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We Inuit live in a crucial time in the Arctic

By Natan Obed      

The key issue moving forward will be mutual respect.

Dancers pictured at the Taste of the North at the NAC in 2013. We, as Inuit, can respect the Government of Canada and we can respect the private sector. We demand respect in return. That is a positive thing for Canada as it overcomes colonialism, writes Natan Obed. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Over the past several months, the Liberal government has talked extensively about a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples. In my conversations with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal cabinet ministers, I have requested, for Inuit, a renewed “Inuit-to-Crown” relationship, because it best describes the foundational relationship we wish to reinvigorate with the federal government through implementation of our land claims agreements.

In this new era of reconciliation, it is important to ensure Canadians understand and differentiate between Inuit, First Nations, and Métis peoples. We are all constitutionally recognized indigenous peoples and have shared broad principles, but we don’t have a shared governance structure or shared identity.

Inuit are bound together by a common culture, society and language. We have familial, linguistic, and societal connectedness from Nunatsiavut to Nunavik to Nunavut to the Inuvialuit region of the Northwest Territories. We don’t live on reserves and we don’t receive on-reserve funding. We live primarily in four regions of the Canadian Arctic, and we call the combined land claim agreement settlement areas “Inuit Nunangat.”

Our land claims agreements allow for co-management of lands, water, environment, and wildlife. Our agreements set the frameworks for economic activities in Inuit Nunangat, provide certainty and facilitate partnerships. The challenges we have had to date are with the rules of engagement. The first consideration for private-sector businesses, just as for government, should be how to work with Inuit to ensure a strong partnership from the beginning.

Inuit lands, and all things within Inuit lands, must be developed with Inuit and with benefits for Inuit. The debate now is how do we do that, how can we benefit fully from the frameworks for development we have put in place? How can we ensure that the environment is cared for? How can we ensure that our people have jobs and education, and long-term positive outcomes for these partnerships that are emerging?

Our 2016-2019 strategy and action plan sets out a mandate for developing answers to some of these questions. We have seven key objectives: suicide prevention, affordable housing, reconciliation, self-determination in education, environment, research, and supporting families and communities. A lot of these issues are generational—they’re not going to be solved over the course of one or two years.

We live in a crucial time in relation to the future of the Arctic. The key issue moving forward will be mutual respect. We, as Inuit, can respect the Government of Canada and we can respect the private sector. We demand respect in return. That is a positive thing for Canada as it overcomes colonialism. The only way to overcome our socio-economic challenges, and to thrive as a people, is if the respect that we give out so freely is also returned in the way in which people approach Inuit and approach the Arctic in their work.

It isn’t as easy as it sounds; it is a daily struggle for us. We have to explain ourselves to the world each and every day. We are constantly telling everyone how we fit into the world and it is my hope, over time, that Canadians will have a much more nuanced understanding of Inuit and respect for our political, social, and economic place within Canada. Then we can focus on how to improve our communities and in turn, our country.

Natan Obed is the president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national representational organization for Canada’s 60,000 Inuit.

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