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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

Nunavut achieves largest land transfer in Canadian history

BY Patrick Quinn Feb 26, 2024

Nunavut’s historic devolution (or Namminiqsurniq) agreement with the government of Canada on January 18 marked the largest land transfer in the country’s history. The territory will have final decision-making authority over its two million square kilometres of land and resources while collecting royalties that previously went to the federal government.

“It’s the manifestation of that bold vision our leaders have always had,” said Premier P.J. Akeeagok. “It means that we, the people most invested in our homeland, will be the ones managing our natural resources. It will allow us to reap the benefits of the incredible wealth we have in the territory and to really start building the foundations of our economy.”

Devolution gives Nunavut similar control as Canadian provinces have over land, oil and mineral rights, a process previously achieved by Yukon and the Northwest Territories. With a population approximately 85% Inuit, it’s a milestone in Indigenous self-determination.

The agreement begins April 1, exactly 25 years after Nunavut became a territory, with the parties having until April 2027 to complete the transfer of administrative responsibilities. While devolution negotiations have been ongoing since Nunavut’s establishment, self-governance has been a longstanding goal pursued by generations of Inuit leaders.  

Akeeagok grew up in Grise Fiord, the country’s northernmost community, which he said was created by forced relocation “using Inuit like flagpoles to assert the sovereignty of Canada.” Akeeagok has a unique perspective on the forces of colonization impacting his people. Devolution will transfer numerous jobs to Inuit and facilitate much-needed investment in critical infrastructure.

“The road ahead will be very difficult, and we will face many obstacles but our vision for the future is very clear,” Akeeagok said. “It is our time, our territory, our decisions and our future.”

The signing agreement was less a political event than a celebration of Inuit culture. Inuk artist Sylvia Cloutier curated the ceremony as a gathering that was representative of Nunavut’s diversity. Her design of the event facility was inspired by the qaggiq, a traditional gathering place similar to a giant igloo.

“Everything was circular because Inuit always live in circular spaces,” Cloutier told the Nation. “Everyone could see each other around a round white stage so they felt they were part of the event rather than witnessing it. We could be on the same level.”

Cloutier began planning two months prior to the event in collaboration with local communities. In a profound demonstration of self-reliance, all the artists and materials created for the event came from Nunavut. When one of the hosts asked the audience how many had been born in an igloo, the raised hands showed how quickly the territory has changed.

“The idea was to create a place where everyone could reflect on how Nunavut has grown,” explained Cloutier. “We know how to take care of ourselves and be autonomous – we’re resilient and very persistent. Yes, politically we were showing that we were growing but we’ve also grown as individuals and as a community.”

A young carpenter named Samuel Kuluguqtuq built the stage and set just one week before the event. The table was made in the shape of a V to represent geese flying in the sky, while the podium was shaped like a qamutik, the traditional Inuit sled. Ranken Inlet artist Nicole Camphaug designed and upholstered the chairs of the signatories with seal fur. 

“I hope something like this would showcase the talent of Nunavut,” asserted Camphaug. “I felt it would be wonderful to try doing chairs because seal fur is so important to us as Inuit. We’re so capable of doing anything, even with our limited resources.”

With furniture generally needing to be purchased down south and expensively shipped up, Camphaug hopes the new agreement leads to more accessible goods. She began experimenting with reupholstering furniture a few years ago. It took about four hours to deconstruct each readymade chair, removing hundreds of staples and creating a pattern from the desired material.

“For all the artists to be from Nunavut goes hand in hand with this idea of being in control of everything in our territory,” Camphaug suggested. “We know we’re capable of doing it – for me, it signifies hope. They were so proud and joyous that day. There were tears and people were so excited.”

The event featured more traditional performers before the signing ceremony, followed by younger artists to highlight modern expressions of Inuit culture. There were drum dances representing diverse musical traditions of the immense territory, different types of throat singing, singers with guitars and fiddles, and even Artcirq circus artists from Igloolik. 

“The Inuit performing represented the different regions within Nunavut,” explained Cloutier. “It was also a celebration of Inuit youth who worked really hard in preserving, protecting and promoting our culture but also expressing themselves and normalizing expression. All the songs were pretty much love songs for the land in Nunavut.”

Julia Ogina brought her drumming group, comprised of three generations of her family, from Cambridge Bay. Cloutier described Ogina as “a powerhouse who has worked very hard to preserve and promote old traditional songs within her family and community.” The event was held just as her community was welcoming the return of the sun after weeks of polar night.

“As light starts with a mere shade of change, so can we, subtle steps to what you want,” posted Ogina. “In appreciation of all those who negotiated in the early years and that could not be here, the dances were for you.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.