• Indigenous peoples in Canada

    Indigenous peoples in Canada

    The indigenous peoples of Canada are collectively referred to as “aboriginal peoples”. Canada recognizes three groups of aboriginal peoples: First Nation, Inuit and Métis. Canada’s aboriginal peoples are challenged by the slow implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, child welfare, and violence against indigenous women and girls.

Indigenous World 2020: Inuit Nunangat

The majority of the 65,030 Inuit in Canada live in 51 communities in Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland  encompassing  the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik in northern Quebec and Nunatsiavut in northern Labrador.

Comprehensive Inuit-Crown  land  claims  agreements shape the political contours of each of the four Inuit regions. Through these constitutionally protected agreements, Inuit representative organisations and governments co-manage, with the federal government, nearly one-third of Canada’s landmass and 50% of its coastline. Inuit are represented at the national level by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) and at the international level by the Inuit Circumpolar Council-Canada. ITK’s board of directors is made up of the leaders of the four regional Inuit representational organizations and governments: Inuvialuit Regional Corp., Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., Makivik Corp. and the Nunatsiavut Government. In addition to voting members, the presidents of the following non-voting permanent participant representatives also sit on the board: Inuit Circumpolar Council-Canada; Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada; and the National Inuit Youth Council.

2019 began with uncertainty for Inuit in Canada. The federal Liberal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was approaching the end of its first mandate with uncertainty about its future as the government. Canadians watched as Indigenous priorities, which had featured prominently in Liberal campaigning leading up to the 2015 federal election, were overtaken by other priorities in the 2019 campaign. Inuit worked with the federal government throughout the year to advance shared Inuit-Crown priorities and were successful in some areas. For example, Inuit secured federal government investments supporting implementation of the National Inuit Climate Change Strategy and the National Inuit Health Survey, and announced the creation of Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area. However, Inuit struggled to influence the federal government’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework and Indigenous Languages Act.

Outcomes of the federal election

In October 2019, the Liberals won enough seats to form a minority government. Now that opposition parties hold the majority of seats in the House of Commons, there is some uncertainty about the duration of the current Liberal mandate. With the official Conservative opposition in the midst of a leadership race, however, an imminent election seems unlikely. Since the election, the Liberal government has committed to taking action on Indigenous priorities, including through continued engagement in the Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee (ICPC) that was brokered by Inuit leaders in 2017. The ICPC advances policy action on Inuit-Crown priorities through working groups that report to Inuit leaders and federal Cabinet ministers. It is co-chaired by the Prime Minister and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) president at one meeting a year, while the other two meetings are co-chaired with the ITK president, and the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations.

The federal government has committed to co-developing federal legislation in partnership with Indigenous Peoples that would implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). ITK has called for such legislation to include an independent Indigenous Human Rights Commission, consistent with the UN Paris Principles, to provide redress for Indigenous Peoples whose rights have been violated and to prevent the federal government from monitoring and reporting on its own conduct.1

The federal government has also committed to advancing Inuit-specific policy priorities, including the development of an Inuit Nunangat Policy. ITK has lobbied the federal government to develop an Inuit Nunangat Policy in partnership with Inuit that would close policy and programme gaps throughout the federal system, ending inconsistencies in programme eligibility that contribute to some Inuit regions being ineligible for programmes and services that are intended to benefit all Inuit. Such a policy is also needed to ensure that federal budget allocations that are intended to benefit Inuit are consistently allocated directly to Inuit through their respective land claims organisations, rather than to the provincial and territorial governments that share jurisdiction with Inuit over our territory. This funding flow allows for Inuit self-determination and creates space for Inuit to work directly with their federal and territorial counterparts.

An Arctic and Northern Policy Framework

First announced as an initiative in 2016, the long-awaited Arctic and Northern Policy Framework was billed by the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs in 2019 as a “profound change” in the Government of Canada’s direction for the region.2 It outlines a vision for Arctic and northern regions where people are thriving, strong and safe, and presents a number of priorities and actions intended to achieve that vision. Sections of the policy were co-developed with Inuit, yet the federal government ultimately refused to fully integrate a distinct Inuit Nunangat chapter into the policy or provide a definition of the geographic region where the policy is intended to be implemented. It remains unclear how or when the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework will be implemented.

The Indigenous Languages Act

In June 2019, the federal government passed the Indigenous Languages Act. The act creates the office of the Indigenous Languages Commissioner, an independent office tasked with reporting on language revitalisation, maintenance and promotion activities, and carrying out research. However, the legislation neither affirms Indigenous language rights, nor is the Commissioner empowered to provide redress for Indigenous Peoples whose language rights have been violated. Inuktut, the Inuit language, is the most resilient Indigenous language spoken in Canada. Inuktut is spoken by the majority of Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat, where it is recognised as an official language in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Nunatsiavut. ITK voiced disappointment with the Indigenous Languages Act because, although it is characterised as having been co-developed with Indigenous Peoples, all appeals for Inuit-specific provisions in the act were rejected.3 Federal legislation is required to bridge the legislative and policy gaps that currently prevent Inuit from accessing federal services in our language or securing the resources required to sustain Inuktut as the primary language spoken at every sector of society.

Release of the National Inuit Climate Strategy

ITK released the National Inuit Climate Change Strategy4 (NICCS) in June 2019.5 It is the only comprehensive Arctic-focused climate change strategy in Canada. The strategy was developed by Inuit in response to the complex changes underway in Inuit society resulting from rapid changes in the Arctic climate and the evolving climate policy environment.6 It envisions coordinated policies and actions that enhance quality of life for Inuit without reproducing the socio-economic disparities Inuit have experienced from the unilateral development and implementation of federal policies. The strategy identifies five interconnected priority areas where action is required to meet the pressing need for adaptation, mitigation, and resilience-building:

  • To advance Inuit capacity and knowledge use in climate decision-making;
  • To improve linked Inuit and environmental health and wellness outcomes through integrated Inuit health, education, and climate policies and initiatives;
  • To reduce the climate vulnerability of Inuit and market food systems;
  • To close the infrastructure gap with climate resilient new builds, retrofits to existing builds and Inuit adaptations to changing natural infrastructure; and
  • To support regional and community-driven energy solutions leading to Inuit energy

The strategy is based on and promotes a rights-based approach to partnerships. This approach respects the Inuit system of democratic governance and recognises the right of Inuit self-determination, including the rights set out in constitutionally protected land claims agreements and the UNDRIP. The strategy, to be implemented over four years, was published with a framework setting out Inuit expectations for partnerships. On 7 June 2019, the federal government announced CAD$1 million to support the implementation of the strategy.7

Inuit Launch Qanuippitaa? National Inuit Health Survey

Universal access to publicly funded health care is a hallmark of Canadian health policy. Yet high quality health services and equitable health policy for Inuit are not universally accessible, contributing to gaps in health outcomes between Inuit and other Canadians. Qanuippitaa? National Inuit Health Survey will help change this by collecting longitudinal data on Inuit health status that will be used to inform research and policymaking. ITK launched Qanuippitaa? in September 2019 to ensure this information is collected and controlled by Inuit. The goal of Qanuippitaa? is “to provide high quality, Inuit-determined and Inuit-owned data to monitor change, identify gaps, and inform decision-making, leading to improved health and wellness among Inuit in Canada.”8 It also meets the objectives of the data and information priority area of the National Inuit Strategy on Research implementation plan.9 In addition, the training and resources provided by Qanuippitaa? will support Inuit self-determination in research and provide long-term research-related expertise and employment opportunities in Inuit communities. Survey design and implementation will be carried out in partnership with the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, Makivik Corporation and the Nunatsiavut Government, as well as Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, the Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada and the National Inuit Youth Council. Regional Inuit Health Survey Steering Committees will lead the development and implementation of all region-specific survey components. Survey design is underway, and it is expected that questions will focus on a broad range of health and wellness priorities. The first round of data collection is scheduled to begin in 2021. The survey itself is expected to run every five years. Funding for the survey is provided by the 2018 federal budget, which allocated CAD$82 million over 10 years with CAD$6 million per year ongoing.10

Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait – A New Inuktut Writing System11

Ever since non-Inuit missionaries introduced written forms of Inuktut, Inuit have contended with nine different writing systems across Inuit Nunangat. Without a common writing system, or orthography, we have lacked important resources to promote Inuit unity and culture. For instance, without a common orthography it has been difficult to develop Inuit-centred education systems in which Inuit children can learn  in their own language. This changed in September of this year when ITK announced the introduction of Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait, a unified orthography for Inuktut.12 Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait will be implemented as an auxiliary writing system that can be used alongside the existing nine regional orthographies. Inuktut language experts developed and tested Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait over the last decade in consultation with Inuit Elders, teachers and other Inuktut users. Tests showed that the new orthography made it easier to read material produced in other regions. It is also easier to type on keyboards. Implementation of the new orthography will occur through a subcommittee of the National Inuit Committee on Education, which will be responsible for developing plans together with the regions.

Creation of Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area

In August 2019, the Qikiqtani Inuit Association and the federal government announced the creation of Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area.13 Tallurutiup Imanga covers approximately 108,000 km2 of Lancaster Sound on the eastern end of the Northwest Passage in the north eastern Qikiqtani region of Nunavut. The area is rich in marine wildlife on which Inuit continue to depend for our physical and spiritual sustenance, and it is recognised as a globally significant ecosystem. Under the terms of an Inuit Impact and Benefits Agreement (IIBA) negotiated between the QIA and the federal government, the establishment of Tallurutiup Imanga enables Inuit and the federal government to jointly manage fisheries and marine transportation in an ecologically sustainable manner with appropriate marine monitoring systems in place.14 The IIBA also establishes an Inuit Stewardship Program to be managed by QIA aimed at promoting Inuit wellbeing and delivering a range of benefits including the training and education of Inuit stewards. The establishment of Tallurutiup Imanga includes significant federal investment in infrastructure, local employment and economic development for the benefit of the five communities located nearby.


Notes and references

  1. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, “Implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples through comprehensive legislation,” April 2017, https:// itk.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Discussion-Paper-Implementing- UNDRIP-in-Canada-through-Comprehensive-Legislation.pdf.
  2. Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, “Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework” (n.d.). https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/15605 23306861/1560523330587
  3. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, “Inuit express disappointment with national Indigenous languages bill,” February 5, 2019, https://www.itk.ca/inuit-express- disappointment-with-national-indigenous-languages-bill/.
  4. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (2019). National Inuit Climate Change Ottawa. Retrieved from https://www.itk.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/ITK_Climate- Change-Strategy_English_lowres.pdf
  5. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (2019). “National Inuit Climate Change Strategy Sets Out Coordinated Actions to Shape Climate Policy” https://www.itk.ca/national- inuit-climate-change-strategy-sets-out-coordinated-actions-to-shape- climate-policy/
  6. Bush, E. and Lemmen, D.S., editors (2019): Canada’s Changing Climate Report; Government of Canada: Ottawa. 444 p. Retrieved from: https:// changingclimate.ca/CCCR2019
  7. Environment and Climate Change Canada (2019). “Government of Canada supports Inuit-led climate change strategy”. https://www.canada.ca/en/ environment-climate-change/news/2019/06/government-of-canada-supports- inuit-led-climate-change-strategy.html
  8. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (n.d.) “Qanuippitaa? National Inuit Health Survey” Retrieved from: https://www.itk.ca/qanuippitaa/
  9. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (2018). “National Inuit Strategy on Research: Implementation Plan”. Retrieved from: https://www.itk.ca/wp-content/ uploads/2018/09/ITK_NISR_Implementation-Plan_Electronic-Version.pdf
  10. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (2019). “Inuit launch Qanuippitaa? National Inuit Health Survey”. Retrieved from: https://www.itk.ca/inuit-launch-qanuippitaa-national- inuit-health-survey/
  11. The new Inuktut writing system can be seen here: https://www.itk.ca/wp- content/uploads/2019/09/inuktut-qaliujaaqpait-character-chart.pdf
  12. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (2019). “ITK Board of Directors adopts Inuktut Qaliujaaqpait as unified orthography for Inuktut.” Retrived from: https:// itk.ca/itk-board-of-directors-adopts-inuktut-qaliujaaqpait-as-unified- orthography-for-inuktut/
  13. Qikiqtani Inuit Association (n.d.) “Parks and Conservation”. Retrieved from https://www.qia.ca/what-we-do/parks-and-conservation-areas/; Parks Canada (n.d.).
  14. Qikiqtani Inuit Association and Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada (2019). “Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement”. Retrieved from: https://www.qia.ca/wp-content/ uploads/2019/09/2019-08-01_TINMCA-IIBA_FULLY-SIGNED-1.pdf


Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami is the national representational organisation for Inuit in Canada.


This article is part of the 34th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is from the Peruvian Amazon inside the Wampis territory, taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2020 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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