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Inuit perspectives on land ownership

Author: 
Zebedee Nungak, Windspeaker Columnist
Volume: 
21
Issue: 
7
Year: 
2003

Page 15

NASIVVIK

Here are a few questions that have crossed the mind of every Aboriginal person in Canada at some time or other: When and how did our ancestral lands become the property of somebody else? By whose doctrine have we found ourselves to be somebody else's subjects, bereft of lands and resources, doomed to be tenants in our own lands?

In the nomadic times of our grandfathers, the land belonged to everybody, yet belonged to nobody. Inuit wandered great distances freely without having to worry about who owned what stretch of land or sea. If an area sustained life, Inuit were there without a thought as to who would pretend to be owner of it. So this question is perplexing, even today, to Inuit, whose historical memory was unencumbered by the imperative to define ownership. How on earth did our land end up belonging to the Crown?

At a First Ministers Conference on Aboriginal Rights in March 1984, Nisga'a Chief James Gosnell thundered out this assertion: 'We own this land, lock, stock, and barrel; from the North Pole to the tip of South America.' To this, Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau snapped back, 'From where do we start? I mean, do we go back to Creation?' This exchange graphically exposed the fundamental divide between those who were here first and the European settlers' pretensions to being masters of the lands their immigrant ancestors "founded."

The standard formality of Qallunaat (white) settlers was planting a flag to claim jurisdiction over vast stretches of land for their king or queen. This was easy for people who regarded their "discoveries" as terra nullius, an empty No Man's Land entirely up for grabs. Such claims framed the continent's Aboriginal inhabitants to eventually becoming squatters in their own lands. Pre-existing occupancy was totally disregarded as the land was carved up, over time, into tidy political units.

In the Arctic, there has never been a war between Inuit and Qallunaat over the question of who owns what land. Over the years, Qallunaat simply took over, much in the way they did in other parts of the world. They took every advantage of the perceived absence of "civilization" among First Nations and Inuit. (The Iroquois Foreign Immigration Bureau should not have been so lax in checking out the colonial designs of the original arrivals from Europe.)

Let us for a moment imagine a reverse order of the colonial process. Inuit angakkuit (shamen), intent on colonizing some stretches of Europe, land in St. Malo, France and Plymouth, England. They plant their amulets on the shore, loudly assert ownership of all that they see, and tell the locals that their heretofore adequate existence is null and void.

The angakkuit issue directives, all very foreign to the English and French, as the newly enforced law. Lands are arbitrarily divided into units that are divined in seances, with absolutely no regard for how things were done before. Being "civilized", with all its hierarchies and vices, is out. Being primitive, with all its pure communistic sharing of just about everything, is in.

Now, angakkuit with such pretensions would be the laughingstock of the French Malo-ines and the English Plymouthites. Or worse, they would simply be ignored. Probably, the Europeans, being civilized, would have a less open immigration policy than our ancestors and would unceremoniously shoo away these pretentious foreigners. Does it sound wacky when laid out this way? The British and the French have done this in all seriousness. And, eventually, the "Crown" took everything by hook, crook, or colonial fiat.

Claiming back tattered remnants of our lands and resources has been an exercise in coming full circle in the hardest possible ways. In modern land claims settlements, governments force Aboriginal people to first sign "extinguishment and surrender" of all their claims to the land, then assign them tiny dots on the map as ownership lands or reserves. For people who were once lords and stewards over heir lands and seas, this is insult upon injury, rating among the greatest inflicted of all time.

Lands claimed, wherever they may be, look like Apartheid-era "homelands" in South Africa. The absence of respectful regard toward Iindigenous inhabitants inherent in the colonial legacy manifests itself in the greatly uneven record of claims processed. Some, like the Nisga'a claim, take obscenely long. Others, like James Bay, are done with undue haste.

Aboriginal groups have never based claims on Trudeau's extreme over-reach of going back to Creation. Neither have First Nations, Metis or Inuit advocated sending Canadians of immigrant descent back to the lands of their ancestors. Willingness to share, a defining feature of the Indigenous character, has been exploited and abused, to deprive Canada's original people of the lands and resources that once sustained a rich and full life in this great country.

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