Today, a small but high-powered delegation of Canadian Inuit leaders lands in Fiji, the first stop in a swing through islands that lie from the east to the north of Australia and include Vanuata, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea.
They are there to discuss with indigenous peoples how the Inuit can help strengthen their communities and what joint ventures the future may hold.
The goal is mutual sustainability.
There are four in the delegation, Rosemarie Kuptana, president of both the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), Sheila Watt-Cloutier, president of both the Canadian section of the ICC and Makivik Corporation, which is the development arm of the northern Quebec Inuit, Corine Gray, the executive director of the ICC, and Nick Fog, a consultant with 20 years experience in Melanesia.
They’ll be offering expertise on resource management, community organizing, marketing, strategic planning, financial management, social and environmental impact assessments, participation of women, and technical skills for such needs as mapping resources with the aid of satellite technology. And they’re offering collaboration to identify mutually profitable joint business ventures.
« We have so much in common with other indigenous peoples it’s just incredible,’’ Watt-Cloutier said shortly before taking off, « especially in how we’ve been affected by colonialism and how we’re trying to stand on our own feet.’’
The delegation represents UNAAC, which means « spear’’ in Inuktitut. It’s the umbrella organization for the development arms of both the northern Quebec and the Baffin Island Inuit — the Makivik Corporation and the Qikqtaaluk Corporation.
At home, UNAAC Inc. has been highly successful. It was created in 1987 to develop an Inuit fishing industry in Ungava Bay, Davis Strait, Hudson Strait, and the Labrador Sea. Now it operates offshore factory freezer trawlers owned by Clearwater Fine Foods and its annual catch runs to 6,000 tonnes of Arctic shrimp and assorted groundfish. 40 per cent of the catch is exported to Japan and 60 per cent to Scandinavia.
It has trained 120 Inuit to work the trawlers, it pays about $1.7 million in wages, and it injects more than $3 million into the economy of the area.
However, to maintain a sustainable fishery, there are limits — the very word sustainable implies limits — and the Inuit knew that their fishery was reaching its limit. So UNAAC began brainstorming how it could secure a stable future for those whom the fishery couldn’t support.
It came up with the idea of international joint ventures with other indigenous peoples.
Many of those peoples, however, have been shut out of acquiring modern resource management skills and so they have been powerless to control the use of resources in their areas and to bring to bear their knowledge of ecosystem safeguarding. Consequently, UNAAC’s first task has been in skills training.
It has worked with indigenous peoples in Sierra Leone, Siberia , and Eritrea. But its largest undertaking to date is in Belize.
With its own money, and with contributions from the Canadian International Development Agency, the Commonwealth Secretariat, UNESCO, the U.N. Development Program, and Aboriginal Business Canada, it is working with Maya and Garifuna peoples to build a training institute.
The need for an institute was identified in a year of community meetings. The government of Belize has provided a 20-hectare site, a development plan has been completed, a curriculum is being developed, outreach programs established, and teaching requirements set. Architectural plans are being drafted and building will soon begin.
The Belize community of Dangriga has been twinned with the Inuit community of Kuujjuaq. A radio station is being built with a tower donated by the British army and a studio and transmitting equipment provided by Kuujjuaq. And Johnny Adams, the mayor of Kuujjuaq, is working in Dangriga to establish a joint venture for manufacturing eight-metre fibreglass boats.
« The people in Belize find us much more trustworthy to do business with than the usual outsiders who come in to get what they can and leave nothing behind,’’ says Watt-Cloutier. « We understand because we’ve been where they are and we believe in leaving part of ourselves behind.’’
« It’s exciting,’’ she said — and she’s so right.