July is a month for patriotism—at least, it is a time for celebration and introspection—among Canadians, Americans, the French, and the Inuit. Last week, July 9th, the Inuit marked Nunavut Day, the anniversary of their territory’s peaceful transition to autonomy 19 years ago. It follows the Canadian celebration of its independence from England, called Canada Day, on July 1st, and the American Independence Day on July 4th. Bastille Day, the French national holiday, occurs on the 14th.
On July 9, 1993, Pauline Browes, at the time Canadian government minister for Indian and Northern Affairs, flew to Coppermine, now known as Kugluktuk, to attend a ceremony and proclaim that the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement was officially in effect. The agreement had been signed by then Prime Minister of Canada Brian Mulroney six weeks earlier in Iqaluit.
Paul Quassa, President of Nunavut Tunngavik, said at that time, “Let us have a great celebration for this is a day to remember. A day we will always cherish. A day we will call Nunavut Day for the rest of our future.”
Hundreds of people gathered this year behind the territorial legislative building in Iqaluit, the territorial capital, to celebrate. They feasted on country food and honored the people who had been awarded Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medals for exemplary service to their communities.
Veronica Dewar told the press that it was more than just a huge party. “I think it’s a good way of reflecting on our culture and history—the beginning of the land claims agreement and the establishment of Nunavut,” she said. She expressed pleasure in seeing everyone celebrating during the party, but she was still quite concerned about the very real issue of the cost of food in Nunavut. She works as a translator at the Qikigtani Inuit Association.
Territorial leaders and politicians had similar thoughts—pride in what has been accomplished, but caution about the many challenges that face the Inuit and their territory. Cathy Towtongie, president of Nunavut Tunngavik, echoed that theme. Life is still hard, even with all the expressions of positive feelings about the birthday of the territory. Food security is a very real issue, she said.
Tagak Curley, the Member of the Legislative Assembly from Rankin Inlet North, was also positive, but cautious. The founder of the group Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Curley said that there are always challenges along with accomplishments. He was honored along with 20 other people by being presented with a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal. Many people consider him to be the father of Nunavut for his role in helping negotiate the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement.
“Ideas never shape by themselves,” Curley said. “They are created by somebody—and I happen to be one that was determined that [we] had a movement, that if all else failed, including the claims process, that we would always have something.” He advocates mining as a way of moving the territory forward, and he urges young Inuit to get an education.
Leona Aglukkaq, MP from Nunavut, awarded Curley his medal. She said that the creation of the Nunavut Territory was a start, “but growth must come next.” She continued, “now it’s time to look beyond that and work with industry. Work with the fishing industry, or the mining industry, and open those opportunities for Nunavummiut.”
Elisapie Sheutiapik, who is the current president of Pauktuutit Inuit, a women’s association, urged people to work for improvements but to be patient. “Iqaluit was only established two generations ago,” she said.. “My grandparents were first settlers. They went through starvations, and different challenges in their life, but they never gave up. And that’s why we’re here.” Also a winner of a Diamond Jubilee medal and the former mayor of Iqaluit, Sheutiapik said, “I know now things don’t happen overnight.”
Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, summarized the thoughts of many with his statement: “Today is a day for the Inuit of Nunavut to appreciate all that we have accomplished in the past several decades. But it is also a day for all Inuit and all Canadians to celebrate our Arctic traditions and our way of life.” July 9th, according to Audla, is a day of “pride, celebration and joy.”