On a scale of one to 10, some rated just a one


NASIVVIK By Zebedee Nungak,

Windspeaker Columnist; Archives 2003


Nasivvik is an Inuktitut word that means vantage point. It can be a height of land, a hummock of ice, or any place of elevation that affords observers a clear view of their surroundings to make good observations.

The first Indian Department in Canada was created in 1755 as a branch of the British military in North America. This reveals that it took more than 200 years for some manifestation of government administration to reach Inuit. This may not be any wonder, as Inuit are not Indians. At least, not until we unfortunates in Quebec's Arctic were legally declared Indians by the Supreme Court decision In Re: Eskimo in 1939.

Northern administrators, whom Inuit called Inulirijiit (those who deal with Inuit), came to the Arctic in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They worked for a federal entity called the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources (DNA&NR). Thus, Inuit referred to "DNA-kkut" when they spoke of the government's civil service. In those days, Inuit leaders were lucky to get a meeting with a district supervisor, and really fortunate to get an audience with a regional superintendent.

Jean Chretien was minister of Indian Affairs from 1968 to 1974; in his own words for "six years, one month, three days, and two hours, and I loved every minute of it." His tenure was unusual for its length, which still stands as a record. He was the one most responsible for bringing the federal government to the people during the early years of prime minister Pierre Trudeau's administration.

Over the years I had frequent occasion to meet with different ministers of Indian Affairs. In a photograph taken in January 1969, I am a young student talking with a youthful-looking Jean Chretien, the first among 14 ministers with whom I would have reason to meet during my years in politics.

Actually, there are two ministers on the list whom I never got to meet—Douglas Frith of the John Turner administration, and Pauline Browes of the Kim Campbell administration. Each of them were in and out of their portfolios so quickly that neither of us had time to put each other in our appointment books. They do, however, look good padding this list!

I can't drop names and declare any of the ministers as having been friends of mine, but several were more than mere acquaintances. Such a one was Ronald Irwin, who was minister from 1993 to 1997. He was the thirteenth minister in my career. Mr. Irwin got wind of the fact that I rated ministers on a scale of one to 10, and became keenly interested in where he stood on that scale. He gave me many friendly pokes in attempts to get me to blurt out his rating.

Mr. Irwin left his portfolio before I communicated his ministerial rating to him. In fairness to others who may have rated lower, I would only give him his in person. Last I heard of him, he was in Ireland, posing as ambassador to that country while indulging in a passion, which I share with him: playing jigs and reels on a variety of musical instruments.

None of the ministers of Indian Affairs ever rated a 10 on my scale. Some rated a one, only for the fact that they held the title. Even the unremarkable ministers never actually said, "And who do you think you are? Be glad I have taken time to shake your hand!" But their countenance and bearing said it for them.

(I admit I could not write a handbook on how to be a good minister of Indian Affairs. I cannot imagine serving in government as a minister of Qallunaat (white people's) Affairs. Such a ministry is an inherent human challenge of managing the affairs of an identified collective of people. Why isn't there a ministry of Irish Affairs? Oops, I digress!)

The standard gift for ministers from Inuit leaders was the Eskimo carving. It was Mr. Chretien, as prime minister, who boosted carvings as something more than art. He invented an innovation of them as weapons of defense when an intruder broke into his residence. The carving industry missed a golden opportunity in the aftermath of that incident. In addition to the Igloo tag of authenticity on soapstone carvings, it could've started tagging certain pieces as PWD's: Possible Weapons of Defense!

Transitions in government when ministers were changed had their own unmistakable signs. One of these was calling the minister's office for information or appointments, and finding that your name no longer struck terror in the voice of the staff who answered the phone.

The final indignity was being forced to spell out your name by the new crowd brought in by the new minister.

In having to plead issues with a minister of Indian Affairs, Inuit leaders always have their work cut out for them. A Department of First Nations Affairs should first be established. Then, a Department of Inuit and Arctic Affairs should be created to correct the government's orientation toward Inuit.