As a Caucasian, cis-gendered, southern Canadian male, having never stepped foot in the north, let alone the Arctic Circle, I found being accepted to co-op with Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs (CIRNAC) jarring. Immediately for my lack of direct experience, but more so for my sense of identity. Yet working with a dedicated team in conjunction with First Nation and Inuit communities offers the chance to check one’s positionality while learning to meaningfully contribute.
No stranger to the mantra of “even if you can’t, you get busy figuring out how”, having only recently had the concept of positionality driven into me as a first-year International Development masters student, why was I chosen to assist a team engaging in Western Arctic Inuvialuit and Gwich’in modern treaty and self-government implementation?
I could tell the story of what I was hoping for in a co-op, but I think it better to shine a light on my rather ungrateful and privileged sense of identity that was hoping for international or ocean work. No, I came to Ottawa to work on international policy, looking at how Canada engages with the world, completely forgetting that Canada exists like the rest of us pie-eyed foreign policy nerds.
Faced with the reality of where I was assigned to work, I decided to make the best of it, recognizing that I was extremely lucky to be given a place at all. Not only because it helps to expose the lines of thinking that need to change, but prejudices, regressive attitudes, and unconscious biases that flow between people, very much myself included.
The backdrop through which this personally shameful introspection occurred was during my time assisting the dedicated and knowledgeable team engaging with the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC) and the Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC), both sharing and holding their own territory in the Canadian Western Arctic. Both the Inuvialuit and the Gwich’in occupy the northwestern extent of Canada, with Gwich’in communities living across the border in Alaska, and Inuvialuit lands part of the northernmost island chains that extend into the central arctic.
The Inuvialuit, represented by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC), signed their Final Agreement (IFA) in 1984, serving as the first land claims agreement signed north of 60 degrees latitude. Encompassing approximately 435,000 km2 of land and water, the Northwest Territories communities of Aklavik, Inuvik, Sachs Harbour, Ulukhaktok, Paulatuk, and Tuktoyuktuk are home to around 5500 people.
The Gwich’in, represented by the Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC), share the communities of Inuvik and Aklavik with the Inuvialuit, along with the communities of Fort McPherson and Tsiigehtchic, including Old Crow in the Yukon. They hold surface and sub-surface rights as part of the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, finalized in 1992.
Knowing the geographical extent of the work piqued my interest, but this immediately evoked in me the ghost of a colonizing bias. Was I simply newly interested because their lands, long a source of pride to these communities, represented a new frontier to me?
Most likely. In fact, I thought back to my days as an undergrad student at Vancouver Island University, fancying myself a future archaeologist. The HMS Erebus of the 1845 Franklin Expedition had been found the year before, the search for the HMS Terror was still underway (it was found in 2016), and my interest in maritime history and archaeology was reaching a nexus point. Looking back on my senior thesis, among the poorly thought out ideas around a collaborative stewarding of Canadian sunken heritage is even less considered thought towards the idea of Inuit knowledge, world view, and what the finding of the wrecks could truly mean for the communities.
Jumping back to the start of my co-op with CIRNAC, the feeling of the Arctic as a place of adventure to be explored gave me pause to truly consider the deeper ramifications of working on self-government implementation. I, like others across the country, was sickened by the findings of child graves from the Residential School system in Kamloops and the many more after. It was never my reality, only the purview of a hasty introduction to the concept from the grade 7 elementary school and relatively more fulsomely thought-out university anthropology courses.
The much-needed work of modern treaty implementation continues. Modern treaties are any treaties signed with Indigenous governing representatives after 1975, and otherwise known as Comprehensive Land Claims Agreements (CLCA). On my second day, I attended a seven-hour multilateral call where our team, representing Canada, contributed to the ongoing federal commitments to implementing the Gwich’in CLCA with the governments of the Gwich’in, Yukon, and Northwest Territories. It was at this call that not only did I find myself in the weeds with the sheer scale of knowledge, responsibility and duty that all the parties have to undertake this work, but that I found my previous insecurity about engaging with this work begin to erode.
It goes without saying that the Gwich’in people are culturally vibrant and proud people. The Inuvialuit are the same, as are the Mi’kmaq, the Snuneymuxw, the Tsuut’ina, the Anishinaabe, and all peoples who’s traditional land I’ve been grateful to reside upon. While I have never disputed this nor would ever seek to, I submit that my apathy to the promotion of self-government, of devolution and the strengthening of Indigenous rights in this country, is complicity to the problem of socio-cultural, economic, and basic needs neglect, faced by Canada’s Indigenous communities.
That I think is the root of the problem. It has taken generations to go from a place of condoning cultural genocide to apathy, and eventually to social cohesion and the rejection of what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls “cognitive injustice”; an epistemological method that allows us to construct and understand the world and our knowledge of who we are from a western and capitalist vantage point.
As an off-and-on younger academic, this is particularly prevalent in studies of anthropology and international development, but I wonder how pervasive the concept is around the dinner table, at the dog park, or at anyone’s work. For instance, I don’t seek to condemn those who raised me. I tend to believe they did as good a job as the next, but were Indigenous issues brought up or discussed? The concept of residential schools or how arctic communities could be better integrated with ours? Immediately such topics sound esoteric to a southern Canadian, or at least to my suburban upbringing.
There is an operative question to ask: have I actively implemented these changes in my points of view or understanding of how to support the ongoing work in a tangible way? I would say no. I’m still a lowly student. Then what would be the point of you reading this? To that, I would say the implementation of this shift away from cognitive injustice has been in how I think about and engage with my work day-to-day, ideally more thoughtfully.
I routinely question my inputs, as those who call the Arctic home, along with the region itself, do not require southern-born research, knowledge or teachings. This shift has been commensurate akin to an axial moment for me, or a shift in how I think and see society today. We all crave to figure out our position in the world, our value and input.
To me, recognizing where southern Canadians, perhaps even those of us who have traditionally had the soap box and levers of power for too long, can find contentment in the supporting of marginalized voices is compelling. Perhaps such realizations can soften the ego and create a culture of sharing.
So it is with the introduction of northern economic development, environmental remediation, Indigenous student integration and more that I found a way to learn on the job and strip back decades of being confined to a regional and privileged bubble. Canada is large, home to populations of people who were here before settlement that require our considered interaction and input, and not only when we are called upon to do so.
Lastly, I think it is important to hammer home how it is we can check our positionalities. In a previous article for The Exchange from 2021, I wrote: “The most pressing concerns of the Arctic region are the future of governance, shipping and navigation opportunities, a commitment to greener stewardship and, perhaps most pointedly, which nation(s) wield the most influence.”
I still believe these topics matter, now and in the future. But that is not for me to say. The most pressing concerns, I would submit, are not which nation wields influence, but how local perspectives can inform and empower traditional and place-based influence, transitioning away from the precedence of southern policies. Across Inuit Nunangat, there are many diverse voices who deserve to be, and are, setting what the most pressing concerns are.