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‘Wrestling with Colonialism on Steroids, Quebec Inuit Fight for Their Homeland’: Book Review
Since early colonialism, the Inuit people that lived in the arctic lands of Quebec were often overlooked and were never able to voice their concerns to non-Inuit authorities due to lack of representation, lack of funding and lack of respect. In this book, the author, Zebedee Nungak outlines all the changes that took place when the Government of Quebec and the provincial utility Hydro-Quebec started construction of the “project of the century” – the James Bay hydro-electric project. The main arguments Nungak raised were centered around the Government of Quebec’s use of the land, the formation of the Northern Quebec Inuit Association (NQIA) and the role it played during the negotiations of the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) as well as the long-lasting effects that the JBNQA had on the Inuit community.
One of the main arguments that Zebedee Nungak makes prominent in his book is Quebec’s sudden “discovery” of the land. He argues that a rise in Quebec nationalism is the only reason that the government abruptly grew interest for the Ungava District of the Northwest Territories that they primarily “gained jurisdiction over in … 1912” (15). The Quebec Boundaries Extension Act, or “An Act respecting the extension of the province of Quebec by the annexation of Ungava” (23), was passed on April 3, 1912 and stated that “the province of Quebec will recognize the rights of Indian inhabitants in the territory above described to the same extent, and will obtain surrenders of such rights in the same manner” (24). Despite taking place on their land, there were no hearings where Aboriginal occupants of these lands could voice objections to this real estate deal between governments” (26). By not even involving them in the process, the governments are somewhat insinuating that the opinions and concerns of the Aboriginals do not matter and do not need to be taken into consideration. This legislation was a blatant strategy of colonization as it was later used to manipulate the Nunavik Inui and to gain sovereignty over the land. The author goes on to discuss how in 1964, 52 years after they initially gained control over the land, the Government of Quebec finally began to exercise its power over the land. According to Nungak, they did this through the implementation of French names onto Inuit communities, for example, “Ivujivik became Notre-Dame-d’Ivugivik – Our Lady of Ivugivik” (18). They also set up a school system which they titled “the Commision scolaire du Nouveau-Quebec (CSNQ)” (21). Additionally, Nungak mentions that the nationalist party would openly declare themselves as “masters of our own house” (31), through this, they display a blatant disregard for the indigenous peoples that originally inhabited the land before them. By making these changes and expecting/forcing the Inuit community to change their knowledge and lifestyle, Quebec successfully asserts its presence that had been absent for the last few decades.
In April of 1971, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa boldly announced the plan for the James Bay hydro-electric project, without notifying the Cree of James Bay, despite it being constructed on their land. This is reminiscent to the Inuit rights to the Arctic Ocean as “Canada is required to engage with Inuit as partners in Arctic sovereignty issues, ensuring Inuit are fully informed and are given the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the decision-making that affects their rights” (Campbell, 2015). Similarly, this project raised an issue for the Cree and the Inuit because the rivers that they make use of would be dammed and “diverted to produce hydroelectricity” (42) – the Government of Quebec was not taking into account the impacts that this project would have on the region. A notable issue that Nungak repeatedly outlines in the early chapter of the book is the lack of representation that the Inuit community had in order to defend themselves against this apparent colonialism that was taking place on their land. He mentions that they had Community Councils, however, they had no “formal powers, or budgets” (41), so they didn’t really have any power nor the resources to make any impactful changes. However, once the announcement of the James Bay project was made, they soon realized that they needed to find a political entity to speak for them. After deciding not to join the Indians of Quebec Association (IQA), since they wanted “Inuit interests to be defended by the Inuit, from the angle and source of Intuit strengths” (48), the formulated a body called the ‘Northern Quebec Inuit Association’ (NQIA). By displaying the Inuit in such a patriotic manner, the author demonstrates his pride to be a member of the community. This same patriotism towards their culture is demonstrated in the ‘Inuit History and Heritage’ document where it states “Inuit have always been here so their blood must still be in our veins.”(Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2004). This displays their attitude towards their heritage and how crucial it is to pass it along to the coming generations. After a unity was formed, Nungak spends a chapter discussing the fact that “the Cree and Inuit made the decision to seek a court junction against the James Bay project” (57). By allocating a separate chapter to this event, the author implies that this was an extremely monumental moment for the NQIA as no one before them has been able to formally question or retaliate against the provincial government’s actions – this proved successful when Justice Malouf ordered all work on the project to come to a halt.
When discussing the ‘James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement’ (JBNQA), Nungak emphasizes this pride by arguing that, without the hard work and bravery of the NQIA, the Inuit would have never found another “better time” (114) to make the negotiations. The author highlights this bravery when he mentions that none of the members of the NQIA had “no how-to manuals to guide [them], and no soothing doctrine available to help [them] avoid mistakes which could result in irreparable damage to our mission” (66). By outlining the immense pressure that was on the NQIA to provide results in such unprecedented territory, Nungak makes it clear that without the fearlessness of these members, the JBNQA would not have been possible – they didn’t allow their lack of law education stop or intimidate them from defending their land. Nungak also added that many of the members were “very young” (70) while those who represented the government were “mostly 50 or 60-something” (70). By clarifying the large age gap between the two parties, the author once again exemplifies the courage it must’ve taken for the Inuit to oppose professional, experienced governmental bodies. The manner in which these westerners were dictating the legal negotiations was also new to Inuit because “Inuit legal culture did not exist in written form” (Loukacheva, 2012). Instead, they governed their day to day lives through “unwritten rules and demand for self-control… [that were] transferred in people’s minds by shamans, elders, and leaders and transmitted from one generation to another” (Loukacheva, 2012). Unlike western law, Inuit had a clear and unanimously understood and accepted binary of right and wrong.
Another argument that Nungak made in this book was that due to the ‘James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement’, the harmony that once covered the Inuit was destroyed and has yet to be reconciled. The author mentions that, when the NQIA took the Agreement-in-Principle to their eleven communities, they were extremely unhappy with the document and had many objections. Zebedee Nungak describes that amongst other things “they objected to the extinguishment and surrender of rights” (84), which highlights the pride they have for their community and culture.
When reviewing the Government of Quebec’s role in the JBNQA, Zebedee Nungak argues that they were extremely hostile and stubborn. While writing about the Inuit picking which Category-1 they would like ownership of, Nungak mentions that the meetings were so tense that the Quebec negotiators “went as far as grabbing the wrists of Inuit to prevent them from selecting certain areas” (91). This physical form of aggression that the author describes clearly exemplifies the unequal power relations between the two parties as well as the obvious amount of tension surrounding this agreement. To add to this, the book also mentions that “for communities that didn’t select their allocated Category-1 lands within two years of signing, Quebec would select their lands for them” (96). The way in which the author describes these interactions shows how frustrated and aggravated the people of Quebec because that were obligated to “give away” tiny fractions of the land, which they believed they rightfully had full control over, to the Inuit. Another way in which Quebec was forced to make some changes was through the implementation of some public services such as “Health and Social Services – Inuit (Section 15); Education – Inuit (Section 17); Administration Of Justice – Intuit (Section 20)” (79) for the Inuit. To the average reader, one might assume that this is a major victory for the Inuit that should be celebrated, however according to Nungak, Quebec deserves no praise for doing what they should’ve done when they originally gained the territory in 1912. In other words – don’t applaud a fish for swimming. This is exaggerated once more when the author discusses the “Philosophy of the Agreement” (a speech that was attached to the front of the JBNQA). Nungak spends a chapter detailing sections of the speech that was given by John Ciaccia and then somewhat translating them into what he believes the true meaning behind the words are. For example, when Ciaccia stated “The Agreement has enables us to…affirm finally Quebec’s presence throughout its entire territory” (103), the author interpreted that as a way of disregarding the 63 years of mistreatment that took place before the agreement was signed. By making this assumption, Nungak displays the Government of Quebec as neglectful, careless and selfish.
To some readers, these strong descriptions of the provincial government may be just and truthful however other readers may be able to detect the understandable bias that laces the author’s words. This could be considered a weakness of this book as, in order to give the most accurate and irrefutable outline of the events that took place, one must try to remain neutral and objective. Another weakness of this book may be the fact that, since Nungak relaying his experiences from almost 45 years ago, there were some gaps in the information provided. For example, when remembering what happened during the 1971 meeting of Inuit leaders, Nungak mentions that he “can’t recall who chaired the meeting” (45). There were several other sections of the book where the author mentions he is unable to recollect something. As a reader, this may be concerning as it leaves us to question the reliability of the information provided.
Contrastingly, as Zebedee Nungak was writing from a first-person narrative, he was using himself and perhaps others around him to also has similar experiences as a source. This could be considered a strength as the reader can read and learn things they otherwise wouldn’t have discovered from other sources. For example, when discussing when they signed the JBNQA, Nungak writes “although the date of November 11th appears on the document, it was technically November 12th when the 27 signatories wrote their names on their designated lines.” (35). This interesting fact would unlikely be mentioned anywhere else.
To summarize, ‘Wrestling with Colonialism on Steroids’ outlines the struggles and hardships that the Inuit had to face when trying to take action against a force as large as the provincial government of Quebec. From this book, we learn that the nature of colonization can be disguised as a way to help, such as in the 1912 legislation, when in reality these colonization strategies can be rooted in darkness, such as when this same legislation was used to force the Inuit to surrender their rights. The reader also learns that there may be some benefits to colonization as, when faced with outside settlers, a community is forced to grow a stronger bond. The author claims to have written the book with the goal to manifest Inuit history. While it does a great job in outlining the major events that took place, it does also leave some questions unanswered, for example – why wasn’t the federal government forced to intervene when the rights of the Aboriginals were being threatened?
- Campbell, Robin. An Introduction to Inuit Rights and Arctic Sovereignty. LawNow Magazine, May 7, 2015.
- Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 5000 Years of Inuit History and Heritage. 2004
- Loukacheva, Natalia. Indigenous Inuit Law, “Western” Law and Northern Issues. Arctic Review on Law and Politics, vol 3. pp 200-217. 2012.
- Nungak, Zebedee. Wrestling with Colonialism on Steroids: Quebec Inuit Fight for Their Homeland. Vehicule Press, 2017.
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