Article

Creating Nunavut: Reflections from an Inuk

Law student, Inuit advocate, and avid qajaq-er Robert Comeau shares his personal reflections as an Inuk living in Nunavut, now more than twenty years on since the creation of the territory. Along with celebrating such successes, Robert challenges readers to acknowledge historical and modern-day challenges faced by Inuit.
Rob Comeau rides in truck

© Mark Edward Harris

Michelle Valberg and Brian Faber and I transported hockey gear donations from Project North in Ausuittuq (Grise Fiord), Nunavut in 2017.

Creating Nunavut—My Personal Connection

My name is Robert and I am an Inuk. I was born in Frobisher Bay in the Northwest Territories.

In 1999, my family and I were living in beautiful British Columbia. That’s the year my mom, Udloriak Hanson, travelled home to what is now called Iqaluit—the capital of Nunavut. Just as Inuit had reclaimed the Inuktitut name Iqaluit from Frobisher Bay in 1987, twelve years later 1999 marked another immense shift: Inuit had claimed their position within Canada through the creation of the separate territory of Nunavut.

In the now more than twenty years since the creation of Nunavut, Inuit have continued to claim our space within Canada—not only through politics, but also through practicing, protecting, and sharing our unique culture.

Rob Comeau and his mother Udloriak Hanson

My mom and I on a hunt up the Sylvia Grinnell River, near Iqaluit, Nunavut.

In the early nineties, a referendum was held, and Nunavut charged ahead. The Nunavut Agreement was signed in 1993, one year after I was born. On April 1, 1999, Nunavut became a territory. During this exciting time, my mom was coming into her adulthood. She was excited to return to her home and wanted to bring us back with her—but as a university student, she could not afford to travel across the country with a family of four for this celebration.

What she did bring back to us in British Columbia was an unmistakable pride in our home territory of Nunavut. After she earned her first university degree, my mom went on to work for public governments and Inuit organizations, always using her privilege to advocate for and better the position of Inuit. This is something that has stuck with me as I follow in her footsteps with my own advocacy.

The Nunavut Agreement

Until I entered university myself, neither the Nunavut Agreement nor Nunavut as a territory had much of an impact on my life. Looking back now, however, I can see the immense importance it held for Mom and the rest of my community. We created our own territory as an Indigenous group; this accomplishment cannot be overstated.

In the 1970s, while many Inuit were still living on the land and sustaining themselves by harvesting, there were other Inuit using their residential school educations to become lawyers. They would go on to create the means for protecting our unique lifestyle—including overseeing the creation of the Nunavut Agreement and our own territory.

For me, these protections mean safeguarding our language and our harvesting rights. Inuit society depends on our connection to each other and our environment. These connections come from knowledge produced since time immemorial. Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (Inuit traditional knowledge) is what Inuit know to be true—our own form of science, you could say.

Rob Comeau drum dancing on stage

© Michelle Valberg

Practicing traditional drum dance is one of the ways I work to preserve my culture.

Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (Inuit Traditional Knowledge)

This knowledge system is what guides our language and harvesting. When we harvest animals that sustain us—like fish, caribou, seal, or whales—our respect for the animals is front of mind. We are taught to use every part of the harvest, from the meat to the bones. Our elders teach us which parts to share with who and why.

Each season, I give my first catch to my Auntie Kathy because she is my arnaqutik. This means that she was there during my birth. This is one of the special relationships that I carry with me and is but one example of complex family support systems that comprise our unique worldview.

Rob Comeau building qajaq kayaks

Building traditional qajait allows me to express my creative side and is a huge source of personal pride.

What do Nunavut and the Nunavut Agreement mean to me? It is the living process of Inuit planning and doing what is needed in order to protect our way of life. Inuit express this way of life in myriad ways.

To this day, we create amazing music, we perform tremendous athletic feats, and we produce gorgeous clothing and works of art. We revere the knowledgeable hunters supporting their families. We respect our change-makers who work to incorporate Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit into the everyday functioning of our territory.

Advocacy for Inuit

Inuit in Nunavut have always worked and fought for the betterment of our own people. If it wasn’t for the hard work of Inuit who fought for equal recognition of our Inuktitut language, we would not be where we are today—with Inuktitut joining English and French together on territorial documentation and policy. If it weren’t for those Inuit who fought for education rights, we would not be where we are today—with our right to determine our own scholarly destiny.

Robert Comeau onboard presentation

© Dennis Minty

I'm proud to share my history and heritage, guiding trips in the North as a cultural educator and expedition team member.

Now that I am able to understand the history of colonization in Canada and the impact it has had on my family, I need to make the conscious choice to use my privilege. How can I work to make things better for Inuit?

One answer that I’ve been working on simply talking with other Canadians about it. The more we can raise awareness about our challenges and achievements as Inuit in Nunavut, the better the chance that when Inuit speak, southerners will listen.

My Challenge to You

So, this is where I challenge you to go beyond just celebrating Inuit success stories such as the creation of our territory of Nunavut. No Canadians should ignore the great achievements made by Inuit—and no Canadians should ignore the immense challenges we face. For a country that prides itself on a northern identity, there has been little effort to learn about the peoples of the North.

This process is not a comfortable one. It means deconstructing your preconceptions about us. It means taking an active listening role instead of deigning to tell us how we should fix the problems we face.

With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Ninety-Four Calls to Action, or the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples' recommendations, there are ample resources for all Canadians to have a direct impact on how we move forward together.

Historical and modern day treaty map canada

© ReconciliationEducation.ca

Shown here, Nunavut is placed within its larger context of Indigenous treaty lands in Canada.

One of the other ways you can support this work is by finding out whose traditional territories you live upon. Is there a treaty? What is the expectation of you as a treaty person? If there is no treaty, what do you feel are your obligations as someone living on unceded lands?

The history of Nunavut marks the continuation of a tradition of resilient self-learning that has defined our culture for thousands of years—and will continue to do so for thousands more. When we pause to acknowledge these achievements, it also marks how far we still have to come as a country.

About the Author

Robert Comeau

Robert Comeau

Expedition Team Member

Robert is an Inuk law student studying in his hometown of Iqaluit as a student of the Nunavut Law Program. He graduated from Carleton University in 2017 obtaining a Bachelor of Arts with a major in history and a minor in political science. A staunch advocate for Inuit rights, Robert immerses himself in the dialogue by publishing, attending conferences, and facilitating workshops.

He is a founding board member and the current Vice-President of the Qajakkut Society based in Iqaluit. In this work, Robert supports the delivery of qajaq building programs and Paddle Canada certifications. He enjoys any activity that gets him out on the water such as hunting, fishing, or paddling.