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The Globe’s ‘Artic Circle’ panel of experts and leaders is discussing seven key questions about Northern issues. Their responses and conversations will appear throughout the week on GlobeDebate (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
The Globe’s ‘Artic Circle’ panel of experts and leaders is discussing seven key questions about Northern issues. Their responses and conversations will appear throughout the week on GlobeDebate (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

'Arctic Circle' panel

How we misunderstand the Canadian North Add to ...

This is part of The North, a Globe investigation of unprecedented change, to the climate, culture and politics of Canada’s last frontier. Join the conversation with #GlobeNorth

The Globe’s ‘Artic Circle’ panel of experts and leaders is discussing five key questions about Northern issues. Their responses and conversations will appear throughout the week on Globe Debate.

Doug Saunders: Just 100,000 Canadians – about 0.3 per cent of us – live in the three northern territories. What do southerners most misunderstand about the Canadian North?

Mary Simon: I would like more Canadians to understand and value what it means to be “Arctic nation.” Some years ago, when I was president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (Canada’s national Inuit organization) I toured the country making presentations to Canadians on why the Arctic matters. The Canadian Arctic is the homeland of Inuit and other Aboriginal peoples, and compromises a large part of the geography of our country. It is not, as a former Minister of Indian Affairs mused, “our frozen treasure chest.”

There is no other region in Canada that faces the breadth of complex environmental, social and political issues found today in the Arctic. Like all Canadians, Inuit are working hard to feed our families and live comfortably, and we want our children to succeed in school and find meaningful work. To achieve a lifestyle comparable to other Canadians, Inuit must be involved and truly benefit from resource development and not at a cost to the environment that families still draw a livelihood around.

Just look at what is brewing around the pipeline proposals. If the Arctic ice cap continues to melt, there will be a devastating impact on our communities and around the world. If Canadian leaders do not take serious action on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions or improving Inuit education outcomes or investing in services to address health and other social issues, Canadians will continue to see headlines about dysfunctional communities in the North. It should not be lost on Canadians that a special United Nations rapporteur was sent to Canada last year to explore these issues and concluded that Canada is facing a “crisis” when it comes to its treatment of indigenous people.

Tony Penikett: I would say the 20 or so northern land-claims settlements negotiated since 1973. Few Canadians realize the scale of these treaties. For 7,000 First Nations in the Yukon, the treaties recognize title to 41,000 square kilometres (along with subsurface rights on two-thirds of that land), which is more land than is contained in all the Indian reserves in all of Southern Canada. And the Nunavut treaty made the Inuit there the largest private landowners in the world, with title to 350,000 square kilometres.

Nor are these simple ‘drafted-in-Ottawa’ agreements. The text of the Yukon treaty is longer than the New Testament. Canadians, it is said, do not want constitutional change, but in the territories the changes have been enormous, all as the result of bottom-up innovation from aboriginal and territorial government leaders. Yukon aboriginal self-government agreements give First Nations quasi-provincial powers and were the model for settlements with the Nisga’a and others in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories. But NWT First Nations have also experimented with regional shared governance arrangements with municipal authorities.

As Simon Fraser professor Doug McArthur has written: “There is a new constitutional settlement in the North.” And nobody in the south knows much about it. Sadly, as a result, the Yukon self-government agreements we negotiated 20 years ago still represent more than half of all such agreements in Canada.

Wade Davis: Canadians forget how recently European contact convulsed the lives of the Inuit. Consider the town of Igloolik, the cultural heart of Nunavut. William Parry, with two ships of the British Navy, wintered in the ice off shore in 1821–22. In 1867 and again in 1868 the American explorer Charles Francis Hall passed through as he searched for survivors of the Franklin Expedition. A French-Canadian prospector, Alfred Tremblay, visited briefly in 1913, as did Peter Freuchen in 1921 as part of Knud Rasmussen’s Fifth Thule Expedition.

This was the full extent of the European encounter until the 1930s when Catholic missionaries arrived with no intention of leaving. Their immediate goal was the destruction of the power and authority of the shaman, the cultural pivot, the heart of the Inuit relationship to the universe. To facilitate assimilation, they discouraged the use of traditional names, songs, and the language itself. As always, trade goods proved seductive, drawing the people toward the mission and away from the land, a process encouraged by government authorities whose presence was well established by the 1950s. A distemper epidemic rationalized the wholesale slaughter of Inuit dogs. The introduction of the snowmobile in the early 1960s increased dependence on the cash economy. Family-allowance payments were made contingent on the children attending school, creating another incentive to settle. The government conducted a census and because Inuktitut names were so difficult to transcribe, they identified each Inuk by a number, issuing identification tags, and eventually conducting Operation Surname, a bizarre effort to assign last names to individuals who never had them. More than a few Inuit dogs were recorded as Canadian citizens.

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