Canada Votes 2015

For Harper, Inuit are ‘those people’

A response to Harper’s words at the Munk debate
Photo: Mike Beauregard

No one likes to be referred to as “those people.” It’s an alienating phrase used to single out a group as the other — not one of us, but one of them.

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In Monday's televised Munk Debate on foreign policy, that is exactly how Stephen Harper referred to the over 50,000 Inuit living in this country.

As an Inuk, it's hard not to feel a little singled out when the prime minister refers to one of Canada's founding peoples like this.

Harper also proclaimed that “the Inuit and the North has really arrived in our country.” Apparently we are not “old stock” Canadians in Harper's eyes, but some kind of recent arrivals.

Stephen Harper at the Munk Debate “I’m particularly proud that we have a remarkable Inuit woman who sits in the Cabinet of Canada. That is a real step forward in this country and a real sign that those people, that the Inuit and the North has really arrived in our country.”

Isadore Day, Ontario regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations, took to Twitter calling the reference a “neo-colonial freudian slip,” and while I appreciate the quick response from our First Nations allies to the south it would also be nice if our Inuit leaders commented on Harper’s poor choice of words.

Maybe the prime minister thinks we are some kind of new immigrants, a group he can turn into a wedge issue because of our way of dress. Pretty soon parkas will be showing up on the streets of Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Montreal, or Vancouver — well, maybe not Vancouver.

It’s quite possible Harper is referring to the arrival of Inuit in the High Arctic. That only happened in the 20th century when the government of Canada used Inuit as human flagpoles, forcibly relocating Inuit families from Nunavik in northern Quebec to the High Arctic in the dead of winter. But he did apologize for that, unlike the more than one thousand Inuit in Labrador who were not included in the prime minister’s apology for the federal government’s involvement in residential schools.

Harper’s comments came as a surprise to many Inuit because we’ve been here longer than this country has existed, and so has the North. Our iconography is synonymous with Canada, and to suggest we’ve only now “really arrived” is beyond insulting when our world-famous survival skills helped countless settlers travel through, and make homes, on our land. Of course, though, Inuit knowledge is downplayed by this government.

In the North we are more concerned about food security than Arctic sovereignty.

We are not mascots (unless you are from Edmonton) to be rolled out during election season and annual visits to try and show the rest of the country you support Arctic sovereignty or whatever that is. While many Inuit appreciate the Harper government's continued support of the Canadian Rangers and Junior Rangers, this is not our most pressing concern.

In the North we are more concerned about food security than Arctic sovereignty, something this government refuses to admit requires more resources to address.

Harper's "those people" line followed a reference to Canada’s only Inuit cabinet minister, and the MP for Nunavut, Leona Aglukkaq, who dismissed a report from APTN on food insecurity in the Arctic that showed an Inuit elder searching through a garbage dump looking for food.

In nearly two months of campaigning, hardly any of the party leaders have mentioned the Inuit, until the Munk Debate. And Harper wasn’t the only party leader to make a cringe-worthy statement directed at the Inuit that night. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau announced, “The one thing they keep saying about you up there, Mr. Harper, is you're big sled, no dog,” which couldn’t help but make me think of the alleged slaughter of over 20,000 Inuit sled dogs in the eastern Arctic and subarctic by RCMP in the mid-20th century.

Although five Inuit are running in this federal election (Aglukkaq included), it still feels like we are not a priority. While each of the major federal parties list plans to work with Indigenous peoples, and particularly First Nations, there is little talk of any Inuit-specific policies. Inuit living in Canada, it seems, will remain “those people.”

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