By Raymond Viger
In 1975 the Cree, the Inuit and the Québec government signed the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement (CBJNQ in French). This land claim settlement defined the “who does what.” This first modern treaty defined the financial compensation that the government agreed to give to the aboriginal peoples.
Contrary to the Inuit, the Cree had leaders familiar with legal and economic issues, which gave them a better capacity to face down the Québec state. As for the Inuit, they were spread out among 14 communities, far from state-funded services.
Post-secondary studies were very difficult for the inhabitants of Nunavik, and the results were often poor. A student had to leave their family to travel 2,000 km outside their community. Everything was different: the weather, the lifestyle, the language, the way in which people teach and learn… And the young Inuit remained isolated, far from their peers and far from home.
Educating native people was used as a means of assimilation, of cutting them off from their communities, for a very long time. Under the Indian Act, until 1984 all members of a First Nation lost their native status if they received a university diploma. The last native residential school closed its doors in 1996, but the bodies are still being exhumed to this very day.
The compensation mandated by the CBJNQ and future agreements were supposed to be managed independently by the Inuit. It’s in this context that I began my adventure in Québec’s far north in 1995. As if almost to prevent Inuits from functioning independently, I saw, whenever an Inuit had to take a decision, a White from the South would hand them documents and say, “sign here.”
This was true until Minnie Grey, executive director of the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services, expressed herself forcefully on the subject of the future of her people. She did this both to the powers-that-be in the public sector as well as before international organizations such as the United Nations. Thanks to her, no White person could oblige an Inuit to sign a document without reading it, understanding it, and having it ratified within the community. Mrs. Grey was frequently decorated for her involvement with the Far North’s communities.
The last time I met her, in 2015, we both received the “prix hommage” (tribute prize) of the Québec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission.
My Time in Nunavik
From 1995 to 2000, I was north of the 55th parallel to help deal with a rash of suicides in the communities. I trained community workers to be the next social work teachers. At the end of my mandate, I had to submit a report to various government authorities on my five years of intervention.
While writing the report I was approached by several Whites in positions of authority in the health care system. They suggested certain phrases to me. They suggested that I mention certain events which I never saw and doubted had even happened. These declarations I was being asked to make would have shown Whites in a good light, to the detriment of Inuits.
You don’t know me very well at all if you ever think that I would have ever acquiesced to these requests coming from high places. I signed a report which contained only my own honest, well thought out conclusions. In signing my report I was signing my goodbye letter to Nunavik. I was never again asked to come back.
Today, I remain torn. On the one hand, I am proud to see the work and the social implication of the members of the Inuit community such as Minnie Grey, and Annie Alaku. On the other hand, I am ashamed of the monstrosities that the people of the South made them live through.
What do our mea culpas mean if we do nothing to restore some sort of balance? Inequalities remain.