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Iqaluit MMIWG hearings highlight past and present impacts of industry, colonization

In a powerful testimony at the MMIWG hearings in Iqaluit, panelists spoke about the impacts of colonization — dog killings, food insecurity, industry and deficient health care — on Inuit life, health and culture.

Avery Zingel/NNSL photo
Hagar Idlout-Sudlovenick (center) testifies as commission counsel Lillian Lundrigan (right) and Inukshuk Aksalnik look on during the this week’s MMIWG knowledge keeper hearings in Iqaluit.

Inukshuk Aksalnik, coordinator of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission (QTC) described the effects of sled dog killings which made Inuit "lose their mobility," their sense of place and family roles.

An RCMP report on its own alleged historical conduct “favoured” oral testimony from RCMP over Inuit elders, concluding that the killings were for public safety, said Aksalnik.

Inuit saw the slaughter in the larger context of relocations and other colonial violence, she said.

RCMP were the earliest agents of the Canadian government, said panelist Hagar Idlout-Sudlovenick.

Inuit were relocated to settlements with unfamiliar landscapes and game.

“They believed what they were told. When they moved to the community there were no houses,” said Idlout-Sudlovenick.

Those that still possessed their dog teams would sometimes go to the store, only to find their dogs shot and killed in their harnesses when they returned, said Idlout-Sudlovenick.

The QTC report compiled interviews from nearly 350 witnesses about Inuit-government relations between 1950 and 1975, documenting the impacts of government policy on the Baffin Region.

It determined that historical removal of Inuit for southern healthcare treatment separated families, sometimes forever. If patients did return, they had become so detached from their culture and family that they struggled to reintegrate, said Idlout-Sudlovenick.

A database to give closure to families with loved ones who never came home is a step in the right direction, said Idlout-Sudlovenik and Aksalnik.

Family separation continues to damage Inuit families, including when Inuit travel south for health care, and more Inuit turn south in the face of housing shortages, said Aksalnik.

Clash of conflict resolution styles silenced Inuit, commission hears

During relocations and the dog slaughter, Inuit had non-confrontational styles of conflict resolution and were easily manipulated by the threat that food and family allowances would be withdrawn if families did not send their children to residential schools, said Idlout-Sudlovenick.

“They craved country food and were hungry. This is where lives started changing,” said Idlout-Sudlovenick, who agreed an Inuit ombudsman for RCMP would be useful.

Historically, Inuit feared RCMP, and this “fear, intimidation and embarrassment” kept them from speaking out against injustice.

RCMP used unpaid Inuit labour and relied on them as guides and for household chores. Officers were the most frightening of colonizers, she said.

Industrial and infrastructure projects a flashpoint for violence

In the Cold War era, the establishment of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line put North Americans at ease that Soviet bombers would be detected, but for Inuit women, new infrastructure brought “man camps” and maltreatment and shoddy police work, said Idlout-Sudlovenick.

RCMP destroyed detachment records, making it difficult to retrieve information on handling of investigation of assaults and domestic violence. RCMP used their position of authority to coerce Inuit women into short term relationships, often abandoning their children with women when they returned south, she said.

Families of RCMP were moved from post to post and left alone for extended periods, forcing Inuit families to step in and help them, said Idlout-Sudlovenick.

“The wife made the clothes for them in the winter, often with no pay for cooking and cleaning. That was expected of a special constable’s wife. You know it was unpaid,” said Idlout-Sudlovenick.

While some relationships were consensual, others were not. Women could not speak out and “felt powerless,” said Idlout-Sudlovenik.

Inuit women and girls experienced violent sexual and physical assaults between 1950 to 1975, with the increasing prevalence of “young single men living together with little supervision” and drunkenness as a “form of entertainment and defence for criminal acts,” said Aksalnik.

Mounties handled allegations of assault “lightly” compared to allegations in the south, said Aksalnik.

In 1958 a Canadian military worker at FOX-3 on the DEW line wrote an anonymous letter to Northern Affairs detailing allegations of abuse and that the rape accusations that a DEW line worker had raped Inuit women were common knowledge.

The QTC could determine if any action was taken against the DEW line staff in question.

Relationship with industry still fractured for communities

On the third day of hearings, a panel comprised of youth frontline workers and academics testified about the modern impacts of industry on Indigenous Peoples.

Resource extraction across the country has direct effects on the well-being of Indigenous women, through increased sexual and physical violence and exclusion from the consultation stages, said TJ Lightfoot, a two-spirit Mi’kmaw youth and scholar.

Indigenous Peoples are not meaningfully consulted on projects in their territory, with consultations at inconvenient times and locations, and failure to translate documents for the community, said Lightfoot.

“Indigenous women are often neglected. They are shut up and shut out of consultation processes,” they said.

Lightfoot referenced a report from Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada that studied social impacts of mining activity near Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), which showed Inuit women witnessed increased rates of domestic violence, loss of culture, sexual harassment at the mines.

Racism at the mine was noted by 57 per cent of the women, sexual harassment (49 per cent) and increased harassment in the community (28 per cent.)

Lightfoot presented a popular photograph of Amanda Polchies, an Indigenous woman holding a feather while facing a line of more than 20 riot police in Rexton, N.B. during a peaceful protest against fracking in their territory.

The photo taken by former APTN journalist Ossie Michelin illustrates the strained relationship between Indigenous Peoples and authorities when they resist industry, they said.

“They tell us to be peaceful ... to protest peacefully. What are we met with? Violence,” said Lightfoot.

“Meanwhile when we get raped, when Indigenous people are calling for help, when LGBTQ2 people are asking for a place for support, we can’t fucking get them to show up,” said Lightfoot, with palpable anger.

Avery Zingel/NNSL photo
Resource extraction leaves women out of the consultation process, despite their vulnerability when projects enter their territory, said TJ Lightfoot (right) during the Sept. 12 MMIWG hearings in Iqaluit.

The “environmental fallout” of resource extraction “impacts the survival of a people," said Lightfoot.

"When you do those things, and it's not popular to say it, but that is genocide,” they said.

An influx of transient employees who are primarily heterosexual and non-Indigenous men for resource projects brings increased domestic, physical and sexual violence against Indigenous women, said Lightfoot.

Industry should have the burden to seek true consent and prove that it will not cause harm to a community, they said.

“(Workers) don’t have to make an investment in the community or interact with our people. Often when they do make that choice, it’s one of exploitation,” they said.

Half of Inuit women in the Pauktuutit report responded that they took mining job because they “needed the money,” but few high paying skilled jobs in industry are held by Inuit, said Lightfoot.

“Often these choices are put on our communities and sometimes it’s the only economic driver in our communities,” they said.

Those who are directly employed in the industry face “racism, sexual harassment and exploitation,” said Lightfoot.

Panelist Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour, an assistant professor at Ryerson University, emphasized the need for preventative measures against the impacts of extraction and protection for front-line workers challenging industry and colonial violence.

In June, former governor of the Bank of Canada governor David Dodge said of Trans Mountain, “There are some people that are going to die in protesting construction of this pipeline. We have to understand that.”

McNeil-Seymour asked for recommendations to hold public officials accountable for such statements.

He also asked for education for settlers that challenges the notion that Indigenous bodies are “deserving of violence.”

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