Rosemarie Kuptana

The sting of a teacher’s hand as it strikes a face and the instant humiliation of an eight-year-old child still resonates across the decades. Rosemarie Kuptana was that girl – punished for complimenting a teacher in Inuktitut, her native language. It was the late 1950s and Kuptana had just started her first year at the government-run residential school in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. To this day, the emotional scars of having been denied the right to speak her language have left her with a handicap – a struggle to regain fluency.

As was the practice at that time, aboriginal children in the North, as well as in other parts of Canada, were “apprehended” by an RCMP officer or other government official and sent to federal or church run residential schools where they were given a “proper” education. Any resistance to this policy by parents and grandparents was ignored.

“I lived away from my family at residential school for 10 years and I lost the ability to speak my language,” Kuptana tells me over the telephone from Ottawa, where she now lives. “When I returned home in the summers, my grandmother would ask me why I had started to speak like a white lady.” Her years in residential school were emotionally difficult, an experience shared by an entire generation of aboriginal people in Canada. “The preservation of language is the cornerstone of a culture’s survival,” she says with conviction. “The way people communicate and how they make decisions are integral to language. When it is lost, so are values and traditional and scientific knowledge.”

Kuptana was born unexpectedly early while her parents were still out seal hunting on the frozen Prince of Wales Strait. Her grandmother and father delivered her in an igloo. The family lived a nomadic life until she was four years old when her father moved them to Sachs Harbour for a job building a weather station.

Her memories of her early childhood are idyllic: “In Sachs Harbour, there was no electricity and no television. In the winter we would get together and create our own entertainment.” She grew up learning the traditional role of Inuit women. Her father trapped and she, her mother, and her grandmother prepared the skin for shipment to auction houses. Today, for inner strength, she returns to her early childhood before residential school when she lived with her parents and grandparents in Sachs Harbour.

The end of Kuptana residential schooling marked the beginning of her lifelong involvement in Inuit organizations. It was as if the 10 years she had spent under the control of school administrators and teachers who had little interest in her culture or language, had built within her a great will to empower her people.

In 1979 she became a radio broadcaster with CBC Northern Services. Since there was virtually no road system in the Arctic, radio and television provided an important educational, social and political link between Inuit communities. In 1983, Kuptana became president of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) and was instrumental in formulating IBC’s administrative policy, journalistic standards, training programs and financial and management structures. Broadcasting exposed her to the wide spectrum of issues that are vital to the Inuit, including culture, land claims, social issues, development and education. As a result, she began to recognize her people’s needs and strengths – something that would be invaluable to her in the years ahead. “I made it a priority to broadcast programs in Inuktitut,” she says of her time at IBC. A children’s educational television program in Inuktitut is one of her legacies.

Kuptana’s involvement in Inuit organizations began at a time when Canada’s Inuit were establishing new systems of self-government. In 1975, the Inuit were part of the first modern land settlement in Canada. The Nunavik Final Agreement, between the federal government and the Inuit of Quebec’s James Bay area, involved the transfer from the former to the latter of surface rights to 8,153 square kilometers, exclusive hunting, fishing and trapping rights to 87,127 square kilometers and compensation of $55 million.

In 1992, a territory-wide referendum was held to determine northerners’ support for the creation of a third territory in the North. A majority of the population voted for the establishment of what became the territory of Nunavut. When Nunavut was officially created in 1999, it gave the region’s Inuit, who form the majority in the eastern Arctic region, a de facto parliamentary government. Despite disagreement among Inuit on the location of its western boundaries, Nunavut represents a significant victory for aboriginal self-government, something Kuptana is intensely committed to.

The Nunavut Agreement provided for Inuit control of 314,404 square kilometers of surface rights, 36,269 square kilometers of subsurface rights and compensation of $580 million. Assets transferred in these settlements were administered through Inuit-run regional corporations, which were mandated to establish accountable forums to promote the economic, social and cultural well being of Inuit in their respective regions.

The fourth Inuit claim, initiated by the Inuit of Labrador, was passed by the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly in 2004 and ensured that all regions where Canada’s Inuit reside now have regional ownership of a land base and a system of self-government in place.

“These victories in self-government and land claims have a lot to do with the pragmatic nature of Inuit people,” Kuptana maintains. “The Inuktitut language is also a source of unity among the Inuit in Canada.”

Canada’s Inuit share a closer linguistic and cultural affinity to the people of the circumpolar region (including Greenland, Alaska, Siberia and Canada) than they do with aboriginal people in the rest of North America. Canadian Inuit live in parts of northern Quebec, Labrador and the western and eastern Northwest Territories, primarily above the tree line.

Traditionally, Inuit people did not have surnames. On occasion an individual would change his name if he had a bad experience. As the North came under increasing federal jurisdiction during the first half of the 20th century, the government created a system to count and manage the aboriginal people who lived there. A number was assigned to each Inuk and individuals were required to wear their numbers, stamped on a leather or metal disk, around their necks. In 1969, Project Surname replaced the registration number and families were asked to choose a permanent surname.

Today, most Inuit adults recall growing up in a community completely dominated by churches and the federal government. Initially, the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches delivered schooling to children until the federal government took over the responsibility. In each northern settlement, the federal government built and maintained health facilities, ran social services, gave out welfare and unemployment cheques and delivered justice.

Non-Inuit politicians ran for federal offices in the North, even though they rarely visited the people whom they represented. The Inuit weren’t given the right to vote in federal elections until 1950 and it wasn’t until 1967 that the first Inuk was elected to the Northwest Territories legislature. During those years, it was painfully evident that Inuit people had virtually no voice in the handling of their personal or community affairs.

In 1970, a meeting in Coppermine irrevocably changed the future for Inuit people. Inuit representatives from Baffin Island, Keewatin, northern Quebec and the Mackenzie Delta met to discuss ways in which they could take a more assertive role in decisions affecting their people. They decided that communities would have to start working together to take control of their futures. In February 1971, a follow-up to the Coppermine meeting was held in Toronto. A decision was made to hold a founding conference for a new organization, the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC). Later that year, 23 delegates from throughout the North met to elect a board of directors and choose an executive. For the first time, the Inuit would speak with one voice.

Kuptana took over the leadership of the ITC in 1991 at an important moment in Canadian history. Constitutional talks and discussions concerning the Charlottetown Accord were taking place at the time, and terms designed to recognize aboriginal people in Canada as distinct societies were part of the constitutional package. Kuptana was at the table with the leaders of Canada’s three other aboriginal political organizations and the premiers of the provinces and territories and was instrumental in securing recognition of the inherent right of aboriginal people to self-government. She demonstrated to the nation not only the powerful, unified voice of Canada’s Inuit, but also their commitment to cooperate with other aboriginal groups to reach a political accord.

In a letter to the Globe and Mail in June 1992, Kuptana stated: “Inuit have waited a long time for this moment [the constitutional talks]. Within our grasp as Canadian Inuit is the recognition that we are equal to others with inherent rights and powers to ensure our continued existence within Canada… Our hopes have never been higher.”

The constitutional talks have been one of many priorities for Kuptana and the ITC in the 199s, but issues concerned Inuit youth are also paramount. Since 40 percent of the Inuit are under 15 years of age and 60 percent are under 25, young people have to be a major concern for local and national Inuit leaders. “Traditionally, Inuit youth were apprenticed to relatives to teach them relevant skills,” Kuptana says, noting that this led her to establish a youth internship program at the ITC in 1994. “Young people who take part in the program work at our Ottawa office and they are given decision-making roles.” Interns often attend high-level meetings such as those with federal ministers and the prime minister. “We encourage them to pursue their education in Ottawa, including taking lessons in Inuktitut. A few of the interns go back north to spend time with a host family out on the land where they experience a traditional way of living.” The ITC has also created a board position with voting rights for a youth member.

It isn’t surprising that Kuptana has created education and career training opportunities for Inuit youth. “It is the Inuit women’s traditional role to teach young people to survive,” she says, “and I feel like I am fulfilling my role by involving young people at the ITC. We’re dedicated to listening to the needs and concerns of Inuit youth.”

Through participation in ITC-sponsored panels, young people have advised the ITC on the need for culturally relevant education on teen suicide, school dropout rates, addictions, family violence, AIDS and the loss of language skills. Young people have asked for counseling services for victims of abuse, information on careers and staying in school, and parenting training. ITC’s funding arm, the Arctic Society of Canada (ASC) provides small grants to youth groups and organizations for projects that focus on Inuit youth. Some of the projects that the ASC has funded include exhibits, intergenerational activities, theatre productions, youth conferences and cultural celebrations.

Not only is Kuptana dedicated to serving the needs to Inuit communities scattered across the North, but she is also a seasoned participant in international forums. She was the Canadian vice president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference from 1986 to 1989, an organization that addresses the common concerns of Inuit from Canada, Alaska, Greenland and the former U.S.S.R. In Moscow and Leningrad in 1991, she represented Canadian Inuit at the Canada-U.S.S.R Cooperation Conference.

The ITC has been a strong advocate for the redress of an incident that occurred in a small community of Inuit in the 1950s. The incident is widely rumored to have been the direct result of the federal government’s desire to protect northern Arctic islands from international claims. To accomplish this aim, human habitation was necessary in unpopulated regions. The Canadian government selected a group of Inuit from Inukjua (Port Harrison) and Pond Inlet and relocated them to Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay. The families, known as High Arctic Exiles, subsequently experienced starvation because they were inadequately equipped for the environment.

Kuptana praises the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (RCAP) for its support of the federal compensation to the High Arctic Exiles. The ITC supports compensation but has gone further – it would like the Canadian government to apologize formally to the victims of these human rights violations. The ITC’s 1994 presentation to the RCAP also recommended that the royal commission’s final report include a separate volume related specifically to Inuit issues. Kuptana, a dependable friend to her indigenous colleagues in the south, is also fiercely independent. She is adamant that the Inuit are distinct from the aboriginal groups in southern Canada.

As a woman who first made her mark on northern radio and television, Kuptana continues to be an astute communicator. She is an articulate and widely respected spokesperson. In a national political landscape dominated by men, Kuptana sits confidently at the political table. “There are many strong Inuit women who have inspired me — Mary Simon, Nellie Cournoyea and Mary Stillett are a few,” she says. “These women overcame incredible odds to succeed in their fields.” And now that she has completed her ITC presidency and has undertaken the presidency of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, she sees her role as part of a network of leaders working together to improve the quality of life for Inuit worldwide.

A few years ago, I found it necessary to make a business call to Kuptana while she was on one of her rare vacations with her family. In the background, I could hear her two young sons laughing and playing. She apologized for the background noise and admitted that she had brought some work along on her much-needed vacation. “My sons are my source of strength and inspiration. They keep me motivated,” she said with pride.

It is Rosemarie Kuptana’s strong sense of identity as an Inuk woman that has infused her with a sense of mission since those days long ago when she and her family hunted seals in Canada’s High Arctic. And while she has been successful in her professional life, it is clear that her achievements are not about one person; they are about a people.