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The Nunas: An Introduction to the Four Inuit Homelands in Canada

In Canada, Inuit make their home along the entire northern coast, from Alaska’s border to Labrador. Together these homelands are named Inuit Nunangat, “the lands, waters, and ices of Inuit.” Here, Adventure Canada political scientist, historian, and journalist Aaron Spitzer gives us a primer on Inuit regional land-claim agreements.
Guest uses binoculrs Eclipse Sound Nunatsiavut

© Jen Derbach

Eclipse Sound, Nunatsiavut

Before colonization, the people of Inuit Nunangat generally had little need for formal politics. Unlike First Nations inland from them, Inuit tended to eschew chiefs, tribal structures, and almost all other forms of hierarchy. Living in small, mobile, fluid groups usually consisting of a few families, they were committed egalitarians. Shamans or expert hunters might wield disproportionate influence, but everyone was formally equal—even children, who were named after, treated like, and felt to embody the spirits of deceased relatives.

In response to the encroachment of Europeans, however, Inuit began to organize. It started locally, camp by camp, when perhaps the boldest member, or the best English speaker, would appeal to the visiting Mountie, priest, bureaucrat, or fur-trader for fairer treatment. By the 1960s, such Inuit political efforts had laddered up from the local to the regional level, with, for example, the co-operative movement, which challenged the Arctic trade monopoly held by southern firms like the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Then, in 1969, Canada’s federal government released its “White Paper,” proposing to abolish Indigenous legal status, dissolve existing reservations, and phase out the historic treaties. Indigenous peoples were outraged, and for the first time protested on a national scale. A few years later came the Supreme Court’s Calder decision, holding that Indigenous land title was not expunged by Canada’s assertions of sovereignty. Suddenly, the modern Indigenous-rights movement was in full swing.

Panorama Nunavut Prince Leopold Island

© Mark Edward Harris

Prince Leopold Island, Nunavut

Scrambling to react, Ottawa in 1973 introduced a land-claims policy, whereby Indigenous groups could sit down with government officials to negotiate “modern treaties,” offering cash and benefits in exchange for formal surrender of native title. In a similar vein, the federal government in 1995 introduced a self-government policy, whereby Indigenous groups could negotiate to break free of the Indian Act and establish their own semi-autonomous governments.

The peoples of Inuit Nunangat were among the first to act, commencing trailblazing efforts that today have resulted in four discrete land-claims jurisdictions. These are the four Inuit nunas (lands): Nunavut, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut, and Inuvialuit Nunangat (also known as the Inuvialuit Settlement Region).

Map of Inuit Nunangat ITK

© Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami

Nunavut

Meaning “our land,” Nunavut sprawls across the eastern and central Arctic of Canada, reaching north to within 800 kilometres of the pole and south to include islands in James Bay, just offshore of Ontario. If Nunavut were a country it would be the world’s thirteenth largest, just ahead of Mexico. It’s home to around 40,000 people, more than 85% of whom are Inuit (called Nunavummiut), dwelling in communities that range in population from roughly 8,000 in Iqaluit, the territory’s capital, on Baffin Island to 129 in Ausuittuq (Grise Fiord), the northernmost community, on Ellesmere Island.

Panorama Grise Fiord Nunavut

© John Huyer

Ausuittuq (Grise Fiord), Nunavut

Nunavut is Canada’s newest federal unit. Following a two-decades-long campaign by Inuit, it was officially carved out of the Northwest Territories in 1999, becoming a free-standing territory. As such, unlike the other regions of Inuit Nunangat, Nunavut features a public government, representing not just Nunavummiut but all people resident in the territory. In many ways this government is like other provincial and territorial governments, with a legislature, an executive cabinet, and ministries in charge of mundane portfolios like finance and housing. In other ways, however, it’s distinct. Four of these distinctions are noteworthy.

First, Nunavut’s legislature operates in a “consensus style.” The assembly members do not represent parties, so there is no majority party to form the government and no minority to act as the official opposition. Rather, the premier and cabinet ministers are selected from among the assembly members, serve at their pleasure, and must win the support of a significant proportion of them in order to pass legislation. This consensus style is viewed as in keeping with Inuit tradition.

Cambridge Bay Nunavut

© Mark Edward Harris

Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), Nunavut

Second, Nunavut’s government is “decentralized.” Rather than all departmental divisions and agencies being headquartered in Iqaluit, they are dispersed throughout the territory, to bring decision-making (and jobs) closer to the people.

Third, Nunavut’s government is supposed to act in accordance with Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or Inuit traditional values. These values include caring for people, community, and the environment, and acting inclusively and collaboratively.

Fourth and finally, the Nunavut government is watch-dogged by Inuit land-claims beneficiary corporations, and often must collaborate with them. For example, wildlife regulations in the territory are formulated through “co-management,” with decision-making authority shared between land-claims corporations, the Nunavut government, and the federal government.

Nunavut Radstock Bay Caswell Tower Devon Island

© Mark Edward Harris

Radstock Bay, Nunavut

Nunavik

Meaning “the great land,” Nunavik comprises all of the province of Québec north of the fifty-fifth parallel. Though larger than California, this region is home to just 13,000 people. Roughly 90% are Inuit (Nunavimmiut), residing in fourteen communities, of which the largest is the administrative centre, Kuujjuaq, population 2,700.

Until the 1960s, Inuit here were all but ignored by the Québec government. Then sovereigntists proposed to enrich the province by tapping its remote resources. Their most ambitious plan was the James Bay hydroelectric project, involving flooding vast swaths of the north. Inuit and their Cree neighbours protested in court, forcing Québec to the bargaining table. What resulted was Canada’s first-ever “modern treaty,” the 1975 James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement, or JBNQA.

Polar bear akpatok island nunavik

© Stephen Gorman

Akpatok Island, Nunavik

The treaty was stingy by today’s standards. It provided Nunavimmiut with property rights over less than 2% of their traditional land, exclusive hunting and trapping rights over 15%, and preferential hunting and trapping rights over the rest. It also paid them $120 million, and set up a land-claims beneficiary corporation, Makivik, to manage that money, investing it in such ventures as the airline Canadian North. Finally, the JBNQA established three regional bureaucracies, which, in coordination with the Québec government, administer local education, health and social services, and municipal affairs.

What the JBNQA did not do was provide Nunavik with its own government with independent funding and decision-making authority. Since 1983, local leaders have pressed to establish such a body, with their efforts alternatively helped and hindered by Québec’s own sovereignty campaigns. In the early 2000s, Makivik, Québec, and the federal government came to a preliminary agreement on such a government, putting the plan to Nunavimmiut voters in a 2011 referendum. The voters rejected it, with many feeling the deal offered insufficient power and too little protection for Nunavik’s language and culture. Modified negotiations are ongoing.

Nunatsiavut

Meaning “our beautiful land,” Nunatsiavut encompasses most of Labrador north of Lake Melville—an area the size of New Brunswick, with 2,600 residents in five communities, the biggest being Nain, population 1,100.

Panorama Nain nunatsiavut

© Dennis Minty

Nain, Nunatsiavut

Though Inuit in Labrador filed a land-claim in 1977, their appeals were all but ignored until the provincial and federal governments’ hands were forced. It happened in 1993, when rich nickel deposits were discovered at Voisey’s Bay, near Nain. Inuit threatened to scuttle the proposed mine unless their demands were met. Suddenly negotiations accelerated, with an agreement being inked in 2005.

In some ways this deal was like that in Nunavik, with Nunatsiavummiut (sometimes also called Labradorimiut) abandoning their claim to the whole region in exchange for explicit ownership of certain lands, financial compensation, and harvesting rights. But on top of that, the settlement came with a self-government agreement—the first ever established in an Inuit region in Canada.

Unlike in Nunavut or Nunavik, the Nunatsiavut government is what is called a “self-government.” Rather than being a public government that represents all residents, it for the most part represents only Labrador’s Inuit beneficiaries, whether residents of the region or not. It does so by way of a legislature, based in Nunatsiavut’s second-largest community, Hopedale, and an administrative centre, based in Nain. It wields a range of powers and responsibilities that are normally the domain of provincial or territorial governments, such as lands, health, education, and cultural affairs.

Nunatsiavut torngat mountains from the air

© Rob Poulton

Torngat Mountains, Nunatsiavut

Inuvialuit Nunangat

“Inuvialuit” is not the name of a place but rather a people—the “real people” of the Mackenzie River Delta and Arctic coast of the Northwest Territories and Yukon. Their settlement region is almost the size of the island of Newfoundland. It is home to around 4,000 Inuvialuit in six communities, the largest being the regional centre, Inuvik.

As in Nunavik and Nunatsiavut, Inuvialuit negotiations were spurred by a plan for invasive development—in this case, the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, touted in the 1970s as Canada’s most ambitious construction project. Concerned they would reap the costs of the pipeline but none of the benefits, the Inuvialuit formed the Committee for Original Peoples Entitlement (COPE) and launched a land claim. In 1984 they became the first group in the Northwest Territories to ink a settlement with the federal government.

The agreement gives Inuvialuit harvesting rights, direct ownership of certain parts of their historic lands, and co-management authority over the rest. It also provided them with $45 million in settlement monies, to be managed by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, which has invested in such ventures as the airline First Air.

As in Nunavik, what the Inuvialuit land-claim did not provide was self-government. The Inuvialuit have long worked to negotiate such a deal – first in collaboration with the neighbouring Gwich’in First Nations people, in hopes of creating a sort of public regional government, and later on their own, likely with the end goal of a standalone, non-public government similar to that of Nunatsiavut. So far, no deal has materialized.

About the Author

Aaron Spitzer

Aaron Spitzer

Historian, Political Scientist, Journalist

For more than twenty years, Aaron has obsessively explored, studied, documented—and yammered about—the world’s polar places.

For a decade he ran Up Here, the journal of Canada’s north, which in 2010 was named the country’s best magazine. Before that, Aaron edited Canada’s northernmost paper (Nunatsiaq News), the world’s southernmost paper (Antarctic Sun), and the highest-circulation paper in the Alaskan “Bush” (Tundra Drums).

Aaron recently left Arctic journalism for Arctic academia. He earned a master’s degree in Northern Studies at the University of Alaska in 2015, and is now working on his Ph.D. at the University of Bergen, Norway, where he examines the opportunities and challenges of Indigenous governance in the circumpolar world.

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