Quebec Inuit seek to achieve autonomy through “self-determination process”

Quebec’s leading Inuit organisation holds public conversation to define what self-government for Nunavik should look like

Kuujjuaq, capital of Nunavut.
Kuujjuaq, capital of Nunavut. Author: Leogoguen @ Flickr
Quebec announced in December 2020 an agreement to demarcate 20% of its northern territory —home to the Inuit people— to protect it from industrial exploitation. But Quebec’s main Inuit organisation, the Makivik Corporation, is saying now is not the time to talk about that, as the priority lies in an ongoing “self-determination process” that should lead to the creation of an autonomous government in Nunavik.

Nunavik is one of the four territories where most of Canada’s 65,000 Inuit live. The other three are Inuvialuit Nunangat, which belongs to the Northwest Territories and Yukon, Nunatsiavut in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, where Inuit demands for self-government also exist, and finally Nunavut, the only Inuit territory in Canada with its own legislative assembly.

The four territories are collectively known as Inuit Nunangat, which covers 35 percent of Canada. Within this area, Nunavik spans the entire northern third of Quebec, with over 13,000 inhabitants.

Nunavik’s pending autonomy

Inuit self-government in Nunavik has been a pending issue for decades. In 1975, the governments of Canada and Quebec signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement with the Inuit and Cree communities —three years later also with the Naskapi— giving those indigenous peoples rights to land ownership and use. The agreement established the Makivik Corporation as the representative and, to some extent, the administrative and financial organisation of the Quebec Inuit, as well as the Kativik Regional Government, a supramunicipal administration of 14 Inuit-majority and one Naskapi-majority villages, which manages local and other powers devolved by the Quebec government.

Neither the Makivik Corporation nor the Kativik Regional Government have law-making powers. In addition, education and health care responsibilities are managed by two separate bodies: the Kativik School Board and the Regional Board of Health and Social Services.

Since the 1990s, the Inuit of Quebec have been calling for the regrouping of this atomised system through the establishment of a new territorial autonomy of Nunavik, which should be granted legislative, executive, and judicial powers.

From 2007 to 2011, the governments of Canada and Quebec and the Makivik Corporation reached agreements aimed at fulfilling such purpose and creating an autonomous government. They were put to a vote in Nunavik, but two-thirds of the voters rejected them. The outcome was interpreted not as the Inuit people’s renunciation of autonomy, but as a sign of their dissatisfaction as they deemed the powers and funding of Nunavik’s new autonomy insufficient.

According to the Inuit, autonomy must fulfil their fundamental right to self-government, to promote their language and culture, to oppose any neo-colonial policies in Quebec or Canada, and to protect their lands.

That last goal is what the Quebec government says will be closer thanks to the protection of 20% of Nunavik’s territory. Such a measure, the government of the Francophone-majority province explains, has been agreed with the participation of the Makivik Corporation and the Kativik Regional Government.

“Yes we did participate in this process,” admits Makivik Corporation Vice-President Adamie Deslisle-Alaku. “However, at this time, we are in a comprehensive, Nunavik-wide consultation process on the development of our new Nunavik government. As a result, we will not sign any such agreement regarding expanding the protected areas in Nunavik.”

The Makivik Corporation has been carrying out this community consultation process during November and December, which “has revealed strong support for the mandate to develop a Nunavik Inuit Government,” the organisation says. Makivik says it wants to avoid the mistakes of the 2007-2011 process, when popular participation in the tripartite agreement was more limited.

Now Makivik also seeks to draw up a draft Constitution of Nunavik that will be fed by this community conversation, before negotiating anything definitive with the Quebec or Canadian governments. It is in this context that the organisation speaks of a “self-determination process”, as the political debate is first held among the Inuit themselves.

In 2017, the Inuit’s southern neighbours, the Cree, reached an agreement with Canada for the creation of a legislative autonomy in the Quebec territory of Eeyou Istchee, which was under federal jurisdiction. The same year, the Eeyou Itschee Cree adopted their own Constitution.

New federally-endorsed process

The momentum Makivik is now trying to seize in the quest for self-government is geared by the mandate given to the organisation by various Inuit groups in 2018 and the memorandum of understanding that it signed with the Canadian government in June 2019, which specifically speaks of “self-determination”.

The Nunavik Inuit have usually had more fluid relations with the Canadian government than with the Quebec government. The Inuit population of Nunavik is largely supportive of Canada’s unity. There is widespread feeling in Nunavik that successive Quebec governments have in the past given priority to Quebec’s sovereignty claims over Inuit demands.

This however does not spare Nunavik’s criticism of the federal government. One aspect is the perception that the Canadian authorities do not do enough to provide the same services in Nunavik as in southern Canada, where the vast majority of the population is concentrated. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become evident that poor internet service in Nunavik has made access to tele-education or tele-health services more difficult. The Canadian government has promised new investments so that 98% of Canadians will be connected to high-speed internet services by 2026.

The government of Quebec has on several occasions stated it is willing to renegotiate an autonomy agreement for Nunavik. Provided, however, that the territory remains part of Quebec, as envisaged in the 2007-2011 agreement. The Quebec authorities want to avoid a Nunavut-like scenario: in 1999, the Inuit-majority territory split off from the Northwest Territories to become a separate federal unit.

In any case, the Canadian Constitution specifies that the borders of a province can only be altered with the approval of the provincial legislature. Quebec is a province —in the Canadian system, it would be the equivalent of a federal state— while the Northwest Territories are not.