Governments have ignored their Nunavik land claim obligations, Makivik says

Land claim org calls for "ethnicized" public sector

Makivik Corp. president Charlie Watt, centre, speaks to a lawyer before he testifies at the Viens commission hearings in Kuujjuaq on Nov. 23, the last day of hearings it held in Nunavik. (PHOTO BY SARAH ROGERS)

By SARAH ROGERS

KUUJJUAQ—Many of the complaints that Nunavik Inuit have made about government services stem from the lack of power the region has over service delivery, witnesses told the Viens commission last week.

Quebec’s Viens commission, which held hearings in Kuujjuaq last week, is looking at how Indigenous groups interact with six of its departments: health, social services, correctional services, justice, youth protection and policing.

Makivik Corp. President Charlie Watt, who testified on Friday, Nov. 23, said the southern administration of many of those services is to the detriment of the North.

“It’s interfering with our life very negatively,” Watt said. “We are moving, as much as possible, towards autonomy within our own system.”

To do that, Watt said a certain part of the public sector needs to be “ethnicized,” while Makivik intends to push for legislative powers to allow for services delivered by and for Inuit.

Watt has also pledged to revisit the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement next year, sections of which Makivik has long argued have not been upheld by the federal and provincial governments.

“We are planning to enter into negotiations with the governments of Canada and Quebec … to look into what’s wrong with the convention we signed back in 1975,” said Watt, himself a signatory of the original agreement.

“Some people say the text cannot be modified, but it was done by human beings … and it can be corrected.”

Though not directly related to the government services under the Viens commission’s scope, Watt offered the hearings an example of problematic land rights included in the JBQNA.

Watt explained that Inuit have outright ownership of Category 1 lands, but because that is considered a collective right, individuals are unable to get financing for personal property.

“We can’t use our asset as collateral if we’re trying to get help from a financial institution,” he told the hearing.

“What’s the use of having an agreement with a government if it’s not working?”

“What are Canada and Quebec going to do with their fiduciary obligations,” Lucy Grey said to Viens commission hearings last week. “When they signed the JBNQA, they took on these obligations. These obligations are regularly ignored.” (PHOTO BY SARAH ROGERS)

Can Quebec afford Nunavik?

Lucy Grey, who works as an Inuit liaison with the commission, also questioned the efficacy of Nunavik’s land claim in her own charged testimony on Nov. 23.

“What are Canada and Quebec going to do with their fiduciary obligations?” she asked.

“When they signed the JBNQA, they took on these obligations. These obligations are regularly ignored.”

Much of Grey’s testimony focused on shortfalls in Nunavik’s justice system—a system that remains foreign to most Inuit, yet processes more than 11,000 criminal charges a year in a region of about 12,000 people.

Half a century ago, Grey said Inuit had social control. Today, Inuit offenders are overrepresented in Quebec’s correctional system and flown to serve time in Abitibi (Amos), “which might as well be across the ocean.”

Meanwhile, what little Inuit law is recognized by governments is dubbed “customary,” a term Grey says is paternalistic.

“I’m deeply concerned for the region of Nunavik,” Grey said. “Quebec needs to question itself—can it afford Nunavik?”

Grey was hired as the commission’s liaison in February 2018, and, over the last nine months, visited each of Nunavik’s 14 communities to promote the commission’s work and gather submissions.

The commission held two weeks of hearings in the region: from Nov. 12 to Nov. 16 in Kuujjuaraapik and Nov. 19 to Nov. 23 in Kuujjuaq.

Among roughly 1,000 submissions made to the commission over its two-year mandate, 260 were filed by Nunavik Inuit.

Grey said she expects the commission’s final report to reflect that.

“I have a lot of hope,” Grey said in an interview following her testimony.

“I would like to see equality. I would like to see people’s rights respected. I would like to see more people respecting the ethics of their professions.”

Once the commission wraps up in Val d’Or next month, Justice Jacques Viens will prepare a report on his findings, which is set to be completed by September 2019.

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