Voice From the Past

“Thank you ministers and representatives for your time this morning,” said Minister Kusugak. “I think we are making some progress toward understanding the perspectives of all present.”

Perspectives, ha, thought Oolanie to herself. As she looked around the room she saw the familiar equanimous faces of her colleagues in the Inuit Nunangat government. She also saw the faces from the Native Alaskan delegation, and she knew, privately, they were onboard with everything that she had already said that day. And then, Oolanie looked over to the delegation from the Canadian government. Most of them seemed appropriately amenable, though she did note that one younger looking Canadian seemed visibly frustrated. Someone to keep an eye on.

She continued, “We have reached a critical juncture in the negotiation of the Iqaluit Transit Agreement.”

As she said this, she noticed that the young Canadian was speaking to his colleague, not loudly enough for her to hear, but certainly loudly enough to be noticeably disruptive. She chose to ignore it.

“Come on, let’s have some fun.” her Memory whispered. Oolanie smiled, but continued.

“As minister for land, water and ice here in Inuit Nunangat, I represent the interests of the indigenous community that has stewarded these lands,… Am I boring you? ” Minister Oolanie Kusugak interrupted the young Canadian who had chosen to speak even more loudly this time.

“Well, I wouldn’t say boring me” said the self-satisfied young Canadian, “but what I don’t understand is how the Inuit Nunangat government can make such expansive claims about these lands. Only recently has your government taken things over from Canada. Now, I think —”

“You think…” interrupted Oolanie, now coldly.

“Yes I think,” said the young Canadian, now with more fervor, “That your government needs to be whipped into shape a little.”

The senior Canadian delegates suddenly realized who was talking and what was happening. One visibly swore, and the others grimaced knowing what would come next.

Oolanie closed her folder. “I see. Who do you think you are, who knows how this land ought to be managed?”

The young Canadian began to speak, but Oolanie cut them off.

That, as you should have known, was rhetorical. I am not interested in your answer. I’m not sure who is supposed to be holding your leash, but I’m holding it now.” Oolanie said. “And I’m going to educate you.”

The young Canadian went to speak, but a more Senior Delegate gripped the shoulder of the young Canadian, and told them to be quiet.

“That,” Oolanie inclined her head to the Senior Delegate, “Was a piece of wisdom. Let me start with your first comment, that our government has only recently taken over from the Canadians. This of course is embarrassingly short sighted. The Inuit Nunangat government has indeed recently taken control of these lands. Yet this is a return to the historical order.” She paused.

“Come on…” said her Memory. Not Yet, thought Oolanie.

You see a history where Canada has claimed this land for a few hundred years.” said Oolanie, “Set that against the thousands of years that my people have inhabited and stewarded this land. Perhaps you choose to go a bit further back to the “discovery” of Rupert’s land? Maybe the century or so of extraction from the Hudson’s Bay Company? Fine, you explorers and colonizers get a few more decades. But all of that is over now.”

The Canadian goes to say something. He is cut off.

“Do not speak.” Oolanie’s voice has changed, become deeper… sounding older. She feels a sense of letting go, and someone else taking over.

“Whipped into shape, you say? I was born on the ice, I can tell you of a life more closely tied to this place, than you can dream of. Whipped into shape? Let me tell you my experience, first hand, of being separated from my parents before I was age 10, where I spent close to a decade in a residential school actually being whipped and beaten for speaking the language of my people.” Oolanie paused, the Memory now pouring out of her. “Don’t sit there and speak those words. Something tells me you have very little idea of what those words mean.”

Recognition dawned on the young Canadians’ face.

“Yes, you see now.” The words tumbled out of Oolanie more quickly. “You see an Inuit woman, and you judge, you preconceive. You can plainly see that I am those things. I am also the Minister of Land, Water, and Ice.” She paused, then let go, permitting the Memory Well to pour her ancestor’s words out of her mouth. Jeannie Kusugak, Oolanie’s great, great grandmother, now spoke through Oolanie, to the assembled audience. Oolanie/Jeannie continued to look at the young Canadian. It may be a trick of the meeting room, or a trick of the ears listening — but two voices seemed to speak in unison. “You are looking into a well of memory. I can remember what this world looked like before climate change. I can remember this place when your rules were violence, dispossession of culture, with no consequences for your theft, rape, and murder. You should be pleased that we the Inuit government are only seeking to steward our domain with justice and equity — rather than seeking vengeance for the past.”

The assembly was silent.

“I remember the fights in government, the protests for recognition of our rights, and the slow progress of redress and returning of the lands to our people. Recognition of Nunavut in 1999. Nunavik in 2055. Inuvialuit in 2061. This is not an aberration, or some new order. This is a return to the way this land was governed long before you ever set foot here.”

Oolanie/Jeannie took a deep breath. Inviting an interruption. None came.

“You may claim that you had nothing to do with this. That it was not you, but people who came before you, that perpetrated this literal and figurative violence. But you sit there, on the spoils of history from which you continue to thoughtlessly benefit. I am not interested in any sort of apology, and I don’t care for your excuses. It is irrelevant at this point.”

Silence. Oolanie paused. Took a breath, and smiled, no longer with bared teeth, but with cold resolve. Although no change was visible, Oolanie closed her Memory Well, for now.

“This is not the end by the way, but the beginning. Our stewardship of these lands will continue and expand, with knowledge and cultural practice connecting into the past, and throughout the world, well beyond the Arctic. Our research and our development produced the technology of the Memory Well. This has allowed our communities to connect to centuries past — accessing first hand, lived-knowledge of how the land was, and how it might be again. We have shared this technology with other indigenous communities, who are similarly connecting their elders to their future leaders.”

The visiting delegations from Alaska and Greenland, nod at one another.

Oolanie continued, “And we, as stewards of the pan-Arctic indigenous movement, are advancing Indigenous recognition and land claims throughout the polar regions. We support the Sámi communities, who won independence in 2075, Native Alaskan communities will join us as they separate officially in 2100. And we hope that our Kalaallit Nunaatwill family will join soon.”

“So.” Oolanie cleared her throat, as though to return to herself.. “The Iqaluit Transit Agreement.”

She stared at the group of delegates, focusing her attention on the Canadian senior staff and representatives. She finished with a long look at the young Canadian.

“We have come to this table because you requested it. We have offered terms in good faith, terms that are fair, and that respect our view of stewardship of the land, water, and ice.”

Oolanie looked to her colleagues momentarily, then they all nodded together.

“We had planned hours of negotiation today, perhaps even going into tomorrow,” said Oolanie. “Now — we have decided that we are no longer doing that. The offer that we have made, stands. You may take it or you may leave it.”

The Canadian ministers conferred briefly, the young Canadian noticeably excluded, and appearing suitably chastened from the dressing down.

Standing up, the senior Canadian delegate said, “Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your wisdom, Minister Kusugak. The Canadian government officially accepts these terms and we look forward to cooperating with the Inuit Nunangat government.”

In Oolanie’s mind, Jeannie chuckles, then sighs contentedly.