the importance of Inuit-led approaches to addressing many of these issues. This is outlined in Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework (2019), which extensively recognizes the importance of collaboration and consultation with Indigenous communities in the Arctic (Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs 2019). This policy also includes a chapter by the ITK, the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework: Inuit Nunangat. This chapter focuses on an Inuit-centered approach and perspective on policy in the Arctic. It outlines the major points of social and economic inequality in Inuit Nunangat (ITK 2019, 3). Not only does this report acknowledge major points of social and economic inequality, it also provides policy solutions and reports that already address many of these issues and how they can be solved (ITK 2019, 9).

One major report by the ITK is Building Inuit Nunaat: The Inuit Action Plan of 2007. This report was developed by Inuit and the Government of Canada as a response to the 2005 Partnership Accord, which called for a new and more positive relationship between Inuit and the Canadian government (ITK 2007). It outlines areas where the Government of Canada can support Inuit in what are seen as the most pressing issues for Inuit at the time. The ITK consistently produces reports and engages in community efforts that aim to protect and advance the rights of Inuit in Canada.

The ITK has also been deeply involved in research projects within Northern communities. This has been seen within various studies that were conducted in the North. One example of this is the Ulukhaktok study, which aimed to understand how individuals in this Northern community in Inuvialuit were impacted by changing environmental conditions (Pearce et al. 2009, 15). This study was made possible due to effective communication and collaboration with national and regional Inuit organizations, including the ITK (Pearce et. al 2009, 17). This is just one example of the ways in which the ITK is able to facilitate effective relationships between Inuit in Canada and research collaborators in order to conduct research on climate change in the Canadian Arctic.

The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami has contributed greatly to protecting and advancing the rights and interests of Inuit in Canada. Community-driven collaboration efforts facilitated by the ITK can be excellent grassroots solutions to many of the problems affecting these Northern communities. The ITK’s ability to utilize the experiences and knowledge of Inuit who are affected most by issues of social and economic inequality has been effective in solving many of these problems.

Inuit Land Claims in Canada

There are four Inuit land claim agreements that have been developed between the Government of Canada and Inuit. The oldest of these is the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, which created the Inuit region of Nunavik in 1975. This land claim is managed by the Makivik Corporation, which represents the roughly 11,000 Inuit in Nunavik (ITK 2020). The second oldest agreement is the Western Arctic (Inuvialuit) Claims Settlement Act, which was established in 1981. This land claim agreement gave mining rights to the region that are managed by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (ITK 2020). In 1993, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement created the new territory of Nunavut. This land claim agreement is managed by Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI) and comprises an area of land that makes up roughly one fifth of Canada’s entire landmass (ITK 2020). Finally, the most recent Inuit land claim agreement was the Land Claims Agreement between the Inuit of Labrador and Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Newfoundland and Labrador and Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada. This agreement was reached in 2001 and created the Nunatsiavut Government, an Inuit-led government that operates in the region (ITK 2020). These four land claims make up Inuit Nunangat, which is the homeland of Inuit in Canada. All of these land claim agreements are extremely comprehensive and complex and vary significantly from one another. For the purposes of this paper, I will focus specifically on the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement.

The Nunavut Land Claim Agreement (NLCA) was a highly anticipated agreement between Inuit in Canada, the Canadian Government and the Northwest Territories. This is because the NLCA effectively created an entire new territory that was originally part of the Northwest Territories. This new territory would be called Nunavut and would give specific rights to Inuit within this area of land (ITK 2020). There was some controversy over the agreement. Some people felt as though the agreement did not give enough land rights to Inuit based on what regions of Nunavut Inuit consider traditional land. Others believed that this agreement would be an essential part of the fight toward Inuit sovereignty and self-determination (Pelaudeix 2013, 74). Nonetheless, the agreement was made and it outlines extensive rights for Inuit in Nunavut including a government that is representational of Nunavut’s population, implementation of traditional knowledge or Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ), and education and employment opportunities for Inuit in Nunavut (Ableson 2006, 6).                                                                                                Another important aspect of the NLCA is that it explicitly states, ‘Canada’s sovereignty over the waters of the Arctic archipelago is supported by Inuit use and occupancy’ (Government of Canada NLCA, 1993, Article 15). This is an important point and one that has been reiterated by various Inuk scholars over time. Canada’s best way to support its international sovereignty in the Arctic is by supporting Inuit sovereignty in the Arctic (Simon 1985, 34). In relation to climate change, this could be an extremely important aspect of Canadian policy towards climate change. Inuit historical use and occupancy of the Arctic means that Inuit are in the best position to understand the impacts that climate change is causing to their homeland. Involving an Inuit perspective on climate change policy is an integral aspect of addressing the global climate crisis.  All of the Inuit land claims in Canada are extremely comprehensive and complex documents that require considerable effort to be fully implemented. However, the full and fair implementation of these agreements is an essential part of combatting the global climate emergency.


Inuit are in the best position to inform the world of the ways in which climate change is impacting their homeland. The relationship to and understanding of the land that accompanies thousands of years of living sustainably in the Arctic is a perspective that Inuit hold, and one that is vital to our international understanding of how to approach Arctic governance. In Canada, Inuit have achieved considerable ability to participate in governance on the matters that affect them most. This has culminated over decades of Inuit determination to be included in these policy and governance matters. This level of engagement between Inuit and the Government of Canada, facilitated by these Inuit organizations, shows how powerful and effective Indigenous organizations can be in achieving Indigenous self-determination. Of course, the nation-state also has to be willing to engage with these organizations, in this case being the Government of Canada. Canada has recently shown their commitment to work with Indigenous groups in Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework (2019). This level of commitment towards collaboration does not exist in every nation-state around the world, often making it difficult for Indigenous organizations to achieve the level of collaboration they desire. Nonetheless, this example of collaboration between Inuit and the Government of Canada demonstrates the decision-making capabilities that can arise out of Indigenous organizations’ fight towards self-determination. At the international level, Inuit have been involved in policymaking through the Inuit Circumpolar Council, a Permanent Participant on the most influential governing body for the circumpolar region, the Arctic Council. At the state level in Canada, Inuit have been involved in policymaking through the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national association for Inuit in Canada. Finally, the four Inuit land claim agreements that exist in Canada have also contributed greatly to Inuit ability to participate in policymaking and governance decisions affecting the Canadian Arctic.

These Inuit organizations are excellent examples of the potential and ability that organizations have to facilitate Indigenous sovereignty within a settler colonial state. The success of these organizations may very well be a model that other Indigenous groups around the world can follow. The organizations discussed throughout this paper and undoubtedly many more Indigenous organizations all around the world create and develop policy solutions for the issues that they understand best. These representative organizations and the reports they create should always be consulted and discussed in the making of any relevant policy. Organizations like those discussed in this paper are crucial pieces in facilitating the conversation between Indigenous groups and the states in which they reside.





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Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, (2019). Canada’s Arctic And Northern Policy Framework. Ottawa.

Government of Canada, (1993). Agreement Between the Inuit of the Nunavut Settlement Area and Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, Iqaluit, Article 15.

Inuit Circumpolar Council, (2009). A Circumpolar Inuit Declaration On Sovereignty In The Arctic. Ottawa.

Inuit Circumpolar Council, (2010). Inuit Arctic Policy. Ottawa.

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