By Ole Gjerstad
As the COVID-19 pandemic locked down Nunavik last summer, an important date passed almost unnoticed. Fifty years previous, on July 6, 1970, Ottawa and Quebec received the so-called Neville-Robitaille Report. Its 221 pages chronicle the travails of a joint government team as they crisscrossed Nunavik through winter storms, trying to convince Inuit that the looming Quebec takeover of Nunavik administration from Ottawa was a good idea. At the time, Inuit had had little experience with southern governments; they had not yet been captured by “southern” rules and regulations, budgets and politics that were soon to stifle their ambitions. Their message to Mr. Neville and M. Robitaiile was simple: “This is our land, for us to run as we decide.”
That is the message to keep in mind today, as Nunavimmiut have renewed their fight for self-determination.
The federal representative on the team was F.J. “Bud” Neville; Quebec’s representative was Bernard Robitaille. Their first stop was Kuujjuaarapik. After meeting with the Cree, the visitors sat down with the Eskimo Council, which then organized two days of public meetings. The official record from Kuujjuaarapik runs to 26 pages. Here’s a brief extract:
Poste-de-la Baleine (Great Whale River), February 19-21, 1970
Neville: We want to tell you what we are here for, namely 1. to answer questions about the service proposals and the rights of the people, 2. to answer questions from the people, and 3. to consult on the ways to ensure good federal-provincial collaboration.
Robitaille: Did you hear about the government agreement?
Joe Kummarluk: Yes, but we never had the occasion to comment. Your people were in too much of a hurry.
Silassie Cookie: Now we hope to settle the matter. These agreements (between Ottawa and Quebec) were made on the assumption that the Eskimos would say yes. Now the people think that they can speak their mind.
Paulussie Napartuk: In 1967 we heard say that Canada was 100 years old. But we have known the government only since 1964. So in three years the government aged 100 years. Now the government knows that we exist; we know the government exists. There is confrontation.
Joe Kummarluk: The white man came as if he was the boss. The Quebec people do not have to come here and tell us what they want us to do.
Robitaille: You had representatives at the previous meetings about this.
Joe Kummarluk: I am still not satisfied. The question stands as to who should have command in this land. The Indians and Eskimos should take control over their own land. When we control the land, we can decide what to do with it.
Robitaille: The question of the land is for us white men a difficult one to deal with. … The southern people see on the map a territory; it’s called the Province of Quebec.
Silassie Cookie: We want to take our own country into our own hands. It seems that when the white man comes in to the Eskimo land, all he feels is the cold.
Alec Niviassie: While we are gathered here, there are some things I would like to say. The Indian and Eskimo in their own land should have their own government. … The land question is the foundation on which we’ll be able to talk about anything else.
The official recorder of the proceedings was Jean-Jacques Simard, then a young Quebec government employee. He wrote everything down longhand. Simard had worked with the James Bay Cree, and had visited Kuujjuaarapik and Puvurnituq. “Robitaille and Neville were not prepared for the brutal exchanges at this first stop,” he says. “They were taken aback. Me, I was taking detailed notes, smiling.”
The plan for Quebec to assume the administration of Nunavik had been discussed at several meetings in the south, with Inuit participation. But Inuit participants complained that their contributions were never included in the minutes. Ottawa was mostly concerned with keeping good relations with Quebec, where separatism was gaining strength. So Quebec and Ottawa had finalized their plan, which Robitaille and Neville presented to the Inuit.
Inoucdjouaq (Port Harrison), February 22-24, 1970
Neville: Our ministers asked you, and we ask you, what you would like us to do.
Robitaille: We are here to hear what the Eskimos have to say.
Jacob Oweetaltuk: What I would like to say is that these things have been agreed upon by the two governments without us knowing about it. We have a feeling it was done behind our backs.
Lazaroosie Epoo: We have a feeling that the two governments talk as if that land belongs to them. They should say instead that this land is Eskimo land.
Robitaille: Both governments consider this territory to be part of Quebec territory. This land was ceded to Quebec in 1912.
Johnny Inukpuk: Just the same, the Ottawa people did it without bothering to ask what the Eskimo thought. But I know we can’t fix it right here.
Lazaroosie Epoo: (goes to a map of Quebec pinned to the wall) The Eskimos want to feel that this is their land. Here it shows no difference between the north and the south. It is a joke to talk about Eskimo land under these circumstances.
“This map was put on the wall and debated in every community meeting,” says Simard. “The Inuit wanted a clear line drawn to show what they considered their land.”
In Puvurnituq, the government delegates heard what would be a common message in the months and years to follow:
Inukpa Kumarluk: We do not believe in these documents because we do not know much about those who signed them without the advice of Eskimos. We don’t give them much value. I will have more to say later.
Peter Naujark: We don’t despise anybody on earth. But we have a feeling that we are being treated like animals, which we have some opposition to you.
Elijahassie: In the past we talked to the government people, but they didn’t seem to understand. So we will now talk until you understand.
The agreement between Ottawa and Quebec had been made in 1964, but little happened until 1969. By the time Neville and Robitaille came calling, Inuit feared the changes to come.
Ivujivik, March 1, 1970
Mattiusi Ijaituk: I often hear that if Quebec becomes the sole administrator, the Eskimos will not be well looked after. In the beginning, everything will be fine, but after a while, things will start to go badly. … We have had no experience with Quebec as sole administrator, so nobody knows what will happen. This is one of the reasons for our fear of the future.
In Salluit, a full day was spent on the introduction of the Quebec education system.
Saglouc, February 27-March 1
Neville: Why is it they don’t want Quebec?
Noah Kumak: Because they didn’t find us first. We want to have our own government. Schooling will stop in both schools (federal and provincial) if Quebec takes over.
Paulussie Alakau: I will ask the people here what they think of our discussions. Does everybody agree about stopping the schools if Quebec takes over? Raise your hands. (A clear majority does.) We are fed up being the servants of the whiteman.
People complained about newly arrived Quebec health workers and administrators, about the QPP shooting dogs. Elders recalled the starvation that followed when the French fur trading company Révillon Frères closed its trading posts in 1936. The great majority of Inuit felt they were being sacrificed to southern politics.
Jean-Jacques Simard, the recorder, says there was, above everything else, the influence of “the old Northern Hands” in the federal government. “The federal government, in general, had a good reputation with the Inuit, and Ottawa’s prejudice towards Quebec was passed on to the Inuit,” he says. “Why change from ‘the big government that we know’ to ‘the little government that we don’t know?’”
Sometimes the meetings took on a high-noon feeling, with sharp questions and biting retorts, and the spectre of Quebec separatism moving to the foreground. Robitaille and Neville often felt obliged to give lengthy detailed answers, which then had to be translated into the other two languages. Inuit became impatient and cut to the chase.
Payne Bay, March 5-7, 1970
Arnatuk Nassak: The Eskimos were the first people here. How come we were not told before 1964 that the governments were trying to fix things among themselves?
Robitaille: In 1962, Quebec started to want to administer the North. In 1964, Quebec had to say to the Government of Canada that they were ready (to provide all services). They had to meet to tell them that.
Arnatuk: They should have told the Eskimos.
Robitaille: Maybe. The governments thought differently.
Arnatuk: Maybe you thought the Eskimos didn’t have enough brains.
Robitaiile: No, the first people who came here told the people they wanted to replace the federal government.
Arnatuk: When we are separated from Canada, we are afraid that we will be trampled upon.
Fort Chimo, March 7-9 and 13-16, 1970
Johnny Peters: When the meetings are on, will everybody who has something to say be allowed to talk, even if it is unpleasant?
Robitaille: Yes, the Eskimos are free to say what they want. We are not here to convince but to inform.
Neville: Would it be possible to begin tonight?
Johnny Peters: No, there will be plenty of time; you could be here even for two weeks.
Along with Kuujjuaarapik, Kuujjuaq was the community that had the most experience with the Quebec government. The public meetings began with critical, detailed, at times technical examinations of Quebec’s education system, governance, language and social assistance programs.
People became impatient.
Neville: (after a lengthy explanation) I hope I didn’t sound too much like a school teacher.
Charlie Watt: You did sound a bit like a school teacher, because you spoke for a long time during which we couldn’t ask questions. Now, why are there some teachers who are not fully qualified?
Later, the questions turned to how the two governments would actually implement the change.
Neville: I wish you to understand what the two governments have in mind. We are looking at ways to work more closely together. … We feel the Eskimos have not achieved as much as they might have if both governments had worked closely together.
Charlie Watt: You say the two governments will work together. How long will this collaboration last?
Robitaille: It will be as mentioned in the Minister’s letter, … until Quebec becomes the sole administrator.
Charlie Watt: For how long?
Robitaille: The decision has not been made yet.
Charlie Watt: … It seems to be one year.
Robitaille: The reply is that the governments don’t know.
Charlie Watt: Will the Eskimos be told when you do know?
Robitaille: The answer is yes. The two governments are thinking about how to work more closely together and not about a target date.
Robitaille did not tell the truth. Ottawa and Quebec had planned the final handover to Quebec to take place on April 1, 1970, just a few weeks after this tour. So what’s the purpose of this exercise, Inuit were asking Robitaille and Neville.
Port-Nouveau-Québec (Kangiqsualujjuaq), March 9-13, 1970
Stanley Annanack: Are the Eskimos in the other settlements waiting for your report?
Neville: I can’t answer that very well. … I presume the people are waiting to see what the bosses have to say about the land.
Willie Emudluk: We will be expecting an answer once the Governments have read your report.
Neville: It may take several months.
Mark Annanack: The opportunity to fix things is not here as you act as messengers.
Stanley Annanack: Yes, you are just like the boy who’s asked to carry caribou meat to his father.
Once their report had been delivered to their governments, Robitaille and Neville were tasked with revising the plan. Jean-Jacques Simard was set to organize meetings to discuss greater Inuit decision-making powers. But nine months later, in April 1971, Premier Robert Bourassa launched the James Bay hydro-electric project, and the Neville-Robitaille Report disappeared into the deepest of government drawers.
Four years later, in 1975, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) was signed, giving the southern governments control over most of Nunavik land. The infamous “cede and surrender” clause was a colonial sword which deeply wounded and divided Nunavimmiut. Today, they are negotiating to have it removed from the Agreement.
Looking back at the Neville-Robitaille tour, Charlie Watt has a smile on his face. “To those elders, the answer was simple: ‘You never consulted us, so whatever decision you make about us is not valid.’ For them, the land belongs to the Inuit, pure and simple, and that’s what we say when we face those governments today. Colonialism has had its day in Canada.”