Thursday Tidbits

Posted on November 12, 2020 under Thursday Tidbits with no comments yet

Zebedee Nungak and Charlie Arngak  speaking about the JBNQA in Kangiqsujuaq


Yesterday, most Canadians celebrated Remembrance Day, a day to reflect on the sacrifices that so many men and women made to maintain our freedom from tyranny.

Yesterday was also the 45th anniversary of the signing of the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). It is a day that the Inuit and Cree reflect on the sacrifices and difficult choices made by their predecessors when they signed on to this historic agreement. It can be argued that indigenous people in Canada and other parts of the world have suffered from tyranny of their own.

I don’t want my faithful readers to abandon me for having the temerity to compare these two events. I just feel that is important for non-indigenous people to have some understanding and empathy for the people from the north.

I recently read a book by an Inuit author, Zebedee Nungak. He was one of the authors and signatories of the JBNQA.The book is titled: “Wrestling With Colonialism on Steroids – Quebec Inuit Fight For Their Homeland. A few days after finishing the book, I heard that Zebedee was coming to Kangiqsujuaq to deliver a lecture. Much of what I am about to write has been gleaned from his book and his talk.

For centuries, indigenous people’s lands were passed around by colonizers and politicians as if they were monopoly cards or pieces of a chess set. From all accounts, the Inuit and Cree were never consulted when their land became Rupert’s Land by royal decree and then became part of the N.W.T. before finally being passed into the hands of Quebec in 1912.

Even after gaining control of Northern Quebec, provincial politicians completely ignored the northern region of the province for decades until the birth of the James Bay Hydroelectric project.

Back in 1971, effective communication systems were not available to the Cree and the Inuit in Northern Quebec. Rumblings were being heard over short wave radio that blasting was going on in the region. Rivers were being dammed and diverted. The news spread about an ambitious hydroelectric project going on in their own back yard, on ancestral land. Nobody asked them for permission to do this.

At the time, there was no real political infrastructure in place in the eleven communities. There were no formal organizations in and among communities and there had never been any discussions with politicians or developers.

In 1972, at a meeting in Kuujjuaq, the Northern Quebec Inuit Association was formed (NQIA). Initially the organization was trying to figure out exactly what was going on. As mentioned, neither the developers or government had made any attempt to contact the Inuit or the Cree people. Zebedee mentions that when they saw a map of Canada, it was a “solid red wall of colonialism.”

The indigenous people felt powerless. They had no expertise in negotiating. They felt powerless going up against power and wealth. When they finally mobilized and met with people from the south, they were treated with disrespect. The developers and politicians didn’t care about the rights, culture, language or environmental concerns of the Inuit and Cree.

At the time, most northern communities suffered from poverty and did not enjoy the same services afforded other citizens of Quebec.

The politicians and developers played hardball. It was hardly a level playing field as these groups were armed with a phalanx of lawyers and other professionals.

“We never slept for two year during the negotiations’” says Zebedee.

The goal of the Inuit was self- determination and self- government. They were told in no uncertain terms that there were only three levels of government (Federal, Provincial and Municipal) and that there wouldn’t be a fourth.

It was made clear by the proponents of the project that a few items were non-negotiable, those being extinguishment and surrender. The Indigenous people were forced to give up most of their historical rights and lands in exchange for better services in the northern communities. This caused a schism amongst the Inuit themselves as many disagreed with the Inuit negotiators. In many ways the Inuit leadership were between a rock and a hard place.

For a brief shining moment (one week) a judge halted construction on the site, recognizing Indigenous rights, but his decision was hastily overturned.

The historic agreement, one of its first kind anywhere in the world, was signed on November 11, 1975.

During this time, in a move that can only be considered hubris, the Quebec government decided that Indigenous communities needed new French names. Over time, these communities have reverted back to their original names.

Disagreements and hard feelings exist to this day in Inuit communities. Some people have never forgiven their negotiators for giving away so much.

People of the north have suffered so much trauma at the hands of colonizers over the centuries. These are well documented, but many people don’t know that there still exists internal trauma as a result of the signing of the JBNQA. A meeting was held in 2014 to discuss a healing process. To date, nothing has come out of these meetings to heal long standing wounds.

In a recent letter to Prime Minister Trudeau, the Honorable Charlie Watt O.Q. and president of Makivik a, urged the P.M. to take action. “We Inuit and other Indigenous Canadians continue to feel the weight of colonialism. It remains ingrained in the administration of provinces and the confederation. Promises made fade from view within the government machinery. The non-Indigenous population doesn’t notice, but we do, and we look for the political will to make your intentions a reality. Mr. Prime Minister, the time is right for Canada to make a clean break with its colonial past.” (October 19,2020)

The Inuit want self- determination. They want to preserve their heritage. They want to protect their culture, their language, their identity.

It’s not a big ask when one considers that they were here first.

Have a great weekend.

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