Nunavut leaders reflect on 20 years of political change
Nunavut Day marks milestone in Inuit rights, development
Nunavut leaders past and present gathered in Iqaluit for Nunavut Day, July 9, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the land claims agreement that gave birth to the territory.
It was a day political veterans recalled as a turning point in the history of Canada’s North, hearkening back to a very different time in Canadian politics when a government under prime minister Brian Mulroney passed an act that created the country’s newest – and largest jurisdiction, as part of an aboriginal land claims agreement.
After the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and the Nunavut Act were given speedy passage in Parliament, Mulroney signed the land claim agreement May 25, 1993, at a big ceremony in Iqaluit that was televised nationally.
On July 9, 1993, Pauline Browes, a Toronto MP who had served only three weeks as minister of Indian and northern affairs, attended a ceremony in Kugluktuk.
There, she handed over an order-in-council signed by Ramon Hnatyshyn, then the governor general, that proclaimed the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and the Nunavut Act into law.
The passage and proclamation of those two laws were among the Mulroney government’s last major decisions before the Progressive Conservative party, under his successor, Kim Campbell, was virtually wiped out in a federal election held Oct. 25 1993.
“The finalization of the Nunavut land claim, with its commitment to create Nunavut in Article 4, was a miracle,” said Senator Dennis Patterson, recalling the events of 1993.
For much of the negotiation period, Patterson was minister of justice and premier of the Northwest Territories, and MLA for Iqaluit.
When the prime minister came to Iqaluit to sign the agreement on May 25 that year, Patterson said, “he pledged ‘I will make a commitment to introduce legislation to finalize the land claim during my mandate.’
“He didn’t know it at the time, but his days were numbered.”
The agreement “was done in the nick of time,” said Patterson. “I don’t know that it would have happened if there had been a change of government.”
Tagak Curley, now MLA for Rankin Inlet North and a veteran of many political battles and negotiations in the Arctic, agreed.
“We had to settle that at a particular time in history,” he told Nunatsiaq News.
“It was timely in my view, when we settled it in parliament in ’93. Because a year late, and we wouldn’t have got this kind of land claim settlement,” Curley said.
Patterson and Curley were among the many leaders to attend the main ceremony marking the 20th anniversary at Iqaluit’s four corners, put on by Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.
Premier Eva Aariak remarked that the agreement is just the start of a process to build new systems of education, justice, health care, in an ongoing effort to provide “a better life for our people,” she said.
“Twenty years is not enough time to fulfill the promise and the dreams of Nunavut. This will take many more years,” the premier said. “In some cases, more than one generation. The signing of the land claim was really just the beginning.”
Like some other speakers, she referred to the continuing dispute between Ottawa and NTI over implementation of the agreement, now the subject of a lawsuit that NTI filed in December 2006.
“It is deeply unfortunate that disagreements over the implementation of the land claim have ended up in court. Today, we have a new opportunity to sit down, and through our commitment to piliriqatigiinniq, chart a course that will lead to a better future for all Nunavummiut,” Aariak said in a statement.
Up to 500 Nunavummiut gathered in Iqaluit at noon to hear speeches from the Igluvut building at the start of the afternoon, and watch NTI unveil a monument commemorating the historic agreement.
Speakers even included Bernard Valcourt, a former Mulroney caucus member who now serves as aboriginal affairs minister for the Harper Conservatives.
Valcourt was quick to tell the crowd that he was a member of the government that passed the Nunavut land claims agreement act in Parliament on July 9, 1993.
“The government of the day recognized Nunavut’s potential then,” he told the crowd. “I am especially pleased to be here to mark the 20th anniversary as a representative of Prime Minister Harper’s government, a government which I would suggest, like none other before, has also recognized the North’s potential.”
Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq could not make it to the ceremony as planned, Valcourt said, “because of her duties.”
NTI president Cathy Towtongie drew the greatest reaction from audiences, who managed to keep clear of streets at the four-corners.
Asked by on-lookers to speak louder, Towtongie shouted through the microphone during her speech.
“Twenty years ago, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement became law. And Inuit began the long journey to take back their rightful places as leaders of the land,” she told the crowd, who responded with cheers.
“As Nunavut people – and I’m including Nunavut Northerners and Nunavut Inuit – we have a long way to go in implementing the Nunavut land claims agreement.”
Towtongie called out a long list of Inuit leaders who helped make the agreement reality, ending with “the people who area really responsible – the translators,” she said to laughs from the audience.