The Challenge of Northern Peoples
by Peter Jull


Canada's recent discovery of arctic security and sovereignty as national priorities has been revealing, and shows that those who long for the passing of the nation-state must wait some more. A government and public chary of acknowledging the economic interests and historical rights of northern peoples are willing to rush boats, planes, flags, lawyers, and no end of rhetoric to the scene when loss of a yard of ice threatens in sovereignty theory.


We would build fences around that which we care not to tend. But the exercise of sovereignty must surely involve a good deal more; in a liberal democracy, it requires the protection of economic interests, the extension of political equality, and the promotion of social opportunity. Instead, the Canadian North has been subject to assimilationist social and cultural policies, the withholding of political equality, and a flat denial of indigenous economic interests. The minimal concessions made in federal land claims negotiations to date, and in political negotiations at national and territorial constitutional levels, do not alter the picture, hopeful political promises notwithstanding.

 Other northern minorities have shared similar niches within national states: American Alaska; Danish Greenland and the Faroe Islands; Iceland, which regained its independence after seven centuries; British Shetland and Orkney islands; Lapland or Samiland, subject to three western states and to the Soviet Union; and the Soviet North, with its various northern tribal peoples. That most of the national states are world leaders in prosperity, political enlightenment and aid to and defence of territorially based minorities elsewhere in the world is the more ironic.


Societal Change

The minorities that occupy the northern lands of the earth, as opposed to the modern states which have claimed sovereignty over them, have survived thanks to the harvesting of living resources. Given the tight balance of the arctic environment, changes wrought by industrial development or other processes often involve conflicts with the local people. Local reactions are not quixotic appeals to the past, but the defence of daily livelihoods and the society built upon them.

 Canadians who have had more than their share of boom and bust up and down the country have often moved on to new work sites. But reconstituting life in another location within one's culture is an option unavailable to most minority groups. The change of an old community by the addition of new technologies and peoples is often no less dislocating, and is another common part of the northern experience.

 With virtually all their traditions and assumptions under assault in recent times, and with governments contesting their local rights to manage and conserve in the face of these pressures, it is hardly surprising that northern peoples-in Canada and the foreign North, aboriginal, and European- have fought back. Sometimes the antagonism has been unfocused and disruptive, within the community and the family, an anger without an obvious cause. Health and social statistics have told a sorry tale.

 But, increasingly, the positive and outward thrust of this development has been evidenced in popular revival movements with both cultural and political content. National governments, to whose policies these movements are largely direct responses, have sometimes invoked security and sovereignty arguments to resist northern demands. They have tended to insist that more southern goods and settlers- in other words, more assimilation-are the answer. They have not accepted northerners on their own terms, but have seen them as primitive or unprepared for the full blessings of national life.

 Unfortunately, this view fails to recognize both causes and effects. It is as a revolt against assimilation by southern industrial and cultural values that these peoples are asserting themselves. This is not to say that they may not wish for the "equal rights" promised by official national rhetoric. Nor is it to say that client elites eager to be the local "good boys" and to establish themselves as political and economic middlemen may not be found among northerners.

 Important elements of the colonial experience may be glimpsed here, and the pains of decolonization may be felt as national governments and dominant peoples struggle to convince themselves that national accommodations need be found so close to home. Yet, as long as northern states would retain control over these large, sparsely populated hinterlands, such accommodations are essential. In a communications age, the dissidents will neither forget nor be forgotten.


If Canadian official policy toward the North seems adrift, there are many good reasons to place it on the "active" list of a Canadian government. Human rights and environmental protection are increasingly accepted as international concerns even when they are "domestic" matters. Canada has exceptional scope, given our natural history and sheer size, to show leadership in dealing with these at home while vigorously promoting them abroad.


But the completion of the infrastructure of nationhood in Canada is still the strongest motive for action. At televised constitutional conferences there are three language booths above the meeting: French, English, and Inaktitut, the Inuit language. In the northern third of Canada less than 30,000 Inuit are the population majority! Below that third, in another 40 per cent of the country, the resident Indian and Métis peoples are a majority outside the white and usually temporary boomtowns.


Yet, these peoples do not have their historical culture, their economic resources used since the most ancient days, or institutions of local and regional self-government recognized or protected. Canada has not made a political settlement with its original peoples nor over most of its territory. That, one would think, is a sovereignty problem.


Common Problems

Recently, there has been growing recognition of the shared experience of northern peoples. The problems of development and relevant public services, of social and environmental conflict, and of minority political institutions and resources interests are universal throughout the international North. Northern peoples and northern countries have much to gain by cooperating to solve them. Nor is it just a matter of problem solving. There are many positive experiences to be shared as well.

 Northern peoples like the Inuit and Dene have shown the way through organizations like the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and Indigenous Survival International. Dedicated to the sharing of knowledge and experience among northerners across national borders, these groups try to deal with the problems that fail to interest governments.

 Canadian northern native people were also central to the meetings which led, among other things, to formation of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples in the early 1970s. The Nordic Sami Council in Norway, Sweden, and Finland has a similar role, and both Inuit Greenland and the Faroe Islands sit as associate members in the Nordic Council of governments. In 1986 the U. S. S. R. allowed Siberian Inuit contact with Inuit from Canada and Greenland, a promising gesture in what many observers thought a hopeless case.

 Canada has many experiences to share with other northern countries yet, curiously, this one feature of thé Canadian personality which most clearly marks us as a nation-the North is one we have never developed. Now a Special Joint Committee of Parliament and the subsequent government policy statement have identified the North as an important subject for international relations. They have also noted that northern peoples and the socio-economic and environmental concerns of those peoples are as important for Canada's North as the more usual preoccupations of legal, military, energy, and transportation strategies.

Security and sovereignty concerns have too often meant the rigid compartmentalization of peoples and places. The North must not be frozen in fear, its political and social development held hostage to alleged security concerns. In Canada these have been regularly and darkly evoked by policy makers to resist land claims and constitutional development in the North. Such approaches do not bear scrutiny, nor are they tolerable within Canadian political culture.

 If northern native people are not to have the rights of other Canadians, then there may indeed be a security problem in the future. But to work with northern peoples in a partnership for development and to accord them regional self-government is the better answer.


Peter Jull is a consultant in Ottawa and an authority on constitutional and native issues.

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