National Inuit leader asks Canadians to focus on Arctic issues

After more than 20 years of negotiations between nation-states and indigenous peoples, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on Sept. 13. Only four of the UN’s member nations voted against the declaration: Australia, New Zealand, the United States – and Canada.

This development was noted pointedly by Mary Simon, leader of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national organization representing the Inuit in Canada, in a public lecture at Glendon Oct. 18, the first stop on a national lecture tour. Simon said her goal in giving the lectures was to inform the Canadian public of the changing conditions in the Arctic regions affecting indigenous life, and to acquaint them with the most urgent issues and ongoing problems faced by the Arctic population. 

Right: Mary Simon (centre, seated at table) delivers her  lecture in Glendon’s Senate chamber

In her passionate lecture, Simon spoke eloquently and directly to those gathered about the challenges facing the Inuit. She pointed to the four Arctic regions where the Inuit of Canada live: Nunavut (northern Canada), Nunavik (northern Quebec), Nunatsiavut (Newfoundland and Labrador) and Inuvialuit (Northwest Territories). “The Arctic is in urgent need of consideration and public interest," said Simon. “It is a region whose time has come. In setting policies for the present and the future, Canada can’t ignore this area, which comprises one third of the country’s land mass.”

Simon noted that the Inuit live in communities – currently numbering 53 – rather than on reserves. They have a long-standing, well-developed culture and a unique language. They pay the same taxes as other Canadians, said Simon, but there are no roads leading to the rest of the country, and all supplies and transportation arrive by air. This makes daily life very expensive, said Simon, who pointed out that many Inuit own land and businesses and have a great desire to be self-sufficient.

“Yet the social realities can be startling," said Simon. “Overcrowded housing is the norm; drugs, abuse and suicide rates are very high. Life expectancy is 13 years lower than among the general population of the country.” With several generations typically sharing small living spaces, young people are likely to drop out of school at an early age, said Simon, who highlighted that 46 per cent of the Inuit population never finishes high school, as compared to 15 per cent for the rest of Canada.

“Canada is an Arctic country," said Simon. “Contrary to Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper’s repeated statement about ‘using or losing’ the Arctic, this region is not an empty space; it has always been lived in and ‘used’ by the Inuit.” The region is currently the focus of some of the most important issues of the day, said Simon. It is at the epicentre of rapid climate change, with the Arctic icecap melting three times faster than predicted, causing rising sea levels all over the globe. It is also a region with huge natural resources, ready for exploitation, cautioned Simon.

Above: From left, lecture co-host Ian Martin, Glendon professor of English; Glendon Principal Kenneth McRoberts; Mary Simon; and lecture co-host Anna Hudson, visual arts professor in the Faculty of Fine Arts

“We are ready to work on these issues with the rest of Canada," said Simon. “And we have a number of suggestions about how to proceed.” These challenges, said Simon, include the development of a national climate-change policy with strict guidelines and timelines, the appointment of a climate change auditor, as well as a structure to be put in place for Inuit participation in decisions pertaining to their region and their livelihood. As the president of ITK, Simon declared that the exploitation of Arctic resources must be sustainable and of benefit to northern communities. She pointed out that this is the best opportunity for improving the social and human dimensions of the Arctic, a chance to turn around the tragic circumstances of drug abuse and hopelessness. With proper education and training for new jobs, the Inuit can hope to achieve standards of living that approach that of the national average.

Simon brought important messages for the government of Canada from the ITK: "To be creative in securing Canada’s sovereignty to its Arctic regions; to get serious about the issues of climate change; to implement modern land claim agreements; and to deliver on the agreements made at the 2005 Kelowna Accord. We are proudly Canadian as well as proudly Inuit," said Simon. “Our region is an area of growing importance at home and internationally. We are in great need of investment, but the Arctic mission must be defined in collaboration with the Inuit communities.”

Simon encouraged her audience to become better informed about Arctic issues, and suggested they ask questions and communicate their interest in the Arctic to those around them. “Let us confirm our confidence in the future of the Inuit communities. All Canadians have a responsibility to support their needs,” she said. 

The lecture was organized and co-hosted by visual arts Professor Anna Hudson of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Glendon English Professor Ian Martin.

Simon continues to devote much of her career and energies to promoting the issues of the Arctic and its people. See the Oct. 12th issue of YFile for an overview of her career.

Submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny