Friday 21 June 2019

Zebedee Nungak on fighting for Inuit rights

Zebedee Nungak's Wrestling with Colonialism on Steroids: Quebec Inuit Fight for Their Homeland was published by Véhicule Press in 2017. In Spring 2019, Éditions du Boréal published the French language edition, Contre le colonialisme dopé aux stéroïdes: Le combat des Inuit du Québec pour leurs terres ancestrales.

Each season, Boréal publishes Le Boréal Express, a magazine which presents their new titles. A feature of the publication are "Four Questions" they ask their authors. Zebedee Nungak's response to the questions posed to him were too important not to present in their entirety (because they had been published in the magazine in an edited version).

Four Questions

Are the fights you have fought for your nation a painful memory?

Yes. Fighting for our rights is a painful memory on the following counts:

We had to contend with governments, provincial and federal, who in their arrogance inherited from colonial times, allowed major development on Indigenous lands without any regard for the rights of the original occupants of these lands: the Cree and the Inuit.

Development corporations were given permission, and free reign, to blast and bulldoze lands and rivers, which its Indigenous occupants depended on for life itself, without even a notice to these people.

What should have been rights-based negotiations between only the governments and Indigenous parties, included, from beginning to end, direct, at-the-table participation of development corporations. These entities had even less regard for Indigenous rights than governments, but were allowed to promote their interests.

The draconian terms and conditions, especially that of surrender and extinguishment of rights in and to the land, imposed by governments upon the Cree and Inuit caused irreconcilable divisions among the Inuit. These divisions were deep and profound. Close to forty-four years later, reconciliation between the Inuit of Nunavik over these divisions has yet to take place.

40 years after the fact, what is your assessment of the James Bay Agreement? Did more bad than good come out of it?

The James Bay Agreement became a marker of necessity in a relationship, however lopsided, between Indigenous peoples and unenlightened governments. It established, for the first time in the Canada’s existence, highly imperfect co-existence arrangements based on the colonial legacy of superiority/inferiority equations.

The worst feature of the Agreement was imposition of surrender and extinguishment of rights upon Indigenous peoples treated as inferiors by governments, who simply dictated their superiority on this fundamental point. Governments operated, as the title of my book says, on the basis of “colonialism on steroids”, generally treating Indigenous people as inferior.

The government of Quebec congratulated itself for being “progressive” and generous enough to produce this Agreement. However, it overlooked the fact that it had been totally absent from the territory it had gained jurisdiction over in 1912 for fifty-two years, until 1964.

Quebec should have been providing government services, and governing the territory and its people since 1912. Quebec belatedly agreed to provide health, education, and municipal services only in 1975, through this Agreement. Quebec was extremely delinquent on this matter.

After the benchmark of the James Bay Agreement was established, Canada as a country started progressing toward some positive thresholds in its legal and political systems, by favorable rulings and decisions. The recognition of the Aboriginal rights of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis in section 35 of the Canadian constitution in 1982, and the Tsilqot’in decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in 2014, are examples of this progress.

However, the need to correct the forced imposition of extinguishment and surrender of Aboriginal rights to establish agreements between governments and Indigenous peoples is still outstanding, unfinished business.

The worst by-product of the Agreement is the broken harmony of Inuit which resulted from its signing. Some Inuit supported the Agreement, but many opposed it vividly, and wholeheartedly.

In what way were the stakes of the Inuit people in the James Bay Agreement different from that of the other First Nations?

Inuit were not defined by Canada as having a legal status of their own. The only mention of Indigenous peoples in the British North America Act, 1867, was section 91 (24), whereby Canada’s federal government was assigned responsibility for “Indians, and lands reserved for Indians”.

In a legal dispute between the Province of Quebec and Canada, triggered by Quebec’s refusal to pay an invoice sent by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1936 for welfare the company issued to Inuit during times of famine, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a decision, called In RE: Eskimo in 1939, which declared that the Eskimos (Inuit) of Quebec were “Indians” for the purpose of legal definition.

In addition to the lack of clarity of the legal status of Inuit, the James Bay Project directly impacted the lands and rivers of the Cree of James Bay. Inuit were less directly impacted, and were regarded by governments and development entities as a “secondary” Aboriginal party.

This, in part, caused Inuit negotiators to work harder to be included in all substantial parts of the negotiations.

The Inuit of Nunavik were the very first Inuit group in Canada to cross the threshold of surrender and extinguishment of Aboriginal rights in a formal land claims agreement. For this, Inuit unity was dramatically broken, when many dissidents disagreed with the terms and conditions under which the James Bay Agreement was signed.

No such division was experienced when Inuit from other regions of Arctic Canada reached their own respective agreements in subsequent years. [Inuvialuit in 1984, Nunavut in 1993, and Nunatsiavut in 2005]

Do you believe that true reconciliation is possible in Quebec between the different communities?

If reconciliation between different communities (Inuit of Nunavik and French Quebec) is possible, it will take perhaps decades to achieve. Here is why:

Although political developments have placed Nunavik in Quebec’s jurisdiction since 1912, the Inuit of Nunavik have not shared in French Quebec’s mainstream history and culture. It is obvious that French Quebecers are not in their natural element in Nunavik. The climate is Arctic. The staple food is wildlife harvested from the land and sea. The language is Inuktitut. The people are Inuit; not descended from immigrants from across the ocean. Nunavik is not the natural habitat of French Quebecers.

Conversely, Inuit are not in their natural element in French Quebec. They are a miniscule minority in Quebec’s total picture. Even with scores of the younger generations gaining facility in the French language, most Inuit consider the French people, language and culture, “foreign”, and do not easily embrace the “Quebecois” identity, and all it entails.

Perhaps Quebec can help facilitate further reconciliation by making provision in the Quebec National Assembly for one seat for each of the eleven “Amerindian” nations living within the Province; and demonstrate its willingness to accommodate them in its legislature.

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