Trudeau attends ‘historic’ meeting with Inuit leaders

Trudeau attends ‘historic’ meeting with Inuit leaders
Duane Smith, newly-elected chair of the Inuvialuit Development Corp., meets with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa.Courtesy of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continued his campaign to refresh relations with indigenous peoples across the country last week, meeting with Inuit leaders at the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) office in Ottawa.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continued his campaign to refresh relations with indigenous peoples across the country last week, meeting with Inuit leaders at the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) office in Ottawa.

The ITK is the national organization representing Inuit people in Canada.

Northwest Territories MP Michael McLeod was there, along with Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Fisheries and Oceans Minister Hunter Tootoo.

Described as “historic” by the ITK, the meeting marked the first time a sitting prime minister had visited its headquarters. ITK President Natan Obed was accompanied by the ITK board including Cathy Towtongie, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.; Jobie Tukkiapik, president of Makivik Corp.; Sarah Leo, president of Nunatsiavut; Nellie Cournoyea, outgoing chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corp. and Duane Smith, her newly-elected replacement; Rebecca Kudloo, president of Pauktuutit: Inuit Women of Canada; and Maatalii Okalik, president of the National Inuit Youth Council.

The meeting was Cournoyea’s last official function after 20 years at the head of the IRC.

“I think she joked she had two hours left in her position,” McLeod said. “Then Duane actually officially took over. I think the meeting was very significant in terms of continuing our commitment to a renewed Inuit-to-crown relationship so I was happy to be a part of it.”

The meeting focused on three different areas, as described by McLeod: renewing the dynamic between the federal government and Inuit led the agenda, followed by social development and economic development.

According to the ITK, Obed and other Inuit leaders “addressed the primacy of Inuit land claims agreements as fundamental to the renewed Inuit to crown relationship; (saying) the full implementation of the land claims in the four Inuit regions would help address many of the social and economic development challenges facing Inuit Nunangat (regions).”

They invited Trudeau and his cabinet to visit Inuit Nunangat and promised to provide them with first-hand insight into life in their homelands.

“It was a good discussion and there was a lot of talk about trust and partnership-building, respect,” McLeod said. “The prime minister indicated it was important for the Inuit to determine and make decisions alongside the federal government and in a lot of cases it’s not for (us) to decide on certain issues. Those were important words for all the people there to hear.”

The social development discussion explored suicide prevention, education and food security; the economic development portion of the meeting covered skills advancement and training, housing, infrastructure needs and Arctic resources.

McLeod said suicide was discussed at length.

“We talked about strategies for prevention, and mentioned that very young children are also committing suicide and that’s an indication that more focus has to be put on it,” he said. “There was talk about children not completing school and things of that nature, and mention of the residential school impacts. There was a lot of talk about the social issues and how that is a link to suicides, even including food security. Some of the leaders indicated those things are connected.”

Obed said in a press release issued after the meeting that food and shelter as basic necessities for life are essential to community development.

“We agree with the government that there needs to be a cognitive shift which acknowledges the importance of investing in – not just spending on – these needs,” he said. “Inuit strength is in our unity and our pragmatism. We will continue to push for action on the priorities that we outlined at today’s meeting.”

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