By Stephen Hendrie
On the evening of February 4, 2021, Pita Aatami was home having supper with his family. It was the night results for the Makivik Presidential Election were rolling in, updated in real time on the Makivik website. He started getting calls. “People were telling me, ‘Pita, you’re leading in this community, you’re leading in that community.’ Then I ended up leading in all communities.” He won with 66 per cent of the votes.
He earned a decisive victory over incumbent President Charlie Watt, and newcomer candidate Noah Cain. “Charlie and I go back quite a few years together. He took me under his wing around 1989. He believed in me, so I always thank him for that. We have our differences, but at the end of the day we always agree to stay friends, even though we ran against each other so many times.”
Pita returns to Makivik from being the President of Air Inuit for seven years. He remained close and plugged in to what Makivik was doing during his time at the airline. He reported to the Makivik Annual General Meeting (AGM) every year on the progress of Air Inuit. Especially during the pandemic he was heavily involved with many Nunavik group teleconferences to manage the crisis in the Nunavik region. The new president of Air Inuit is Christian Busch, long-time Air Inuit executive, appointed on April 1, 2021.
As he did when he became Makivik President in the late 1990s, Pita shifted Makivik into warp speed. He held extensive briefings with the Makivik executives, working through lunch on many days, going through each active file the corporation is involved in, department by department.
“We came out with 55 priority items that we have to focus on,” says Pita. “As an example, we want to focus on language and culture. It’s part of Makivik’s mandate. Then there’s the airstrips. Our Dash-8s are nearing the end of their lifespan. There’s not a lot of planes that can land on 3,500 foot airstrips. So we have to ask governments to look at lengthening the airstrips in Nunavik.”
Pita Aatami was born in Kuujjuaq in 1960. His education includes attending the Federal Day School in Kuujjuaq, and Red River College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1978-1979. His history with Makivik Corporation goes back to 1987 when he was elected Board Member for the community of Kuujjuaq. In 1993 he was elected Treasurer of Makivik Corporation, a position he held until becoming president in 1998, a position he held until 2012. He was named to the Order of Quebec in 2009, and the Order of Canada in 2019.
In 1995 when he was Makivik Treasurer he gave an interview to Makivik News on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). He revealed his early interest in the political process, attending public meetings on the ongoing development of the JBNQA talks. “I was only 12 when I started asking what was going on? I was like the rest of the Inuit, wondering, ‘What are they going to be doing to my area of the land?’” He says he was motived to enter politics out of a deep concern that Inuit should be controlling development in Nunavik.
Returning to Makivik as president for the second time, in his early 60s, Pita is bringing structure to the organization, with the return of weekly Executive Meetings, and the strong renewal of political relations with the Government of Quebec.
Pita notes that Nunavik was not going to achieve anything without working with Quebec. Swiftly following his election in early February, 2021, Pita hired Jean-François Arteau, a well-known Nunavik bureaucrat, and lawyer, as a Strategic Advisor, working from Makivik’s Quebec City office, located on the historic Grande Allée.
Arteau says relations with the Quebec government were zero. Everything had to be built up. By the time of holding Makivik’s AGM in late April 2021, meetings had been held with several Quebec ministers and officials. The Minister Responsible for Indigenous Affairs, Ian Lafrenière, presented virtually to the AGM. Federal ministers included Carolyn Bennett (Crown-Indigenous Relations), Dan Vandal (Northern Affairs), and Marc Miller (Indigenous Services).
The AGM was held under pandemic rules in Akulivik. They were allowed 50 people in the room, and there were 39 delegates. Three board members were online virtually for either health or quarantine reasons. Staff listened in via telephone or online, with translation provided.
Pita says there was a lot of joy holding a meeting in person. He says the corporation emerged from the meeting with a more solid mandate for its projects, notably the Nunavik Self-Determination project.
Ahead of the AGM it was announced that Mary Simon has returned as the Chief Negotiator, and Lisa Koperqualuk remains as Deputy Negotiator. There is a new Inuit Advisory Committee added to the project composed of two representatives each from Ungava Bay, Hudson Strait, and Hudson Bay. Also new is the intent to include the Quebec government in this project. Pita had a meeting scheduled with Quebec Premier François Legault in mid-May, principally to open discussions on Nunavik Self-Determination.
Inuit youth will also benefit from Pita’s return as Makivik President. They gained a vote at the Makivik Board of Directors’ table. This was done by granting a seat to the president of the Qarjuit Youth Council, and a vote. Previously, the youth representative had a solely observatory role.
On the federal front, Pita is a member of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), and the Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada (ICC Canada) Boards of Directors. He’s plugged in to national and international politics as it affects Inuit. At these tables he brings the Nunavik Inuit point of view. He has brought up the longstanding taxation issue. “Inuit of Nunavik are one of the highest taxpaying citizens of this country. Something has to be done. We’re still not equal to our fellow Canadians to the south of us that get all the benefits we don’t get.”
As part of this political process, he is Nunavik’s representative at the Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee (ICPC) lead by ITK. Recently he was able to speak directly to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the ICPC meeting held in April, 2021. He spoke about two specific issues: the historic dog slaughter in Nunavik, and the Croll Agreement of the early 1990s, which Makivik wants renegotiated.
Asked about the pandemic in Nunavik, Pita says, “It’s been good and bad. The good thing is its brought a lot of people closer together, being with families more, going out fishing. The bad part was not being able to be with people you want to be with face to face.” He received his two vaccinations and says Nunavik is fortunate to have received vaccines on a priority basis. “In a lot of cases people live in overcrowded houses, so if one gets it, everybody gets it. So the government recognized this and acted quickly.”
One theme was consistent throughout the interview with Pita for this article – working together. “By working together we can accomplish a lot more than working in a silo, or by yourself,” he says. “Everybody has a voice. Everybody has a mind. Their ideas might be better than my ideas, so I’ll take on those ideas if it’s going to help my fellow Inuit. So that’s the message I’ve been telling my fellow Inuit.”