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Dennis Patterson: Nunavut set an example and more precedents lie ahead

Buoyed by resource revenues, Inuit of Nunavut will strengthen their heritage and their rich language and culture through a Nunavut university, which will specialize in Inuit language and cultural studies and a world class heritage centre and performing arts centre to celebrate our past and our talented artists, former Nunavut senator and erstwhile NWT Premier Dennis Patterson predicts of Nunavut’s future.

The Nunavut land claim was settled and Nunavut was created from the NWT in a very challenging environment. It was miraculous that it happened at all.

I was an MLA in the NWT legislature during that time. We knew we needed support from the NWT assembly and government if we were to split the NWT as a result of the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement.

We had formed a Nunavut caucus in support of the Inuit aspirations but we simply did not have the numbers to win votes on our own in the NWT legislative assembly. The MLAs from what is now Nunavut in the NWT assembly only numbered 10 out of the 22-member assembly, so we had to win the support of western MLAs in order to succeed in moving forward with our dream for Nunavut.

So how did we do it?

First, we took a huge gamble and agreed that every long-term resident of the NWT - not just our constituents in the Eastern Arctic - but the residents of the heavily populated capital Yellowknife and communities up and down the Mackenzie Valley (who were afraid of change and job losses) would be allowed to vote on the principle of division. So we organized a vote in 1983 which, if we were defeated, could have lost the whole project.

With very high turnout stoked by our Nunavut caucus MLAs and very high “yes” votes in what are now Nunavut communities and lower turnouts in western communities, we won the plebiscite by a solid 56.48 per cent! The support of respected Dene leader Georges Erasmus was also pivotal in increasing the number of “yes” votes in the Mackenzie Valley.

But then, we also had to find a way to persuade the federal government to make the commitment to Nunavut. In the last months of his mandate, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was deeply unpopular. His government would go down to a defeat in 1993, which pretty well wiped out the Progressive Conservative Party — they ended up winning only two seats in the election that year.

So how did we overcome that hurdle?

Well, first of all, the Nunavut Inuit land claims organization (then called TFN) and the Nunavut caucus in the NWT legislature worked very closely in common cause to advocate for Nunavut. TFN President Paul Quassa and myself as then premier of the NWT together wrote to Mulroney saying that the massive land claim agreement, which had been negotiated over 13 years, would only be ratified by the Inuit if a commitment to create a new territory was approved alongside the land claim legislation.

Second, NWT residents had approved the final boundary for the new territory in a public vote in 1992, so we could also say that the people of the NWT were in support of this major political development.

Mulroney’s influence

But what really sealed the deal was the enthusiasm of Mulroney and his very committed Northern Affairs Minister Tom Siddon. They respected the Inuit negotiators because they had agreed to compromise on the type of government that would be established in Nunavut — they agreed it was to be a public government with voting rights for every resident — whether Inuit or non-Inuit. This was a major concession at a time when other national Indigenous leaders were calling for the creation of so-called ethnic governments (Aboriginal self-government) with no voting rights for non-Indigenous persons.

And then two national events also worked in Nunavut’s favour: Oka and Quebec separatism.

In 1990, a land claims dispute over a golf course at Oka, Que., led to a violent confrontation in which a bridge and highways were blocked and barricaded by First Nations warriors, some from the American Indian Movement in the US.

The Canadian army was sent in by the federal government and a 31-year-old Quebec provincial police corporal was killed at a barricade. Mulroney was blamed for sending in the army and being insensitive to Indigenous rights.

Also in the 1990s, Quebec separatism was a real and growing threat to Canadian unity. So-called separatists in Quebec were gaining strength and were gearing up for a second vote on sovereignty in 1995, which could have led to Quebec separating from Canada and forming its own nation. The second Quebec vote ended up defeated by only a razor-thin majority.

Mulroney told me then that he saw approving the Inuit land claim — the largest in Canadian history and the largest in North America — as a way of firstly showing that his government could respect Indigenous rights and that the creation of an Inuit homeland in Nunavut would show Quebec that there was a way of protecting and enhancing the rights of the French cultural and linguistic minority within Confederation rather than through separation.

This was how what I see as the ‘miracle’ of the creation of Nunavut occurred, since the negotiated land claim and the creation of the new territory were inextricably tied together.

What lies ahead

Looking ahead, what can we expect to see in the coming 25 years?

First of all, the Nunavut land claim has made the Inuit of Nunavut very large landowners — they own about 19 per cent of the land in Nunavut, which itself comprises 20 per cent of all of Canada. And this land is incredibly rich in both renewable (fisheries, caribou, muskox) and non-renewable resources. These resources can and will be developed, though only with the consent of the Inuit through their strong voice in our made-in-Nunavut regulatory process. The Inuit are guaranteed royalties (rent) from the use of their lands, and indeed from developments anywhere in Nunavut — money which will be used to the benefit of the Inuit of Nunavut and in support of their language, culture and traditional harvesting economy.

I foresee that the orderly development of these rich natural resources will, by 2049 when Nunavut will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the land claim, make Nunavut a ‘have’ territory making a net contribution to Canada instead of always having to rely on federal government transfers to support programs for its residents.

Mining will be the main driver of our rapidly growing GDP and the good jobs and business opportunities which will come from those rich resources. Critical minerals and iron ore from Nunavut to make ‘green steel’ will support the new green economy as the world becomes electrified. Our fishery will thrive, where Inuit-owned fishing vessels and fishers will help feed the world as climate change drives shrimp and fish stocks into cooler Arctic waters. And small modular nuclear reactors will displace dirty diesel to provide energy to our communities and growing mining sector.

Buoyed by resource revenues, Inuit of Nunavut will strengthen their heritage and their rich language and culture through a Nunavut university, which will specialize in Inuit language and cultural studies and a world class heritage centre and performing arts centre to celebrate our past and our talented artists.

Adventure tourists from all over the world will flock to Nunavut as southern cities become polluted and overcrowded and our pristine wilderness remains unspoiled by strict conditions to protect the environment amid mining projects. We will have fibre and hydro and road connections to southern Canada and the Inuit homeland in Nunavut will be a shining example of Indigenous reconciliation, which will be an inspiration and the envy of Indigenous peoples in Canada and the world.

—Dennis Patterson was MLA for Iqaluit (1979-1995) in the NWT legislature, member of the NWT cabinet for 12 years, including as premier (1987-1991) and a former senator for Nunavut (2009 - 2023).