New documentary to offer Inuit view of Nunavik land claim talks
“Youth want to know what drove them so hard; what inspired them to take on the federal government"
For a younger generation of Nunavimmiut, the black and white images of shaggy-haired Inuit negotiators sitting around a table are only a brief glimpse into a major turning point in Nunavik’s history.
The Inuit and Cree who sat down alongside the provincial and federal governments in the early 1970s produced the country’s first modern land claims agreement for the regions of James Bay and Northern Quebec.
But young people in the region have told their birthright organization they want to better understand that historic process.
“A lot of these negotiators were only in their 20s,” said William Tagoona, who works in communications for Makivik Corp.. “Youth want to know what drove them so hard; they want to know what inspired them to take on the federal government.”
Those inquiries led Makivik to launch a documentary project to capture the perspectives of the Inuit signatories of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, which will be the first made-in-Nunavik film about the negotiations, with a focus on Inuit involvement.
The need to properly document that part of Nunavik’s history was identified during last year’s Parnasimautik consultations, which toured the region and found Nunavimmiut want to see better preservation of their culture.
Tagoona said the timing is right to gather the memories of the nine surviving signatories from the original group of 11, which includes Johnny Williams, Sarollie Weetaluktuk, Peter Inukpuk, Tommy Cain, Charlie Watt, Zebedee Nungak, Putilik Papigatuk, Charlie Arngak and Robbie Tookalook.
Signatories George Koneak and Mark Annanack have since passed away.
“We know the youth are really hungry for information about why land claims came to be, and why the agreement came out as it is,” Tagoona said. “This will help them understand where they are today.”
Tagoona, who at the time worked in communications for Makivik’s predecessor, the Northern Quebec Inuit Association, sat in on many of the negotiating sessions and the visits Inuit negotiators made to Nunavik communities in 1973 and 1974.
“[Nunavik] had so little funding then, no telephones, and we’d fly into these communities on single-engine airplanes,” he said. “We slept in schools, sometimes on the floor.”
“When we tell these stories to young people, their eyes light up,” he added. “They don’t realize the benefits they see in their communities weren’t always there.”
Negotiations began shortly after Quebec announced in 1971 its plans to build a system of hydroelectric dams in northern Quebec, along waterways historically used by Cree and Inuit.
The JBNQA was signed Nov. 11, 1975, after four years of negotiations.
It was Canada’s first modern comprehensive land claims agreement. James Bay Cree and the Inuit of northern Quebec ceded territory totalling 450,000 square kilometres in exchange for $225 million in compensation.
In Nunavik, the agreement also brought about the creation of major organizations such as the Kativik Regional Government, the Kativik School Board, and the Inuit birthright organization, Makivik, which manages the compensation funds.
Makivik has contracted Montreal production company Studio Pascal Blais to shoot the film.
The documentary will be co-directed by Tagoona and Ole Gjerstad, who has 25 years of filmmaking experience in the Canadian Arctic.
Starting next month, a film crew will arrive in Kuujjuaq to begin interviews with the nine signatories, but also with many Nunavimmiut who played a role in negotiations behind the scenes.
“A lot of those guys were so young,” Tagoona said. “But they had many elders advising them. We want to go into the communities and talk to people who remember what was happening at the time.There’s not many people left.”
To tell the whole story, the film crew will also need to sit down with dissidents who rejected the agreement, members of Inuit Tungavingat Nunamini, Tagoona said, as well as government officials who sat across the table.
“We want this film to show youth the reality of what they have today,” Tagoona said. “It also takes it to a whole new level, but showing them they can take on that leadership too.”
Tagoona estimates the project will cost about $500,000, funded by Makivik with support from the Kativik Regional Government and Kativik School Board.
The goal is to have the film done in time to be screened at Makivik’s annual general meeting in 2015, also the 40th anniversary of the signing of the JBNQA.
The film will be available in Inuttitut, English and French.