Searching for identity

From the Franklin Expedition to our missing and murdered women, Indigenous voices are being overshadowed

Our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, just finished his 9th annual Arctic tour that was focused on research, a topic that I have a lot of interest in and one of rising importance in our province. Shortly after Harper’s trip, I too left mainland Canada for the high Arctic, to some of the same communities the prime minister visited, away from communication and news outlets. While up there I had a lot of time to reflect on my personal priorities, and to put a bit of thought into our Nation’s as well. When I returned I was overwhelmed by the amount of attention the success of the Franklin search was receiving, and how at the very same time the Harper government was ignoring yet another call for a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

Defining ‘Arctic sovereignty’

I just finished a four month internship with the Inuit Knowledge Centre at Inuit Tapariit Kanatami (national Inuit government in Canada). One of the projects I worked on was Nilliajut (speak up, speak out) — Inuit perspectives on sovereignty, patriotism and security. Nilliajut highlights the experienced disconnect between what these concepts mean to Inuit versus the rest of Canadians, and how the views should be united.

“What does security mean to Inuit? Security doesn’t come from the comfort that some find in ice breakers.. and Arctic military capabilities. Security from our societal perspective comes from access to the basic essentials of life- food, shelter and water. How can we as a nation fully grasp the concept of Arctic sovereignty without first fully understanding and appreciating what security means to its stewards?”   – Udloriak Hanson, Nilliajut foreword.

Nilliajut was launched in 2010 and is a publication of 13 different perspectives from Inuit on what it means to be patriotic to Canada and what it means to feel secure within the nation. Not only did Inuit publish papers in this document, video recordings of 19 individuals were also made public last year.

After many hours of editing the interviews, I realized I was exposing myself to truly unique perspectives that the rest of Canada now has the opportunity to learn about. Canada is 147 years old, and the idea of becoming a united nation is even older than that. But for Inuit, who primarily reside in the north of Canada, the ideas of nationhood and sovereignty are 50 years old at best, and began after waves of colonization.

Canada and non-aboriginals began paying close attention to the north when opportunities for the development of natural resources (such as oil and minerals) were explored and seen as viable. Canada’s interest in the north can be described as opportunistic, rather than built on mutual interest of the protection of our nation and it’s people. Many argue, as do I, that we don’t hear about the Arctic in media unless it highlights a particular human rights violation, or a new natural resource project to develop.

We, Inuit, are ready and willing to engage to discuss our security and nationhood, but only when it is seen as a threat is the rest of the nation paying attention.

Giving credit where credit is due

One of Canada’s missions in staking a claim to the Arctic is to locate the ill-fated ships of Sir John Franklin. The captain of the H.M.S Erebus and H.M.S Terror and his men set out to ‘find’ and map the North West Passage, but were unsuccessful. Artifacts from the 19th century expeditions have been found spread out across the tundra islands of Nunavut, and letters that were sent back home to Europe pointed to half a dozen or so possible locations of where these ships may now be. There is one testimony of the ships’ locations that played a vital role to this year’s find.

Last summer marked the fifth season of Parks Canada’s expeditions into the North West Passage to locate these ships and any artifacts that are related to one of the earliest European voyages into the Canadian Arctic in search of new shipping routes and land to claim. One of the ships (it is still unknown at this point whether it is Erebus or Terror) was found on Sept. 7 at the bottom of the Victoria Strait. This quickly made international headlines following an announcement from the Prime Minister’s Office, and marked a close to the ‘mystery’ of Franklin’s expedition.

 We don’t hear about the Arctic in media unless it highlights a particular human rights violation, or a new natural resource project to develop.

Arctic security in Canada is something we should all be proud and aware of. The finding of the ship opens up another opportunity to share the culture and history of our nation that so few people actually know about. The mapping of the Arctic seabed floor will have impacts on science research for the rest of our time, and it would not have been possible without the field season we just completed. The Royal Canadian Geographical Society is now creating curriculum for all grades in Canadian schools about the history and importance of the Franklin expedition, about Arctic security and sovereignty, and (hopefully) a lot more information about Inuit lifestyle.

The searches, as I mentioned, have been motivated by evidence that Parks Canada has found, or previously been made aware of. One of those pieces of evidence is Inuit oral history, which has already been published in a book called Unravelling the Franklin Mystery – Inuit Testimony. This summer we got to go to the area where Inuit who have lived in the Strait for millennia, have always said they last saw the two Franklin ships.

If you were told your keys were last seen on your desk, wouldn’t that be the first place you would look? I understand the ships were last seen hundreds of years ago when they were stuck in the sea ice, and I understand that the Arctic environment is harsh and always changing, but if you were given a general idea of where to search the uncharted sea floor—in the vast Arctic—wouldn’t that be where you would invest your time and tax payers’ dollars?

Did anyone think to ask Inuit?

These are pretty basic questions I asked myself, and leaders in the search, about this year’s success.

Recognition of presence

There are many positive steps forward our government and the Victoria Strait expedition leaders took in making this year’s search a success. The aforementioned curriculum that will be developed, and the dozens of communication pieces about our Arctic alone, have generated attention that will hopefully bridge the gap of awareness between the issues of north and south. Negligent policies and opinions of the Arctic need to stop, and this is yet another opportunity to listen to the voices that have always been present.

It is a long journey ahead before Inuit and Aboriginal peoples in our country feel like we are invited to the same tables, given equal rights, and given credit where credit is due in many regards. I hope that my story of fortunate opportunities to share the little that I know only grows for more people to take advantage of. I hope our voices are no longer silenced, our knowledge is recognized. That it doesn’t take hundreds of deaths, or threats of climate change to pay attention to united indigenous voices for a solution. That our women are brought back home safely where they belong.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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