In the mid 1970s, when I was 25, I had a dream job: executive assistant to Judd Buchanan, Canada’s Minister of Indian and Northern affairs. He was responsible for Canada’s national parks, the territories north of the 60th parallel and the many duties prescribed by the Indian Affairs Act and other issues relating to Canada’s aboriginal peoples.

It was a busy portfolio and the busiest, most problematic  and most challenging issues were those related to Canada’s aboriginal peoples. The government had chosen, encouraged by decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada, to settle all existing land claims by Canada’s native peoples at a time when those diverse groups were growing increasingly dissatisfied with their marginalization in Canadian society. They were  Canada’s original citizens, and they demanded recognition.

We were beset by claims from across Canada from both Inuit and Indian bands.  It seemed overwhelming:

  • The Dene in the Northwest Territories were blocking oil and gas development and bringing the Mackenzie Valley pipeline project to a halt.
  • The Inuit of the High Arctic demanded their own land and the right to govern themselves.
  • The James Bay Cree had just signed a major agreement, adroitly levering public opinion for resolution of their claim before the massive James Bay hydroelectric project could proceed.

One group, the Labrador Inuit Association, wanted to meet the minister. I remember: “Not another one.” The Labrador Inuit represented fewer than 6,000 people spread over a land mass of more than 72,000 square kilometres along the coast of Labrador in one if the most obscure corners of Canada.

I was the schedule keeper for the minister and reluctantly agreed to the meeting. A red letter day for them was just another brick in the wall to me. The claim was settled in 2005 — 30 years after that first meeting.

More than 35 years after that first meeting, I had the chance to see the consequences, and it was one of the most heartwarming experiences I’ve had.

I recently returned from a four day-visit to Goose Bay and Nain, Labrador.  I had the pleasure of meeting some of the people of Nunatsiavut  (the Inuit word means “our beautiful land”), the Inuit government created by the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement (LILCA).

The flag of Nunatsiavut

Nunatsiavut has been in existence for five years — a short time in any constitutionally sovereign state. One thing is abundantly clear: Settling the claim was decent, generous of spirit and mutually beneficial.

It’s not easy to provide even basic services in an inhospitable region like the High Arctic. Housing, health, education and a plethora of other services that we take for granted pose real challenges in the north.

It is early days, but it seems to be working: The new government is taking over more of the responsibilities of governing as it is able to staff and fund those services. Two examples:

  • Language is the basis for culture. Retention and use of Inuttitut, the Inuit language was in decline. Fewer than 30 percent of the Inuit in Nunatsiavut could speak their own language. That is changing with pre-kindergarten programs, and even the use of the ubiquitous Rosetta Stone program.  They have even developed and published their own dictionary.
  • The environment of the North is changing and the people of Nunatsiavut are using their powers to monitor and intervene on issues that affect their lives. We came away with both a profound sense of their growing cultural pride but also of their hard-nosed desire to control their own destiny in basic ways that impacted their lives.

The president of Nunatsiavut, Tony Andersen, put it this way: “We will make mistakes, but they will be our mistakes; we will control our own destiny.”

When asked what that destiny might offer, he had simple examples: “We would like to see our nursing station become a real hospital with Inuit nurses from our community so that our babies can be born in our community, not some far-off place in the south. We want to teach our children in our schools in our communities, we want to have our teachers and our children learn about our way of life, in our language.”

Labrador has more than 700,000 caribou.

For many years I doubted the necessity of settling land claims in a just, generous and equitable manner. I do not now.

Mahatma Gandhi said; “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

After the meeting with the Nunatsiavut government members, seeing people in the communities, talking with young people who saw a bright future, I became a prouder Canadian, proud of the grit, tenacity and the persistence of the Labrador Inuit who hung on and pushed their land claims to settlement for 30 years.

I am hopeful that they can make their own mistakes and retain their hope and dignity and cultural integrity.  I am proud that my government finally did the right thing. I am reminded that government has the power to bring positive change in people’s lives and that serving in government is a noble calling. I am filled with optimism for a country that has the grace to allow this group to make its own mistakes.

Canada’s north is a  wondrous beautiful place. Check it out.