Inuit File Claim to a Section of Canadian Territory Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By filing a land claim that proposed the creation of a new province, the Inuit took a step forward in their efforts to preserve their traditions and values and to realize political control over their own affairs.

Summary of Event

On February 27, 1976, Canadian Inuit leaders presented Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his cabinet with a formal claim to ownership of 250,000 square miles of land in northern Canada. They also asked for special hunting and trapping rights on an additional 500,000 square miles of land and 800,000 square miles of ocean. The area claimed by the Canadian Inuit is potentially rich in natural resources and represents more than one-fifth of Canada’s land area. The Inuit wanted this area to be detached from the Northwest Territories and the Yukon Territory and made into a new province to be known as Nunavut. Inuit land claims Canada;Native Canadian land claims Native Canadians;land claims Nunavut Territory [kw]Inuit File Claim to a Section of Canadian Territory (Feb. 27, 1976) [kw]Canadian Territory, Inuit File Claim to a Section of (Feb. 27, 1976) Inuit land claims Canada;Native Canadian land claims Native Canadians;land claims Nunavut Territory [g]North America;Feb. 27, 1976: Inuit File Claim to a Section of Canadian Territory[02320] [g]Canada;Feb. 27, 1976: Inuit File Claim to a Section of Canadian Territory[02320] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Feb. 27, 1976: Inuit File Claim to a Section of Canadian Territory[02320] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Feb. 27, 1976: Inuit File Claim to a Section of Canadian Territory[02320] Arvaluk, James Trudeau, Pierre [p]Trudeau, Pierre;Inuit land claims Buchanan, Judd

In order to understand the demands of the Canadian Inuit, one needs to understand their place as a Native people within Canada. Canada’s first inhabitants were the Inuit and Indians. The word “Inuit” means “people” and is preferred to “Eskimo,” which means “eaters of raw meat” and is seen as pejorative. Inuit live in small communities that dot the Canadian North, all the way from Alaska to Greenland. Historically, the Inuit were hunters and gatherers who moved from camp to camp. In the winter, these camps would number around one hundred people; they shrank to fewer than one dozen in the summer.

European colonial presence in Canada dates to 1534, when Jacques Cartier of France sailed into the gulf of the St. Lawrence River, and to 1610, when Henry Hudson of Great Britain discovered the Hudson and James bays. At this time, there were an estimated 200,000 Indians and several thousand Inuit living in Canada. The first permanent European settlers arrived in Canada in 1760.

Canada did not become “united” until after the British victory at Quebec in 1759 and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Initially, Great Britain hoped to assimilate the French into English Canada, but this goal was soon abandoned. The Quebec Act of 1774 formalized this change in policy and signaled British willingness to preserve the French culture in Canada. The French minority in Canada, located primarily in Quebec, have been unwilling to trust the preservation of their culture to the English. They consider themselves to be one of the two “founding nations” of Canada, entitling them to a special place in its laws and political system.

The British were at least somewhat tolerant of French customs and practices, but the same was not true for their dealings with Canada’s Native groups. Successive British, and later Canadian, governments actively encouraged western expansion. This expansion frequently came at the expense of indigenous peoples’ rights and traditions. Treaties were not always signed, and when signed, they were not always respected. Indians were often forced onto reservations, where they were subject to rule under the terms of the Indian Acts, which suppressed many Indian traditions and extended bureaucratic control over reservation affairs. Nonstatus Indians (those whom the federal government has not recognized by signing a treaty) were forced to live outside the reservations and to attempt to integrate into the larger Canadian society. They found themselves discriminated against and subjected to racial stereotyping.





The Inuit, because they lived in the isolated northern part of Canada, were largely bypassed by the first wave of Canadian westward expansion. No “Inuit Act” has ever existed comparable to the various Indian Acts. Inuit were all but ignored by the Canadian government until the Supreme Court ruled in 1939 that they were a federal responsibility. The Inuit’s first prolonged contact with European-based Canadian society came in the post-World War II era, when the business community turned its attention to Arctic oil and other mineral resources and when Canadian and American officials began to construct the Distant Early Warning Line of radar stations across the Canadian Northwest. The cumulative results of this contact have been the same as those experienced by indigenous peoples elsewhere in Canada: a progressive loss of traditional cultures and values, combined with a growing dependence on central governmental authorities who adopt a paternalistic attitude.

Their dealings with Ottawa led Native Canadians to accept the concept that state-building actions often result in nation-destroying effects. There exists a tension between a central government’s attempt to extend its jurisdiction and authority over society and the efforts by “nations” (groups of people who share a language and a religious, ethnic, or historical bond) to maintain control over their own way of life.

The challenge that central governmental authorities present to nations operates at many levels. At a policy level, it can take the form of state laws and public services that replace tribal laws and traditional ways of taking care of those in need. Particularly troublesome for relations between the Inuit and Ottawa has been control over natural resources. The Canadian constitution gives provinces control over the natural resources located within their boundaries. The Northwest Territories and the Yukon Territory are not provinces, so control over their natural resources falls to Ottawa. It is also the federal government that receives the revenues that follow from mineral extraction. The problem is complicated by disputes over the extent of lands that “belong” to Inuit and Native Indians and the undefined nature of these land rights. One of the special rights demanded in the Inuit land claim of 1976 was that the Inuit receive 3 percent royalties for all natural resources extracted from the 500,000 square miles of land and 800,000 square miles of ocean that they claimed.

The challenge to nations can also come at a philosophical level. The state may embody ways of thinking that are alien to the nation. For example, North American Indians have a very different conception of the relationship between the individual and society from that embodied in such documents as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadian Although this document stresses the protection of aboriginal rights, many critics assert that the charter sees society as composed of separate individuals legitimately seeking their own self-interest, whereas the indigenous peoples’ traditions stress the subordination of the individual to the group. In keeping with these traditions, the Inuit proposed that the 250,000 square miles to which they were entitled would become communal property, which would be broken down so that each community would have 2,500 square miles for hunting and fishing.

One response to the growing loss of Inuit values and the increasing exploitation of northern natural resources by non-Inuit people was the formation of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada. Inuit Tapirisat of Canada Established in 1971 as an outgrowth of the Inuit Brotherhood, it sought to unify the Inuit people politically and defend their way of life against outside encroachments. The Inuit Tapirisat was governed through a board of directors composed of the presidents of six regional Inuit associations and four at-large members. As a nonprofit organization, it drew much of its financial support from government agencies and private foundations.

It was James Arvaluk, president of the Inuit Tapirisat, who presented the land claim to Trudeau’s government on behalf of the fifteen thousand Inuit in Canada. In his presentation, Arvaluk rejected any type of cash settlement, such as the $1 billion payment agreed to in 1971 by Indians, Aleuts, and Inuit in Alaska. Arvaluk also stated that the Inuit would pay back with interest the more than $2 million that the government had spent to research the various land proposals for the Canadian North. Finally, Arvaluk requested that the cabinet respond within three months. Trudeau expressed doubt that this deadline could be met but pledged to treat the sixty-one-page proposal with urgency.

Arvaluk described the meeting with Trudeau and his cabinet as friendly. The atmosphere soon changed. In April, less than three months after this meeting, Canadian Inuit demanded the resignation of Indian Affairs Minister Judd Buchanan. They were upset with the government’s decision to grant sixty-eight permits to search for uranium in areas claimed by the Inuit without having sought Inuit approval.


The demand by the Inuit for control over territory is best seen neither as an isolated event nor as the culmination of a chain of events. Rather, this event was one step in the awakening of the Inuit to their long-standing colonial status within Canada and the consequences of this status for the average Inuit. Traditional Inuit education emphasized observation and practice in an oral, family-centered environment. This system was replaced by the formal European-American system. In the process. traditional hunting and living skills and language were lost. The average Inuit no longer lives in small camps but rather in permanent villages and in government-subsidized housing. Crime rates, death rates, and poverty rates are all higher for the Inuit and other Native Canadians than they are for the population at large. For example, up to 70 percent of all Natives depend on some type of social assistance. It is through land claims that the Inuit hope to reverse their pattern of dependence and reestablish the integrity of their language, culture, and values for the individual Inuit.

Efforts to preserve and protect their culture have taken many forms. The establishment of the Inuit Tapirisat and the demands it put forward represent a political response. The need for a political response became clear in the debate over ending British control over the amendment process and passing a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Inuit Tapirisat, along with Indian groups, intervened into the political process to ensure that aboriginal rights be included in the charter. Inuit leaders also expanded their horizons beyond the boundaries of Canada in an effort to secure the human rights of their people and preserve their culture. They have become active participants in international minority peoples’ organizations such as the World Council of Indigenous Peoples.

The Inuit Tapirisat’s demands produced no response from the Trudeau government. The government was preoccupied with questions of English-French rights and the status of Quebec. The national obsession with these questions serves as a constant check on the ability of the Inuit and other indigenous groups within Canadian society to gain recognition for their special needs. For example, in order to protect the special status of Quebec within Canada, the Meech Lake Accord Meech Lake Accord of 1987 required unanimity on the part of the federal government and the provinces in deciding whether to admit new provinces into the confederation. One consequence of the Inuit’s 1976 demands was to encourage other indigenous groups to come forward with their own territorial claims. The Dene Nation did so in October of that year. One problem is that these territorial claims sometimes overlap, creating two political problems for Canada: whether it should admit new provinces and what their boundaries would be (which tribal claims should be recognized as legitimate). The Canadian government reached a decision on this point late in 1991, when it agreed to divide the Northwest Territories to create a new territory to be called Nunavut. On April 1, 1999, the Nunavut Territory and the government of Nunavut were formally established, giving the Inuit their long-desired self-government. Inuit land claims Canada;Native Canadian land claims Native Canadians;land claims Nunavut Territory

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abele, F., and E. J. Dosman. “Interdepartmental Coordination and Northern Development.” Canadian Public Administration 24 (Fall, 1981): 428-451. Examines the pattern of federal political structures that deal with northern development. Notes two divergent trends: devolution of political control and increasing policy involvement from Ottawa. Concludes that the existing policy machinery is inadequate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Asch, Michael. Home and Native Land: Aboriginal Rights and the Canadian Constitution. 1984. Reprint. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1993. Introduction to the topic focuses on the broad area of political rights. Concludes that the recognition of special aboriginal rights is consistent with Canadian democratic principles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boldt, Menno, and J. Anthony Long. “Tribal Philosophies and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 7 (October, 1984): 478-490. Contrasts the value system of Native Canadian groups with that embodied in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Notes that there is a great deal of difference between the two and that the charter represents a serious threat to the cultural identity of indigenous peoples.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Breton, Raymond, et al. Cultural Boundaries and the Cohesion of Canada. Montreal: Institute for Research on Public Policy, 1980. Published by one of Canada’s leading “think tanks,” this study was originally prepared as part of a UNESCO project. Looks at ethnic diversity in Canada from the perspectives of indigenous peoples and immigrants and examines French-English relations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cardinal, Harold. The Unjust Society: The Tragedy of Canada’s Indians. 1969. Reprint. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999. Written by a young Indian leader in Alberta, this work nicely summarizes the Indian perspective on the Canadian government’s Indian policy. Covers a wide variety of topics, one of which is a review of efforts to organize Indian groups.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Robert, and Doreen Jackson. Politics in Canada: Culture, Institutions, Behavior, and Public Policy. 6th ed. Toronto: Pearson Education Canada, 2006. A comprehensive introductory textbook on Canadian politics; provides an excellent overview of the Canadian political process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McPherson, Robert. New Owners in Their Own Land: Minerals and Inuit Land Claims. Calgary, Alta.: University of Calgary Press, 2004. Examines the conflicts—political, institutional, and personal—that have been involved in indigenous Canadians’ land claims and subsequent negotiations. Includes photographs and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weaver, Sally. Making Canadian Indian Policy: The Hidden Agenda. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981. Takes a decision-making approach to the Trudeau government’s 1969 white paper on Indian policy. Concludes that the government paid little attention to the history of the problem and that the primary result of the white paper’s publication would have been the termination of special Indian rights. The white paper played a major role in the political awakening of indigenous groups in Canada.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weller, Geoffrey. “Hinterland Politics.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 10 (Winter, 1977): 727-754. Focuses on northwestern Ontario and employs an interesting framework to analyze the political relationships that exist between the hinterland and the center of Canada as well as those that exist between different parts of the hinterland.

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Categories: History