Inuit rights activist Aaju Peter was born in Inuit Greenland, but she grew up in Denmark, away from her culture and language. She then moved to Canada and immersed herself in Inuit culture, volunteered for women’s and interpretation organizations, and graduated from Akitsiraq Law School. Currently, she runs a home-based sealskin garment business and travels to advocate for Inuit rights. On Thursday, October 27, Peter visited International House for a screening and discussion of Arctic Defenders, a documentary in which she is featured. Global Voices Fellow Hanna Pfeiffer spoke with Peter about her experiences and her activism.
The Gate: You were born in an Inuit community in Greenland, but you moved around and even attended school in Denmark. How did this initial separation from Inuit communities shape your relationship with the communities in Canada that you now serve?
Aaju Peter: It led me to move to Canada. When I left Greenland, I was eleven months old, and when I returned I was eighteen. During that time, I wasn't taught my own language. I was taught Danish, English, French, Latin, and German, but not once was I taught my own language. There was no connection. Everybody I saw were Danes and everything I learned was the Danish culture. When I went back to Greenland, I was just so hurt. I didn't realize at the time that there was a need for assimilation. I had learned these academic things because that was what your future was as a Dane, and as I child, I believed it. I am sure you believe your education is going to lead you to a good job, and that is what parents want. They want their child to have a good education. I had this incredible education, but I would have been better if I retained my own language and my connection to my culture and country.
When I returned to Greenland, I was stunned. I couldn't speak with my own mother. I could not fit back into Greenlandic life, so I ran to Canada. About one year after that, the Inuit Circumpolar Council was holding the second big assembly of all the Inuit. The council was started in Alaska. Canada and Greenland attended. I was very fortunate they were holding it there. I had never heard of other Inuit people and never knew there were Inuit who spoke the same language in a different dialect, but with the same culture, who would come together. That was my salvation. It was like I was given a second chance. When I moved to Canada, every single word I learned, every single thing that I learned was applauded. I wasn't put down like I had been in Greenland. In Greenland, I was told, "You are not Greenlandic, you are a white person because you speak your own language." In Canada, I could be different and not know anything about Inuit culture because I was from Greenland. It was amazing. People were very welcoming and the biggest-hearted people I know.
Gate: You’re here for a screening of the film Arctic Defenders, which tells the story of the creation of Canada’s Nunavut territory. Tell us about your role in the creation of Nunavut.
Peter: I didn't do anything to create Nunavut. This work was already being done since the ‘60s. The Inuit men and some women were building this territory. I wasn't in Canada when this was happening. It wasn't until I came in 1981, when my boyfriend was the right-hand man of John Amagoalik, who was working to establish the Nunavut territory. He was the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK). In a sense, just by being at home with my boyfriend, I got a little bit of understanding, but my English was very poor. I couldn't read very well. It wasn't until later as I was helping my mother-in-law [that I got involved in Inuit issues]. She would teach me how to sew and I would learn from her. I realized one day that I was interpreting for her because we were developing a women's shelter and a food bank. That is how it all started. It wasn't being part of the creation of Nunavut, but at the same time the women were creating their own social work. We wanted to make sure women had a place to go and had food. We still have the shelter and the food bank. We were alongside the men working to create the territory. We were on the social side.
Gate: What progress have you seen Nunavut make in the last seventeen years, and what further progress would you like to see?
Peter: I was so opposed to the creation of Nunavut [originating] from a European background. My thinking was―if I could have voted then, which I wasn't allowed to―“Why should we give 20 percent of the Canadian land mass to a people who took it from us one hundred years ago and gave it to a Prince Rupert?” There was no recognition. The land was taken by Canada without consultation. Now we had to negotiate to get a fraction of the landmass my children are entitled to. I refused to acknowledge that there was a fair process. It was just taken! People voted and Nunavut was created. I was surprised in a positive way that Inuit now had its own territory. Mind you, being a territory is not being a province. We would like to move to a province and eventually an independent country. Greenland is becoming an independent country.
If we do not get provincial status under our own protected rights in the Canadian constitution, then I don't see why we should remain in Canada. There is no political will. We do not have our own harbor, [even though] twenty-six out of twenty-seven communities are by the water. We have ships that provide all the provisions from southern Canada, yet we don't have a harbor. The tourist ships can never take oil from the Canadian side, only from Greenland. There is such a lack of political will to help Inuit and Nunavut communities get to the same standard of living as southern Canada. Canada maintains it has sovereignty over the Arctic because Canada entered an agreement with the Inuit, which they are not living up to. We continually take the Canadian government to court.
Having said that, I love Canada. We are partners with the most amazing country. Now, with the new prime minister [Justin Trudeau] who is willing to listen, I am hoping we will become a province much faster and enjoy the same standards as the rest of the country. We are a very kind people. We have never gone to war. We believe in a much more equal life. The ice is melting as Russia takes over their Arctic oceans, as China is coming in with their ice breakers, as sailing through the northeast and northwest passage is becoming popular. Canada would be wise to include the Inuit in this process because we know every single area.
Gate: You see how the Arctic is changing too, correct?
Peter: It is. I have sailed the Canadian Arctic every summer since 2001 and I know the ice was coming all the way down from the glacier to the shore. Now it is one meter, two meters, three meters, four meters, five meters, up to ten meters where it is retreated. I see how it is melting faster and faster every year. It is very sad.
Gate: You mentioned taking the Canadian government to court. Have you had to do that recently?
Peter: Not me personally, it is NTI, Nunavut Tunngavik, Inc., that took the Canadian government to court for not implementing the agreement. I never had to take the government to court personally. I work with the Canadian government. We've been protesting the anti-sealing campaigns in Europe. I've gone to the European Parliament to protest their legislation. I've never worked inside the courts. I don't believe in the Western system. It's an important system, but it's also very adversarial in that you just have one side and the other side. My people, our system, is built on reconciliation, not fighting. We say, “okay, let's come to an agreement, let's see what we can work on.” It's never about you, it's never about the people. It's always about the environment, protecting the livelihoods, protecting the animals, protecting the waters and the air. I think our system is quite different than [Western] law. But law is strong; international law is very strong. Law created by nation-states is very strong, so we have to play the game, learn the legal language, and learn the rule of the states, and somehow figure out how to level the playing field.
Gate: You have been outspokenly against the EU’s ban on the importation of seal products, but much of the legislation banning the sealskin trade is still in place. What needs to be done so that the sealskin trade can support Inuit communities and preserve their way of life?
Peter: I was half-kidding when I said that we now need to look at the United States Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. It was instituted when there were only 1.5 million harp seals. Now we have between ten and fourteen million harp seals, and the harp seals are consuming between seven and ten million tons of fish a year, which is now competing with human consumption. A healthy population means a population that can sustain itself, one that is not destroying everything or killing everything. When you have ten to fourteen million harp seals, and they are multiplying at an enormous rate, and they are consuming everything in their path, that is not sustainable, and we know it. Seven billion people, and millions and millions of harp seals, are actually destroying [the environment]. There's way too many of us, and the seals are competing with us.
When Inuit were able to sell sealskin, when the East Coast sealers were able to harvest and maintain a stable number that was sustainable, that was much better. We Inuit are so dependent on the East Coast seal hunt, the Newfoundland seal hunt. When the legislation [banning importation of sealskin to the EU] came in, the price dropped dramatically in the 1980s, and then crashed in 2009. Before the legislation, our sealers were able to sell a seal skin for a hundred Canadian dollars, and now we get about ten Canadian dollars. It just totally crashed, which means our hunters cannot feed our people. We do not sell the meat, we share it. The hunters, by custom, have to share it.
Now people are going hungry. We have the highest food insecurity in North America. Our children are suffering from lack of nutrition. The seal contains so many nutrients. That's what we survived on. Now we have chips, pop, and macaroni that contain absolutely nothing for the health of our people. What people can do is open up the trade in sealskin and support our hunters, because our hunters are the ones that are feeding our communities. We don't have an alternative way of making money. We don't have any other economy. We cannot grow vegetables, unlike the Europeans telling us, "OK, why don't you just grow vegetables, or farm, or do something?" We have the highest unemployment rate, the highest cost of living, and now we have climate change imposed on top of everything else. I think right now, with the EU seal ban, along with the climate change, we are undergoing cultural genocide. It is very, very hard for us to survive. If we lift the seal ban, which we are working towards, it would just make it a little bit easier for us to feed our families.
Gate: When he took office, Justin Trudeau promised to rescind government policies that conflict with Inuit rights, invest in Inuit education programs, and increase general funding for Nunavut. What are your views on these policies? Do you think there is more that Trudeau should do?
Peter: We've been very encouraged by what the prime minister has done, and I would like to take it a step further. Wanting to do all these things and all these words are amazing, but what I would like to see for the three territories is for them to become provinces. That we, as a province, become the same, have the same standards, have the same opportunities [as other parts of Canada]. My daughters, sons, and grandchildren don't have that inherited life where they're going to school and they're talking about what university to go to. There's no university. There's no research that is being done by Inuit. There's no policy development that is happening. All of it is happening from the outside and imposed on the Inuit. As a territory, we have no say, which is unfortunate. I think, in the Arctic regions, and Canada's Arctic, we have this humongous landmass. If we were truly recognized to be defending the Arctic, we should hold the power to enter into negotiations. When Trudeau talks about sailing through our waters, animal welfare, pollutants, ships sailing through, we need to be sitting at the same table. I don't care if there's only thirty-two thousand of us. We've lived here ten times longer than the people that are imposing these policies. We are the guardians of where we live, and as guardians, we want this earth to become safer for our wildlife, less polluted, and less at risk of oil spills. We are not against our country, nor are we against our environment. We actually want the best. We are not excluding anybody. Our notion of sovereignty is welcoming everybody, as long as the visitors have our best interests in mind, as long as they are not going to destroy our way of life.
Gate: Your past activism earned you the Order of Canada in 2011. What do you see yourself doing for Inuit rights and culture preservation in the future?
Peter: It was amazing, first of all, to become a Canadian citizen. Then, when the governor general's office called me [about the award], I said, "I think you have the wrong person," because it was just out of this world that I would be nominated to receive this. I was honored for the recognition, but I am still traveling to Europe and the United States, [continuing my activism]. I have been lucky to have young people help me and other people invite me to go. I don't think it's conscious. I just go into it. I just became what I do. There was no planning in it. I think the fact that I was sent off, and I lost my own language, my culture, and country is the culprit. It keeps pushing me. It just happened over many, many decades.
Gate: Will you continue with your activism in the future?
Peter: I think there's something in there where there's no turning back. I've stuck my head out too far. I can no longer just disappear because it's a rights issue. Nation-states pretend to have so much power, pretend that they can just pollute this earth and destroy cultures and destroy languages, while the rest of us as indigenous people have very little voice, so we just have to be very, very loud in the way we can be. I don't think I have any other choice.
This interview was made possible by the Gate’s partnership with the Global Voices Interview Series.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.