In a Facebook group named the Inuvialuit 99ers, some Inuvialuit who live outside the Inuvialuit Settlement Region are voicing concerns about their collective lack of representation.
The name is a mystery – maybe someone really liked Wayne Gretzky, jokes group member Pauline Gordon – but their mission is clear. They would like to actively participate in Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC) governance, programs, and services, even though they may live far away.
“[We] don't have the right to vote. We don't belong to the community corporations, so then we can't participate in the governance,” explained Gordon, who penned a letter expressing these concerns to the the IRC on November 1.
But Kate Darling, general counsel for the Inuvialuit Corporate Group, told Cabin Radio Inuvialuit leaders within the settlement region are not insensitive to the concerns of those who have chosen to live elsewhere.
According to Darling, 2,542 beneficiaries (Inuvialuit over the age of 18 who are enrolled to receive benefits) live within settlement region boundaries. The other 2,026 don't.
To understand why 99ers can’t vote, it's necessary to look back to 1984 – when the Inuvialuit Final Agreement was signed.
"The Inuvialuit Final Agreement, which is the constitutionally entrenched document that sets up the governance structure for Inuvialuit, does stipulate that the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation – which is the rights-representing organization – is to be controlled by the community corporations,” explained Darling.
“Those that were responsible for negotiating the land claims all those many years ago decided that a corporate structure was best for this, and so the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation was established as a not-for-profit corporation with each of the community corporations holding a membership seat.”
There is a community corporation for each community in the settlement region: Aklavik, Inuvik, Paulatuk, Sachs Harbour, Tuktoyaktuk, and Ulukhaktok.
“It's up to each of the community corporations to establish the criteria for their members, and the bylaws outline how long each individual, each Inuvialuit, needs to be in that community before being able to vote on those decisions that affect the community,” said Darling, explaining where the residency requirement comes in.
Each community elects six directors and one chair, so in total there are 42 directors for the settlement region.
These directors elect a chair and CEO, which is not only a point of contention with those living outside of the region but also for those living within, who have advocated to vote for their top leadership in the past.
But for the 44 percent of Inuvialuit who live outside of the region, they have no way to vote for their representation at all.
As Darling said: “There isn't a specific separate structure that represents Inuvialuit who reside outside of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region.”
"It leaves us to feel like second-class citizens,” reflected Gordon, "I always feel like I'm the poor cousin.
"I see them drum dancing, I see them getting lessons in sewing and learning language, I see their children going to programs and I think, how come I belong to that organization and yet I don't get those benefits?"
Beneficiaries are still entitled to benefits that transcend boundaries, like dividend payments and funding for education – they just can’t participate in community-based programs or vote because of where they reside.
"It’s kind of archaic in some ways, it's like a step back,” said Gordon, drawing a connection to how it wasn’t until 1960 that Indigenous women were allowed to vote in federal elections.
“Even though this is separate from that, it really brings us back to those days when women were fighting for the right to vote and Aboriginal people were saying, "Hey, look, we're Canadians too, allow us to vote without taking away our status.'"
'We need every Inuk, period'
Gordon was inspired to pen a letter to Duane Smith, chair and chief executive of the IRC, after reading a speech by the new chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council published in Tusaayaksat Magazine.
In that speech, Dalee Sambo Dorough said, “We need every Inuk, period. There’s nothing like being wanted, being welcomed, or being valued.”
The words hit home for Gordon, who said she and many other 99ers don’t feel valued or welcomed by the regional corporation because they don’t have an opportunity to participate in governance.
"I think when you don't belong to a community corporation they tell you that you can voice your concerns through the chair and chief executive of the IRC,” she said – but she's frustrated that her representative is someone who was elected by others and who, as far as she has seen, has not brought 99ers' concerns forward at directors' meetings.
She hopes her letter will lead to a different outcome this time around.
“I think we need to talk to the chair and chief executive about changing the bylaws to be more inclusive, to ensure that all of us have a voice, and that all of us – whether we're in the settlement region or not – feel a part of the Inuvialuit organization," Gordon said.
Darling said Gordon’s letter will be on the agenda at an upcoming directors' meeting at the end of November.
"The concerns and interests of Inuvialuit wherever they reside are really taken quite seriously," she said.
"Pauline's letter and concerns raised by others that are similar in nature are always brought to the IRC board and, whenever there is a directors' meeting, concerns like this are raised so that the committee-of-the-whole of the directors can discuss it in a thoughtful way.
“This is certainly not a new phenomenon. There has been population growth in the south for some time.
“Unfortunately, one of the effects of the economic downturn in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region ... has been an outflow of people who are seeking opportunities elsewhere.”
Gordon would add that not all people leave by choice: some may be fleeing domestic violence, which is why she copied the president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada on her letter, as well as the presidents of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Inuit Circumpolar Council's Canadian chapter.
'A fundamental question'
Darling cautions that if change were to happen, it would take time.
“It is difficult, with the Inuvialuit Final Agreement being structured the way it is, to make any immediate changes," she said.
"It takes the participation of all of the leadership to look at how to mitigate some people's concerns.
"It's a fundamental question that has to involve everybody who has been elected into their positions.”
In other words, it's up to 42 directors to determine if 2,000 people who did not elect them will get a chance to vote.