On 1 April 1999 the new Canadian territory of Nunavut was officially proclaimed. The birth of Canada’s third territory followed twenty years of negotiations between the Inuit of the Eastern Arctic and the federal government of Canada.
Prior to the 1960s, political evolution in the Canadian North was slow. Traditionally, Inuit leadership extended only to decisions affecting the extended family. By the mid-20th century the federal government took an interest in northern affairs and its Inuit citizens. It was only in 1950 that the Inuit were granted the right to vote in federal elections. Following this, efforts were made to familiarize Inuit with political participation and governance, and in the late 1950s the Inuit began to set up their first local community councils and Hunter and Trapper’s Organizations.
Steady political development continued into the 1960s. In 1963 Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson established the Advisory Commission on the Development of Government in the Northwest Territories, also known as the Carrothers Commission. In the following years, members of this commission, headed by A.W.R. Carrothers, traveled across the North, gathering views of its residents on governance. This commission went on to recommend a gradual process of political growth for the region that would ultimately lead to an autonomous territorial government that would allow residents of the region to participate more directly in their own affairs. In light of these recommendations local governing bodies were created for towns, villages and hamlets. These bodies encouraged the political participation of the Inuit and ultimately led community members to demand more meaningful control over their own policies and more representation at the federal level.
The idea for a self-governed Inuit territory was first publically presented in 1976 when the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC) put the idea forward. The ITC was created in 1971 with the purpose of representing the interests of all of Canada’s Inuit. In 1976 the group submitted a report entitled, Nunavut: A Proposal for Settlement of Inuit Lands in the Northwest Territories to the Government of Canada. This proposal laid out plans for the creation of a new political territory carved from the eastern portion of the Northwest Territories. Populated primarily by the Inuit people, this new territory would in effect be a place of Inuit self-government. The ITC proposal had several motivations: first, it would be an opportunity to settle land treaties with the federal government – something the Inuit had never done; second, it expressed the growing desire of the Inuit to have a government that was reflective of Inuit economic, political and social interests; third, the Inuit wanted greater proximity to the seat of decision-making. In 1976, decisions impacting the Eastern Arctic were made either in Ottawa or in Yellowknife, both locations too distant to be responsive to the unique needs of the area. The Nunavut proposal was ultimately withdrawn the same year it was introduced as it was deemed to be too far-reaching and unworkable in negotiations with the federal government.
One year after the failed Nunavut proposal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau appointed his own committee to study the issue of political development in the Northwest Territories. The committee, headed by C.M. Drury, published The Position Paper on Constitutional Development in the Northwest Territories, or what came to be known as the Drury Report, in 1980. Most notably, the report recommended that the Northwest Territories should remain a unified political entity.
In the years following the Drury Report negotiations continued. A 1982 plebiscite held in the Northwest Territories asked residents whether they wanted to see the territory divided. The residents voted in favour of division, with the majority of yes votes coming from those living in the Eastern part of the territory. The Government of Canada agreed to recognize the results of the election and promised to work on the creation of new territory, but not until several criteria were met. These criteria included: the settlement of all Inuit land claims; the establishment of agreed upon boundary lines for the new territory; and a clear plan for the structure of the new territorial government.
Between 1982 and 1993 negotiations continued. In 1987 an agreement on a territorial boundary was reached between the existing Government of the Northwest Territories and representatives from the Eastern Arctic. This boundary, inspired by traditional Inuit land use and occupancy, made the future territory of Nunavut a sparsely populated, but geographically vast region. In 1989 the Nunavut Political Accord was signed, outlining future divisions, government responsibilities and the agreement that Nunavut would not become a territory until 1999. The accord was passed by the House of Commons and became a federal act in 1993. In 1990 a land claims agreement in principle was signed. Two years later the Inuit ratified the agreement by plebiscite and it too was passed by the House of Commons in 1993.
Six months after Parliamentary approval, the Nunavut Implementation Commission was established to begin to put the recommendations in these federal acts into practice, and to ready the region for self-governing. In 1995 Iqaluit was chosen as the capital of Nunavut, and in 1999 a 19-member legislative assembly was elected and Paul Okalik was chosen as Nunavut’s first premier. Two months later, Nunavut officially joined Confederation and brought an end to twenty years of negotiations and ushered in a new era of Inuit self-government and political awakening.