Our bodies remember too well the days of deprivation.

Years ago, I was in my hometown to attend a funeral for a loved one. In many of our communities, after burials, visitors come to see the family and mourn with them. There is storytelling, laughter and crying. It is an ultimate act of love and compassion that I appreciate so much about Inuit. In one’s deep sorrow, you are reminded about closeness and community.

In anticipation of visitors after the church service, I had bought supplies for a spread of cheese and cold meats. I cut them up, prepared a big platter, and went to get another one ready. When I returned, in what felt like just a blink of an eye, the food was all gone. I looked at the Elders sitting in the living room who had yet to be served, and my immediate reaction was to be upset and think, “How selfish.” But as fast as that thought came, I remembered my own days of hunger. 

After moving to the town of Clyde River from an outpost camp where I spent much of my childhood, I remember the days we would miss meals and live on tea and bannock for long stretches. As a result, I could not drink tea for years. To this day, I can’t have tea or too much bread on an empty stomach; it makes me feel queasy. 

Back in our hungry days, I remember once being served a giant plate of spaghetti and engulfing it in minutes. Then, after, looking around and realizing in embarrassment the “slow” and polite pace of others. But I remember now that the spaghetti didn’t even make me full. Continued hunger can deplete your body’s ability to feel satisfied. And you can eat until you vomit. 

It is a vivid memory for me—a moment in a childhood where I felt shame, separated from others.

Sadly, food insecurity is the reality for three-quarters of children (or 46 per cent of homes) in Nunavut. While an astounding figure, this is not a reflection of parents or caretakers “not doing enough.” It is a product of colonialism. Poverty is not an accident; it is engineered.

Our world is structured to ensure power and wealth grow for the colonial state and those who uphold it, at the expense of Indigenous and racialized peoples’ lives. These structures are designed to uphold poverty, yet we feel responsible for our plight, carrying the shame and ineptitude for not doing enough.

Nunavut’s legislative assembly.

A facade of Inuit self-determination

Inuit negotiators worked hard for over 20 years to realize a governance structure they thought would protect Inuit culture and improve Inuit lives. They achieved what they could within the limitations of the Canadian system that offers few material rights to Indigenous people: a land claim and a new territorial government with a consensus-based Westminster-style government.

On the surface, Inuit in Nunavut appear to have achieved self-determination through a public government model that serves the majority of Inuit, with land claim rights that are to be implemented.

But that assumption is a farce. Inuit interests have not been served by the government because Inuit lives have not improved. Instead, we have a facade of self-determination with a senior bureaucracy made up of 85 per cent non-Inuit who are upholding a system that benefits settlers. 

In areas like housing and food security, quality of life for Inuit has stagnated or declined. Inuit in Nunavut face a severe housing crisis. Income remains low (non-Inuit make almost five times more on average, according to the 2016 census), and Nunavut has a very young—and growing—population. 

We need children and youth to be raised with the Inuit childrearing practices of Inunnguiniq, which impart the core values of working for the common good, maintaining balance and harmony, respecting all living things, and preparing for the future. Instead, Inuit language and ways of life are disrespected, and students are being pushed out of school.

On the economic side of things, developing extractive industries in a hunting society is a recipe for conflict. When the two are at odds, Canada’s justice system usually favours corporate interests. 

Canada’s food policies and programs are based on agricultural systems, which are also incongruent with the Inuit hunting way of life. Moreover, the idea that hunting is barbaric still pervades as a result of the anti-fur and anti-sealing campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s, led by environmental groups such as Greenpeace. 

From housing and food to education and industry, Inuit are being deprived and oppressed. But by whom, and to what end?

A construction camp at Baffinland’s Mary River mine in 2011.

Who benefits from Nunavut?

We have to confront the reality that Nunavut is for southern Canada—for these transient settlers I refer to as “incomers.” In other words, Nunavut is still very much a colony; it is a place for others to generate wealth from our lands and resources and leave the scraps and waste for the Inuit. 

In addition to the wage gap, economic leakage is a major problem in Nunavut. Most Government of Nunavut (GN) procurement contract expenditures go outside the territory. From 2010 to 2020, 61 per cent of government procurement expenditures left Nunavut; in 2019-2020, 76 per cent went to firms outside of Nunavut. Between 2015 and 2020, the territorial government sent over $1.4 billion south.

A study commissioned by Nunavut Housing Corporation on housing construction costs found that 60 per cent of costs associated with building housing units flow directly to the south in both labour and materials. If modular or semi-modular homes are used, then the economic leakage is greater still: an estimated 83 per cent of spending flows south.

Is there a clearer indication of colonial supply chains than the monopoly known as the Northern? While the Northwest Company provides most communities with retail and grocery outlets, it also exploits staff and overcharges consumers. Southerners complain of recent grocery inflation, but Inuit have never known non-inflationary shopping. In the last two years, the Northwest Company reported a gross profit of over $700 million each year. Their shareholders profit because Inuit and others are forced to pay absurdly high prices for food. 

The Northern is just one of many monopolies in the territory.

Then there is mining, a relatively recent phenomenon in Nunavut. Companies like Baffinland and Agnico Eagle Mines are reaping billions in profit. Agnico reported more than $2 billion in earnings in 2021. By comparison, the Government of Nunavut’s net spending for the 2020-21 fiscal year was $2.58 billion. Obviously, Inuit benefit from employment in the mines and from revenue-sharing agreements, but these companies are here, first and foremost, to send profit from Nunavut. 

Amid social and economic desperation and limited economic opportunities, the potential for tension within Inuit society is always present. We end up fighting over whether a mining activity should proceed or if we should stay economically deprived and try to protect a hunting way of life. The system is built to produce internal strife.

The cunning of colonialism

When the Nunavut Agreement was signed in 1993, Canadian politicians and media spoke about the largest land ownership by an Indigenous group in the world. We bought that line, and many of us probably repeated it. Still today, we hear Inuit say Nunavutaaratta—or “when we acquired Nunavut”—as if it was not our land to begin with. 

A public government with an Inuit-majority population was celebrated as one of Canada’s greatest successes in its relationship with Indigenous Peoples. Many books and academic articles have been written—without Inuit input—repeating that myth. Today, the Canadian government’s Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs of Canada (CIRNAC) website describes the Government of Nunavut as a form of self-government.

Like other land claim agreements, about 11 per cent of our claim area (or the territory of Nunavut) is Inuit-owned, eight per cent of the subsurface is Inuit-owned, and the rest is above ground. Put another way, 89 per cent of “our land” is actually Crown land spattered with small tracts of municipal land. Moreover, our comprehensive land claim agreement states that federal, territorial, and local laws shall apply to Inuit-owned lands. This includes the free entry system, which means miners have the right to enter virtually all land and register a claim for minerals. 

Under the Nunavut Agreement, our relationship with the land is defined by Canadian law, which itself emerged from a philosophy that views our lands as terra nullius (“empty land”). But it also means our economic system relies on exploiting the land and environmental destruction. It is no wonder deprivation and poverty are a mainstay in the current system: our well-being is a reflection of the prospects we are given.

There are features of the land claim meant to serve as a check on these exploitative impulses and instead reinforce Inuit values. But they have either not been fully implemented, or not implemented at all. 

The Nunavut Land Use Plan, which is supposed to identify how or when lands are to be used, does not exist and has been in development inertia for years. Land claim-mandated Inuit employment within the Government of Nunavut is supposed to be at 85 per cent but has never increased beyond 55 per cent—including managerial positions, the supposed mechanism to integrate Inuit thought into government. Inuit participation in social and cultural policy has never been integrated into decision-making processes. In procurement processes, true Inuit businesses, not shell companies, are supposed to be treated fairly; instead, contracts go to non-Inuit “established” companies.

The success of a public government model must also be measured against what has been done to protect Inuit culture, including language and education. On those fronts, Inuit have only seen tokenistic gestures. We have legislation on Inuit language and bilingual education, but they have not resulted in meaningful implementation or any real effort to protect our language. In a recent response to a lawsuit by Inuit on rights to education in Inuktut, the Government of Nunavut stated Inuit do not hold a right to be educated in Inuktut. Our language continues to decline, with few systematic attempts to protect it. When English systems and ways of life are normalized, we can see clearly the facade of Inuit self-determination. 

The public government model that holds most of the mandate for legislation, programs, and services—and an Inuit organization’s system that manages pockets of lands and benefits and serves as a lobby organization for “Inuit rights”—is a perfect scenario for political inertia. 

On the issues of Inuktut education and Inuit employment, for example, the territorial government has not responded to the will of Inuit. In turn, Inuit organizations have been forced to take the government to court to try and move the needle. 

Colonialism is a cunning beast. We have bought into a system that still oppresses us.

Photo: Axel Drainville

Memories of hunger

Nunavut means “our land” or “our homeland.” It’s a name that was given to a new jurisdiction in Canada as a strong statement of reclamation of land, and of ourselves as Inuit. We said: “This is our homeland!”

And it is.

Inuit still hold the right to self-government, and Nunavut Tunngavik—the organization set up to ensure implementation of the Nunavut Agreement—is now pursuing this option. Working in the context of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People for social equity, we can rethink how to govern ourselves on our terms. But we have to make sure that it is not premised on exploitation. We have pockets of amazing language and cultural programs created by individuals and communities, in spite of our territorial government’s resistance to systematically delivering language programs. 

If we are to truly self-determine, our relationship with our land must be defined by us. This is how we imagine an economic base that is more about relationships of reciprocity with our natural environment, one that will naturally strengthen kinship ties within our communities. This process must ensure that our basic needs, such as housing, food, water, security, are part of the planning for self-government. We also cannot leave out the need to recover and heal from the erasure and genocide of colonialism, as trauma and hurt are entrenched in our lives and manifest in many ways. 

When our family lived in an outpost camp, I don’t ever remember being hungry. The hungry days came after the move into town when family members participated in a “wage economy.” I do remember wanting sugary treats that were not as accessible to us, but not being hungry. Our lives revolved around seasons, harvesting, and the weather. My greatest memories are family hunting and harvesting events and stories; kinship and family ties seemed impenetrable.

When I think about economy and wellness, the foundation should be family and food sovereignty. This is not some utopian Indigenous fantasy; it already exists in real life.

We see it in hunting economies re-emerging in my hometown of Clyde River, where the Ittaq Research and Heritage Centre employs four full-time hunters. Examples like this demonstrate that Inuit can determine our own relationship to our land and economies.

And we are. 

Keeping the flow of money and resources going south takes a large, coordinated effort. Those who are part of that system must ask themselves whether they will continue to degrade Inuit lives and stand in the way of true sovereignty for Nunavummiut.   

This article was adapted from a briefing published by the Yellowhead Institute.

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