By Stephen Hendrie
Ilulissat, Greenland, came alive to host the 2023 ICC Delegates Meeting and Arctic Peoples’ Conference July 17-21, 2023. It was a week that featured foggy mornings, foggy afternoons, and foggy evenings. In between there were some stunning sunny days, allowing for exploration of the local terrain on foot, and the Disko Bay coast on boat. From both land and sea, the magnificent icebergs shed by the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier – for which Ilulissat is famous – were everywhere to be seen.
The point of going to Ilulissat was to do what couldn’t be done in 2022 – have an in-person gathering. ICC held its 14th General Assembly (GA) as a hybrid online meeting July 19-21, 2022. It accomplished key tasks as required by the ICC By-laws. These included naming the new international chair – Sara Olsvig from Greenland – and the passage of the 2022 ICC Declaration.
Ilulissat won the right to host the ICC GA back in 2018, in Utqiagvik, Alaska. The community was very much looking forward to receive Inuit leaders from Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Chukotka (Russia). The global coronavirus pandemic caused the one-year delay. The war in Ukraine caused the Inuit from Chukotka to still be physically absent, but they participated online with two members. They were symbolically represented in the room for both meetings with two empty chairs. This was a blast from the past, as in ICC’s early years, before the iron curtain fell, the Chukotkan’s were always represented in spirit by empty chairs at the delegation table. It was the first time they couldn’t attend since 1992 in Inuvik.
At least the Chukotkans had no delays in getting to Greenland! Ilulissat was fogged in on the day the Canadian delegation was to arrive – Sunday, July 16. They ended up spending a memorable night – some on army cots in a military gym in Kangerlussuaq. They arrived late on Monday, July 17, and thus the Delegates Meeting started a day late. The schedule was shortened by dropping one of the five discussion topics – Infrastructure Deficit – and encouraging delegates to submit written comments.
When the meeting did start on Tuesday, July 18 in the Ilulissat Sports Hall, the Mayor of Avannaata Kommunia, Palle Jerimiassen, expressed great joy and relief that everyone had finally arrived, and spoke about how the town had prepared, literally for years, to host the event. Indeed, there was great community involvement, with many volunteers during the day, and in the careful preparation of meals for delegates. The supper meals in particular, held at the Mathias Storch School were a delight. A large crew of elders took care of serving traditional Greenlandic cuisine to all delegates and staff, including seal, minke whale, halibut, salmon, muskox, reindeer, and Greenland lamb!
Following the Opening Ceremonies, Marine Governance was the first topic on the agenda. ICC Canada President Lisa Koperqualuk made the keynote presentation to get the discussion flowing. She explained the work she is doing at the United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO) on specific issues such as the elimination of Heavy Fuel Oils (HFOs) in Arctic waters, as well as ways to decrease underwater noise.
There were plenty of comments. Makivvik President Pita Aatami said, “We should use Inuit place names in the marine region. For example, the Northwest Passage should be called tulurutiu imagna.”
Greenland delegate Aslak Jensen noted the vastness of the Arctic seas and that technology can be used to replace fuels with electricity in the boats. Alaskan delegate George Edwardson explained how Inupiat in Alaska sued the US Government in the Supreme Court and won the ownership of the Arctic ocean going out to the north pole. “In the ‘60s they tried to stop us hunting ducks. In the ‘70s they tried to stop us from whaling. We control the whales now. We are the owners of the Arctic Ocean. We treat it as land. We need to take control back. The Arctic is our home.”
Canadian delegate Duane Smith, CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC), noted the inconsistency of marine regulations across jurisdictions. “You can’t dump shipping grey water in Alaska, but you can do it in Canadian waters. It should be consistent.” He also noted that shipping lanes and speeds of ships should be coordinated. There are dangers in stranding hunters. “After COVID-19 the cruise ships are back. We created our own cruise ship strategy. Outsiders are trying to impose a vision on our area, that’s unacceptable.”
In summarizing the session ICC Greenland President Hjalmar Dahl asked, “Are we to create an International Inuit Council for Marine Governance? It’s very important that we find some sort of a structure to do this.”
The many comments will also provide excellent backup for ICC’s input at future IMO meetings in London, UK. The day closed with an constructive discussion on ICC governance issues.
Wednesday morning began with a presentation on language, and more specifically the UN’s International Decade on Indigenous Languages (IDIL). Siksik Melodie Lavallee, Inuktut Policy Advisor at Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI) began the presentation. She laid out a chronology of international language efforts by the UN and ICC leading up to the creation of IDIL which lasts from 2022-2032.
NTI President Aluki Kotierk also spoke about events relating to the launch of IDIL on February 1, 2022. “We chose that date because it is the international day of first languages. Inuit went to Paris and lit the qulliq at the opening ceremonies of IDIL.”
Language is a very personal issue. It is closely tied with identity and culture. Comments that morning reflected the emotional nature of language loss, and the milestones in language preservation.
On a Zoom hookup from Chukotka, Igor Vereshekin began with positive developments in his region. “We are working hard to preserve Yupik. We now have ‘Radio Yupik’, with Chukotkan news in Yupik.”
Greenland delegate Aqqalu Jerimiassen spoke passionately about his language, and his country – Greenland – where Inuit speakers are in the majority. “Our language is an anchor.” He said proudly that his children only speak the Inuit language.
Nunatsiavut Government President Johannes Lampe spoke about language loss in his region, due to colonial practises. He described a segment of Nunatsiavut society – hunters of a certain age – who have lost their language and do not speak of their pain. He commended the work ICC is doing on language. “We cannot afford to lose our language. We’ve lost so much. If we lose this, we lose part of our identity.”
Gerald Asivak, from Nunatsiavut, broke down sobbing in relating his experience in trying to excel at everything in life, and yet, because of the inability to speak Inuktitut, is looked down upon. “I’m not Inuk because I don’t speak Inuktitut!” he said, between long pauses. The room fell silent. “By sharing this truth,” he said, “I feel like I let 100 pounds of stress go.”
Language has always been a hot button emotional issue during ICC international meetings. Delegates used the term “lateral violence” to describe instances where fellow Inuit put them down based on the ability to speak Inuktitut. It was stated repeatedly that this has to stop, and instead Inuit should build each other up, and take advantage of numerous grass roots community language initiatives.
Evelyn Storr, a Canadian delegate from the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, described some projects that work in her region. “We have elders’ gatherings and drum dancer gatherings. If people say ‘I don’t know the language’, the drum dancing really helps. Singing is another really good way for people to learn. We put too much pressure on ourselves that we have to be fluent right away.”
The final topic for discussion was “Hunting and Food Security”. It was introduced by Adamie Delisle Alaku Executive Vice-President for Makivvik, Department of Environment, Wildlife, and Research. He set the tone of the discussion, not only by listing the international forums Inuit attend to defend hunting rights, but also the deep cultural importance of hunting.
“We would not be here if it weren’t for the animals,” said Adamie. “As long as there is an ocean, we will hunt sea mammals.”
One of the first to speak was Crawford Patkotak, delegate from Alaska. “I’m a whaling captain. The Bowhead whale is the center of our community. No one person can do it alone. We have several crews. It brings everyone together. We put the principle of Bowhead whale hunting into everything we do, including our businesses.”
Crawford described efforts by environmentalists to stop the whale hunt, duck hunt, polar bear hunt, and other traditional hunts, over the decades. Inuit have fought back every step of the way, and are stronger now.
Duane Smith, Chair and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation underlined the importance of the exclusive rights to hunt contained in contemporary Inuit treaties. He cited many actions his region is taking to maintain hunting traditions. “For over 25 years we’ve had various programs related to hunting and harvesting, assisting with providing sewing machines, boats, we have ‘On-the-land’ programs, whale camp, berry picking. We have Inupiak-Inuvialuit polar bear and beluga whale committees.” He also stressed the importance of watching out for foreign regulatory processes, saying it’s a big problem that is ignorant of Inuit governments and treaties.
Despite living across various political boundaries, the issues were similar from Chukotka to Greenland. Inuit are working hard to assert the use of terms such as “Inuit Knowledge,” inserting it into the language of international diplomacy, and at the same time maintaining traditional hunting practises in a modern world. It’s a world that is introducing new invasive species into the Arctic. Sharks were mentioned in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region. In the context of climate change, the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet, causing additional stress on hunting.
It was the final topic of the Delegates Meeting. But not the end of the week, as another two-day 50th anniversary Arctic Peoples’ Conference followed, hosted by ICC and the Saami Council. It brought together some of the original participants who attended the 1973 conference in Copenhagen, as well as Indigenous leaders of organizations that have evolved and developed since then. Aside from ICC and Saami Council, they include the Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich’in Council International, and the Aleut International Association.
The 1973 Arctic Peoples’ Conference was held November 22-25 at Christiansborg, Copenhagen. It brought together 40 delegates representing 21 organizations of Indigenous Peoples from Arctic Canada, Greenland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. Imagine, it was way before cell phones and the Internet! They used fax machines and rotary dial telephones to organize everything.
Present in Ilulissat from that 1973 meeting were former Inuit leaders Aqqaluk Lynge, and Carl Christian Olsen (Puju), and former Saami leaders Máret Sárá, Egil Utsi and Per Mikael Utsi. Together they set the tone for the contemporary 2023 two-day gathering by recalling significant political developments during an “Armchair Discussion,” animated with vintage black and white photographs. Still vigorous, former ICC Chair Aqqaluk Lynge said, “It’s not a job, it’s a calling. You can never retire from working on Indigenous rights!”
The stated purpose of the 50th anniversary Arctic Peoples’ Conference in Ilulissat, was to celebrate the cooperation, successes and achievements of Arctic Indigenous Peoples, while taking stock of the current situation, and discussing visions for the next 50 years.
Áslat Holmberg, President of the Saami Council lamented the fact that Saami from Russia could not attend due to the war in Ukraine. He highlighted the increasing threats to Indigenous lands from the ravages of climate change. “I must be honest, there are some very dark clouds on our horizon,” he said. “We face severe threats from green colonialism, where our lands are colonized in the name of fighting climate change.”
“The road ahead will be long,” said ICC Chair Sara Olsvig in her keynote address. “We are heading in a direction of greater recognition of Indigenous Peoples, and our representation through our own institutions in the United Nations, which are our own Indigenous governments, parliaments, or traditional councils.”
The 1973 conference produced an inspiring declaration which helped guide significant achievements for Arctic peoples over the last half century, such as obtaining observer status at the United Nations, and the creation of the Arctic Council in the 1990s. It also saw the creation of Greenland Home Rule and Self-Government, the Nunavut Government, and the Saami Parliament. The 1973 declaration was quoted many times during the course of the conference. One example was the second resolution from the declaration which proposed to “form a Circumpolar Body of Indigenous Peoples to pursue and advance our shared and collective interests.”
In Ilulissat, the 42 delegates, inspired from the 1973 declaration, and two days of discussions, including Indigenous youth, issued the “Statement of the Arctic Peoples’ Conference 2023.” The four-page Statement contains seven headings, such as: Enhanced Engagement, Partnerships, and Allies; Rights to Wellbeing; Rights to Lands, Waters, and Natural Resources; Connection to Marine Environment; Impacts of Climate Change; Colonialism and Climate Change Response; and Our Future.
In the preamble the 2023 Statement declares, “The Arctic is our homeland. Our traditional territories cover the entire Arctic region. Over thousands of years, we have nurtured reciprocal, symbiotic, and respectful relationships between our peoples and the Arctic environment, and we have transferred our knowledge through countless generations. Our cultural identities, our languages, our values, our spirituality, and our overall mental and physical wellness are tied to our environment, of which we are an intimate part.”
The last heading – Our Future – is about the challenges facing Indigenous youth. It reads in part, “Our youth are a massive force for hope in the Arctic, and now is the time for States, governmental authorities, corporations, research institutions and civil society to weigh heavily the messages, priorities, and perspectives of our youth to empower them to leadership and success.”
Considering the issues raised in both meetings, spanning five decades of international work, and now in a more complex global community, current and future Inuit leaders, and observers, were invigorated from discussions in Ilulissat, providing much needed strength in bringing the Inuit voice to the international arena.
In 2026 Canada will host the 15th ICC General Assembly in Iqaluit, Nunavut. To show how things change, the 3rd ICC Assembly was hosted in Frobisher Bay, Northwest Territories, in 1983 – the same place. The names of both the town, and the territory, were changed, peacefully, by Inuit political and social activism over the course of several decades!