Inside Story

Northeastern Canada’s self-governing Inuit

The Nunatsiavut assembly sits at the intersection of Inuit and European political traditions

Harry Hobbs Books 10 August 2023 1545 words

“Pragmatic adaptability”: the coastal town of Hopedale, where the Nunatsiavut assembly meets. Viktor Posnov/Alamy

“Words can’t explain it,” Toby Andersen declared on 1 December 2005. “The elation is overwhelming.” The chief negotiator for the Labrador Inuit Association was celebrating the swearing-in of the inaugural cabinet of the Nunatsiavut government in northeastern Canada. Nunatsiavut — “Our Beautiful Land” in Inuttut, the local dialect — promised Labrador Inuit what colonisation had taken from them: the right to make their own laws and control their own destinies.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are calling for similar recognition in Australia. Despite very different constitutional and political settings, Canadian political scientist Graham White’s new book, “We Are in Charge Here”: Inuit Self-Government and the Nunatsiavut Assembly, offers much for Australian readers watching the development of innovative native title settlements in Western Australia and modern treaty-making in Victoria and elsewhere.

While those experiments in Indigenous self-governance remain aspirational, White provides a comprehensive profile of functioning self-government in Canada. If Australian treaty processes continue apace, we may soon see a diverse range of culturally resurgent self-government structures empowering Indigenous communities to respond to contemporary challenges.

Until relatively recently, Indigenous self-governance in Canada was also largely aspirational (if we put to one side extensive precolonial histories). Scholars developed arguments for self-government without being able to assess how it works in practice. Given that self-government’s success, in White’s words, is “highly dependent on the design, operation, and effectiveness” of the legal and policy architecture within which it sits, White’s analysis of the Nunatsiavut in action is especially welcome.

The Nunatsiavut government’s origins lie in what’s formally known as a comprehensive land claim — a modern-day treaty. Canada’s long history of treaty-making began in 1701, and although the seventy signed between then and 1923 were not always fair bargains — and were sometimes honoured only in the breach — they recognised that Indigenous communities owned their land and possessed rights to their country.

Even so, vast areas of Canada were never subject to treaty; like Australia, the Canadian Crown simply asserted ownership and control. But the Supreme Court of Canada complicated this approach in 1973 when it held that Aboriginal title existed prior to the colonisation of North America. Anxious to resolve difficult questions over ownership of land, the Canadian government quickly established a process to negotiate outstanding claims with Indigenous communities. After another two decades of Indigenous political activity, the Canadian government agreed in 1995 that self-government arrangements could form part of comprehensive land claims.

Modern Indigenous self-governance in Canada comes in a variety of forms. In some cases, federal legislation delegates significant authority in a particular sector to specific Indigenous communities; in others, such as the Sechelt Indian Band Self-Government Act, legislation recognises more general powers of autonomy.

In certain regions, demographics have also created the conditions for de facto Indigenous governments. In places like Nunavut and Nunavik in northern Quebec, benefits and services are open to all residents (unlike Indigenous self-government regimes, which are characterised by exclusionary provisions), but with Inuit comprising most of the population the local legislatures essentially operate as Indigenous governments.

These self-government regimes are largely creatures of federal (and in some cases, provincial) legislation. Although they may devolve substantial autonomy, federal and provincial governments retain the authority to revise and even drastically curtail its exercise. This is not the case for self-government arrangements that emerge from comprehensive land claims agreements: section 35 of the Canadian constitution, which recognises and affirms “aboriginal and treaty rights,” provides significant legal protection for this model.

Twenty-three such agreements have been struck, of which Nunatsiavut is the largest in terms of population. Its governance model thus ranks “among the strongest, most autonomous self-government regimes in Canada,” according to White. This is good news for the roughly 7000 Labrador Inuit beneficiaries, around 2400 of whom live in Nunatsiavut’s 72,520 square kilometre territory.

The negotiations that led to the formation of Nunatsiavut, like all comprehensive land claims agreements, proved challenging. Although the claim was filed in 1977, talks didn’t commence until 1988 and only in 2001 was in-principle agreement reached between the Labrador Inuit Association and the governments of Newfoundland and Canada.

Because the federal government “determines the rules of the process,” Labrador Inuit negotiators were forced to offer what White calls “substantial concessions.” Nevertheless, and despite some unease, the agreement was ratified by the beneficiaries in 2004, and the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement entered into force the following year. The first assembly elections were held in 2006.

We Are in Charge Here focuses on the Nunatsiavut assembly, the key democratic body in the territory. In clear, patient prose, White surveys the assembly’s first fifteen years, assessing its structure, operation and effectiveness. He examines the assembly’s success in carrying out its core parliamentary functions, its relationship with the Nunatsiavut executive council (or cabinet), and — critically — whether and how Labrador Inuit culture has influenced the design and practice of this distinctive parliamentary institution.

White also skilfully weaves his technical study of the Nunatsiavut assembly into a deeper examination of the opportunities and tensions involved in blending Indigenous and Western constitutional orders within the state.

The Nunatsiavut assembly is “a site of intersection” between Inuit and Euro-Canadian cultural traditions, he writes. Within a Westminster-style institution, power is concentrated in cabinet — the president and four ordinary members of the assembly — which is responsible to the assembly. Members of the assembly exercise accountability functions through committees and question time.

Nevertheless, the assembly has “some decidedly non-Westminster features.” “Explicitly designed and mandated to reflect and enhance Inuit culture,” its eighteen members must be Inuit. The president is directly elected by all beneficiaries (who must be fluent in Inuktitut) and ten members are elected by geographic electorates, with the membership rounded out with the angajukKât (mayors) of the five Nunatsiavut Inuit community governments and the chairs of the two Inuit community corporations. The speaker is nonpartisan but unusually active and influential.

It is not just the structure of the assembly that differs from the traditional Westminster system. In White’s words, the practice of the parliament demonstrates the “pragmatic adaptability of the Labrador Inuit,” who have modified key elements to “render serviceable for Inuit purposes a decidedly colonial governance model.”

Adversarial politics is shunned as incompatible with Inuit political culture. Political parties are absent, and consensus decision-making is common — though divided and secret votes do occur. Perhaps most alien to Australian readers, a strict and enforceable code of conduct (including no drinking on the job) has led to several dismissals from the ministry and expulsions from the assembly.

But the institution that emerges from White’s research faces real challenges, though their precise cause is difficult to pinpoint. The legislature is largely quiescent, happy to be led by the cabinet. The assembly is not especially active in its key roles of policymaking, legislating, educating the public, and maintaining accountability.

Is this a function of a non-confrontational Inuit political culture or does it reflect conditions in the community the assembly serves? Nunatsiavut is geographically remote, its major population centres small and difficult to access by transport that can’t be used during winter. The assembly, which receives almost 2 per cent of the Nunatsiavut budget, operates on a shoestring, without parliamentary or research staff. Media attention is sparse.

And yet the assembly can exert influence when it chooses to do so. The locally contentious issue of uranium mining, for instance, stretches back to the 1950s. In one of its early decisions, the Nunatsiavut government determined to prohibit uranium mining on Labrador Inuit lands. Extended consultations across the territory, held at the assembly’s insistence, led to a modified proposal for a three-year moratorium on mining and development rather than an outright ban. Following more debate, the bill passed eight–seven, with two members of the cabinet in opposition. While consensus is prioritised, it is not always possible; even so, debate on the mining proposal was forthright but civil.

The uranium moratorium bill reveals the strength of the assembly. More important, though, is the fact that the people of Nunatsiavut had the authority to decide the issue.

The first minister drew on this point when he explained that the larger purpose of the bill was to send a message to exploration companies, mining companies and other governments that the assembly is “in charge here in Nunatsiavut… We are the decision body, we will make the rules that apply to our land. It is our land and we will continue to protect it and we have newfound powers that we will use to ensure that development that takes place will be done so on our terms.”

Against the wishes of largely non-Inuit environmental groups, the moratorium was lifted in 2011. The assembly and community were not anti-development or anti-uranium; rather, they demanded the recognition of their autonomy and decision-making authority.

During that 2011 debate Nunatsiavut’s president noted that his people had spent many years being governed by non-Inuit. “That day has passed.” Now “we make our decisions on what we do. We’ll make our own mistakes. We learn from our own mistakes.”

For the people of Nunatsiavut, self-government means controlling their own affairs. It may be challenging at times, but it is through the assembly that this is achieved. And that is worth celebrating. •

“We Are in Charge Here”: Inuit Self-Government and the Nunatsiavut Assembly
By Graham White | University of Toronto Press | C$75 | 304 pages