The Nexus of Identity, Inuit Autonomy and Arctic Sustainability: Learning from Nunavut, Community and Culture

By Doubleday, Nancy C. | British Journal of Canadian Studies, September 2003 | Go to article overview

The Nexus of Identity, Inuit Autonomy and Arctic Sustainability: Learning from Nunavut, Community and Culture


Doubleday, Nancy C., British Journal of Canadian Studies


NORTHERN IDENTITY HAS TRAVELLED a long road in a brief period, compressing the journey of Inuit and their lands from autonomy to dependency to interdependency within living memory. Throughout this period Inuit identity has retained its capacity to self-define against the countervailing tensions of exploration, colonial expansion and assimilation.

Fundamental aspects of the dual struggle, not only to resist forces of domination and hegemony, but also to reclaim political autonomy, have characterised home rule movements and political activity throughout the circumpolar region and have received broad critical attention. Most recently, the emergence of Nunavut as a region of public government coextensive with a legally defined region of private individual and collective rights has restored some elements of autonomy. However the issues of communities striving to restore balance in the face of recent domination are less well understood. If we wish to explore the issue of cultural survival, both as a legitimate outcome and as a wellspring of sustainability, it is necessary to both revisit this history and to examine questions of formation of Inuit identity, community and autonomy and their interaction within Nunavut. This article briefly examines the historical suppression of Inuit identity, the reclamation of identity through Inuit selfgovernment within Nunavut, and the struggles for identity and autonomy at a community and regional scale, in conjunction with the implications for Arctic sustainability, both as an objective, as well as an outcome, of Nunavut.

Inuit Identity

When one considers that the Inuit, the people of the Arctic, comprise some estimated 100,000 individuals in the entire world,1 it is remarkable that they have survived not only post-glacial environmental and climatic extremes, but also the grinding stones of their historical and contemporary colonial experience. Moreover, not only have Inuit survived, but increasingly they have achieved a measure of international recognition and success, both politically and culturally, which can be considered to be highly significant given their small numbers.2 What is it that enables Inuit to demonstrate such effectiveness? Here it is argued that the fact that Inuit have within living memory experienced both autonomy and dependency has given Inuit an indelible sense of identity. From this fundamental sense of identity, it is then argued that this knowledge of what it means to be Inuit, what it means to be part of a community (in both the old and new meanings of community), and what is necessary to survival, further informs concepts of sustainability within Nunavut.

In the contemporary world, Inuit identity retains its capacity to self-define against the countervailing tensions of the federal state and the global economy, just as it prevailed in historical situations, as evidenced most recently by the creation of Nunavut, and earlier by the settlement of landclaims and the reshaping of the Canadian Constitution. As political and legal frameworks have increasingly endorsed human rights and multiculturalism, contemporary social science debates have recognised the challenge of 'difference' and 'diversity' (see, for example, McDowell 1995). At least one author has proposed a classification of sustainable development initiatives external to the Arctic as being 'either Environmentalists . . ., Economists, . . . or Culturalists' and then recognising as suggested opposites those initiatives arising from Arctic-based organisations (Rasmussen 1999). This is an example of a pragmatic approach, one which the present article also employs in looking to Nunavut. In addition, however it is necessary to look to identity as a fundamental source of diversity with respect to frameworks for sustainability, for it is here that the real integration of the environmental, economic and cultural arguably exists.

Nunavut, community, and culture: roots and shoots

In order to understand both the origin and meaning of the terms 'Nunavut', 'community', and 'culture' within the present discourse, it is necessary to look at the conceptual dimensions and historical roots of the terms as applied in the eastern Arctic. …

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