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The Creation of Nunavut

Nunavut is the largest and newest territory of Canada, located in the northernmost part of the country. Nunavut was officially created on April 1, 1999, when the Northwest Territories were divided into two territories: Nunavut and the remaining portion of the Northwest Territories. The creation of Nunavut was the result of a long process of negotiation and consultation between the Inuit people, the Canadian government, and other stakeholders.

Nunavut was created in response to the ongoing legacy of colonialism, and movement of Indigenous people to call for self-determination and the recognition of Indigenous rights. It was also a response to the specific needs and aspirations of the Inuit people, who had been advocating for greater control over their land and resources for many years. The creation of Nunavut is a particularly significant moment in Canadian history as it marked the first time that a majority Indigenous population had been granted considerable self-government within a modern state.

Iqaluit, Nunavut circa 1998 via Flikr, provided for the GRID-Arendal resources library by: Peter Prokosch. ( (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Background and Negotiations

The process of creating Nunavut began in the late 1960s, when the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC) was formed to represent Inuit interests in Canada. The ITC began advocating for the creation of a separate territory for the Inuit people, which would give them greater control over their land and resources, and would could better suit the needs of the Inuit people.

In 1971, the Canadian government began negotiating with the ITC and other Indigenous groups about the creation of a land claims agreement that would recognize Indigenous rights and provide compensation for land that had been taken without consent. In 1973, Ottawa created a policy which enabled Indigenous peoples to dispute land ownership over their territory if it had been demonstrated that they used and occupied it (See Heidt et al., 270). The ITC collaborated with others to engage in an “exhaustive study to document where Inuit lived at the time, where their ancestors lived, how they lived, and how they travelled and hunted in Canada’s Arctic.” This was used to make an initial Inuit land claims proposal for a new territory and a new territorial government in 1976, but this proposal did not move forward. There were other attempts, and it was “only after years of debate” and a number of proposals that the proposal for a new territory was “accepted by the federal government, but it was still decided to negotiate the creation of the new territory separate from the land claim.”

Negotiations for the creation of Nunavut were complex and often contentious, as they involved not only the creation of a new territory but also the transfer of significant powers and responsibilities from the federal government to the Inuit people. Debate on how to divide the NWT stretched for years due to concerns about fiscal independence from Ottawa (Heidt et al, 273). Further, Inuit people had to negotiate with the Canadian government, but also with the governments of the Northwest Territories and Yukon, which would be affected by the creation of a new territory. This was complicated as well by overlapping Métis and Inuit land claims, which drastically lengthened the discussion on where to draw the division of territory (Heidt et al, 276).

The Creation of Nunavut

Paul Quassa, President of the Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut, and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signing the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, Iqaluit, May 25, 1993. Photo credit: Hans-Ludwig Blohm, C.M via @LetiaObded.

Eventually there was more significant process towards the formation of Nunavut. In 1990 a land-claims agreement in principle was signed. In 1992, there were two referenda on the creation of Nunavut, the first occurring in May which affirmed the “Parker Line” as the site of territorial division, and a second in November which provided a strong mandate to continue on with the formal creation of Nunavut. (Note: This was not the first referendum on the matter, there had been one in 1982 that had spurred on negotiations as well).

In 1993, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NCLA) was settled, after more than twenty years of negotiations that had begun with the formation of the ITC and the first land claims proposals in the 1970s. The NCLA was a comprehensive land claims settlement signed by the Inuit, the federal government, and the Government of the Northwest Territories. It addressed issues related to land ownership, resource management, and self-government, and also recognized the Inuit as a distinct people with the right to self-determination. At the time, then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney described the moment, stating that: “The Inuit of Nunavut have broken the mold of the past… They have done this openly and democratically, using powers of persuasion. They are now better equipped to determine their own future, and can participate more fully in national decision-making.” (Heidt et al, 278). The agreement was ratified in November 1992 (in Parliament as the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act), and signed into law in June 1993.

The Nunavut Act wound its way through Parliament at the same time, which provided for the creation of Nunavut as a new territory, with its own government and administrative structures. The act also established the boundaries of Nunavut and set out the powers and responsibilities of the new territorial government. It was passed as well in June 1993.

It took several years to move from the legislation and land claims agreement to the formal separation of Nunavut from the Northwest Territories. New government departments needed to be established, relevant legislation passed, employees hired, and an election held (the first occurred in February 1999) to vote in the first members of the Nunavut legislative assembly.

On April 1, 1999, Nunavut officially became a territory. It covers a vast terrain and has a population of over 35,000, the majority of whom are Inuit, and the symbols of the new territory are reflective of Inuit identity. For example, the Nunavut flag features an inuksuk as well as the North Star (which is important to navigation, as well as Inuit mythology), and its coat of arms incorporates caribou, narwhal, and a qulliq, among other symbols.

Implications and conclusion

The formation of Nunavut has had far-reaching impacts, both for the Inuit people and for Canada. For the Inuit, it has provided a platform to assert their cultural and political rights and to protect their traditional way of life. The territory has also given the Inuit greater control over their own resources and has provided a framework for economic development that is based on their needs and values. For Canada, the creation of Nunavut has helped to recognize the rights and diversity of Indigenous cultures and identities within its borders. It marked a turning point of sorts in the recognition of Indigenous rights and the establishment of self-government over traditional lands.

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Contributors: Ozan Bayezit, Andrew Malliaros, Aidan Grossi, Qalib Syed, Kady Cisse, Christopher Gregory, and Ashton Prince