“it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts … It matters what worlds make worlds, what worlds make stories” (Haraway, 2018)
As part of an ongoing investigation into resource development and waste in Nunavut, I created a large embroidered tapestry entitled Relationship to the Land (Use Planning Provisions), that depicts a map of Inuit Owned Lands in Nunavut, or a lone figure on the tundra. The title is adapted from Article 12, Part 3 of the Land Claims Agreement (brackets my own addition), which I thought was interesting and troubling because it is the only mention in the whole document of a relationship to land. The pink areas are Inuit owned lands with surface rights, and the red are Inuit owned lands with subsurface rights, as defined in the Land Claims Agreement. As a settler-Canadian, this process helped me think through the relationship between resource development, colonialism, and environmental racism. While meticulously rendering the map in thousands of knots tied over the course of ten months, I questioned the values that led to this map being an output of that agreement in the first place. The outcomes of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement are more beneficial than other Crown/Indigenous relationships in Canada, but this says more about the woeful agreements between the Crown and other Indigenous peoples (and bearing in mind that many Indigenous nations across Canada never signed agreements or ceded their territory) than it does about the merits of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. Reinscribing Inuit identity as “property holders” is a colonial move that can never repair past wrongs. The ongoing focus on resources demonstrates how geology is used to uphold racialized relations in power and to enact dispossession (Yussof, 2018: 17).
With a territorial area of 1,877,787 km2 (725,018 sq mi), ᓄᓇᕗᑦ, or Nunavut (“our land”), is the largest and newest territory in Canada with a population of just under 35,000 mostly Inuit residents who have lineage that precedes colonization by some 20,000 years. John Amagoalik, then director of the N.W.T. Inuit Land Claims Commission, wrote about the values he brought to negotiating the Land Claims Agreement:
What is important to remember though, is that the Inuit do not consider their lands as “property” but rather as “home”. But it is not a home which has been obtained by making a down payment and signing a legal document. It is not a home around which we built a fence. The Government of Canada says all this land belongs to the “Crown”. It is seen by the government as “property” which can be leased, rented, auctioned and sold. The government is interested in the North because it has resources which can be exploited, not because it is home (1978: 4).
Amagoalik, and other Inuit leaders, were frustrated with the extractive lens that colonization had imposed upon their lands and sought to negotiate an agreement that would be more than a real-estate transaction, the latter of which which could not preserve culture or guarantee self-determination (ibid: 8). These leaders had a strong position, as Inuit have never been conquered by war or signed treaties with Canada (ibid: 7) and the final 1993 Land Claims Agreement extends many rights to the Inuit of Nunavut beyond land use considerations including: harvesting rights, water rights, employment opportunities within government, impact and benefit agreements, and full control over Inuit enrollment (Government of Canada, 1993). The Canadian Government’s settler colonial approach to land, and the entrenched interest in resource exploitation remained central to the agreement, however.
The dramatic increase in demand for northern natural resources over the past twenty years has only intensified with the prospect of climate change making these resources more accessible (Southcott, 2012). According to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC), the Arctic contains about 25 per cent of Canada’s remaining discovered recoverable crude oil and natural gas, and about 40 per cent of Canada’s projected future discoveries (Government of Canada, 2010). This means more people and equipment moving temporarily from south to north, and much more drilling and extraction – inevitably leading to more waste. The Land Claims Agreement established provisions for Inuit Owned Lands, and states: “The primary purpose of Inuit Owned Lands shall be to provide Inuit with rights in land that promote economic self-sufficiency of Inuit through time, in a manner consistent with Inuit social and cultural needs and aspirations” (Government of Canada, 1993: 139). Part of the argument for self-sufficiency is through resource development, and mineral rights were central to land selection throughout the negotiations. The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement made the Inuit of Nunavut the largest freehold owners of mineral rights in Canada (McPherson: 2003: xxiv) with subsurface development rights to 37,882 square kilometers, or 1.9% of the territory (ibid: xvii). The Inuit of Nunavut control more mineral rights than any other group in Canada, but over 98% of the land in question was ceded to the ‘Crown’. Waste from resource extraction already threatens the environment and human and inhuman health with toxins such as PCBs abandoned, which bioaccumulate and biomagnify in the tissues of wildlife (Braune, et al., 1999; Giesy and Kannan, 1998) and can leach distances of up to 25 kilometres (Pier, et al., 2003). Already, many country foods have become sources of contaminant exposure (Van Oostdam, et al., 2005), and increased extraction bring increased toxic exposure.
I wanted this piece to speak to the tension Amagoalik faced in negotiations, between ‘property’ and ‘home’. During my research, I was lucky enough to speak to Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer at an event where she answered the questions of grad students. I asked her how I might approach place-based research when travel was no longer possible. She suggested exploring story, learning about the non-human residents of the land, and to trust my imagination. These prompts have been interesting guides, particularly the question of imagination. I actually think there is a huge risk to relying on my imagination when conceptualizing the Arctic; settler Canadians have a legacy of imaginative projection in the North. I am reminded of a quote by Stephen Leacock that Emilie Cameron discusses in Far off Metal River:
When I write about the North I speak with a certain authority. For I know the North, as few people know it. In the corporeal, bodily sense, I have never been there. But in my arm chair, in front of the fire in my house on Côte des Neiges Road in Montreal, I have traversed it all, from the portages back of Lake Superior to where the Mackenzie delta washes into the tidal seas. I have been with Franklin on the Coppermine and Coronation Gulf, with Hudson till I lost him owing to his own folly, with Mackenzie over the divide, in Red River ox-carts with Butler, and in the foothills with Milton and Cheadle (11).
The white settler-Canadian imagination has done enough damage to the Arctic, it would be prudent to keep my imagination in check. Cameron summarizes her thoughts on Leacock, saying the “idea of the North” is central to the nationalist myth of Canadian identity and an idea that is constituted through stories. Dr. Wall Kimmerer also recommended work by Dan Longboat, The Haudenosaunee Imagination and the Ecology of the Sacred, where he describes how the Haudenosaunee imagination is inextricable from the land and from the non-human world; it is inherently expansive and the Western, individualistic imagination is fundamentally at odds with this way of being. This is a reminder that my settler mindset can’t unleash this expansive place-based imagination even on the landscapes I know well; it is truly impossible in the Northern landscapes.
But I can trust that Inuit think with and through the land and the other citizens of the land. Knowing that this is true, and knowing that it is not mine is important when considering what this map is saying; what story it is telling. Dr. Wall Kimmerer encouraged me to think about the non-humans who inhabit the Arctic, which got me thinking about the plant life. North of the treeline, the plants are all nestled closer to the ground. The Arctic has been called barren by many settlers, but I know to Inuit it is abundant.
The little french knots of my embroidery started looking like a tundra populated with cloud berries, so I added a figure in a parka (made with gifted seal skin harvested in Pangnirtung), picking berries. A settler-colonial view of Nunavut sees the land is a flat plane to be divided and extracted; an Inuit view of the land is expansive, it is nourishment, it is home.
The human figures change the perspective on the map, turning the God’s Eye View into a landscape and breaking the frame from rational land management. To some, the land is a map, to some, the land is home. With this work, I seek to denaturalize the relationalities that govern our current extractivist systems of exploitation and power by making visible a set of power relations, entrenched in lines drawn on maps and lengthy agreements, that enabled the dispossession of Inuit lands. My intention is to speak to the other map people and encourage us to step back and step off from people’s homes.
To support ongoing Inuit resistance to Baffinland’s Mary River mine expansion consider making a donation to support further organizing.
Amagoalik, J. (1978). Inuit Nunangat: The People’s Land: A struggle for survival. N.W.T. Inuit Land Claims Commission.
Braune, B., D. Muir, B. DeMarch, M. Gamberg, K. Poole, R. Currie, M. Dodd, et al. 1999. “Spatial and Temporal Trends of Contaminants in Canadian Arctic Freshwater Terrestrial Ecosystems: A Review.” Science and the Total Environment 230, no. 1-3: 145-207.
Cameron, E. (2015) Far Off Metal River: Inuit Lands, Settler Stories, and the Making of the Contemporary Arctic, Vancouver: UBC Press.
Government of Canada. (1993). Agreement Between the Inuit of the Nunavut Settlement Area and Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada.
Government of Canada (2010) The Canadian North – Active Exploration and New Development. Retrieved from https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100036928/1100100036929#chp2
Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.
McPherson, R. (2003). New Owners in Their Own Land: Minerals and Inuit Land Claims. University of Calgary Press.
Pier, M. Dawn, Alexandra A. Betts-Piper, Christopher C. Knowlton, Barbara A. Zeeb, and Kenneth J. Reimer. 2003. “Redistribution of Polychlorinated Biphenyls from a Local Point Source: Terrestrial Soil, Freshwater Sediment, and Vascular Plants as Indicators of the Halo Effect.” Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research 35, no. 3: 349-60.
Sheridan J. and Longboat, D. (2006) The Haudenosaunee Imagination and the Ecology of the Sacred, Space and Culture. 9(4):365-381.