An Inupiaq man who lives in Aklavik is fighting the Canadian government’s effort to deport him to Alaska, arguing it’s a violation of Indigenous rights under international and Canadian laws.
Herman Oyagak moved to the Northwest Territories hamlet three years ago with his wife, Carol, who is Inuvialiuk and wanted to be closer to her family. The couple, both in their fifties, met in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, at a drum dance festival and have been married for five years.
According to Oyagak’s lawyer, Nick Sowsun, the Canadian Border Services Agency – or CBSA – is trying to deport Oyagak to Alaska as the federal government found him inadmissible to live in Canada. The issue, according to Sowsun, is a US conviction in 2015 for criminal mischief regarding damaged property under $250.
Sowsun said that offence relates to an incident in which Oyagak damaged a phone after throwing it against a wall. The CBSA has not responded to a request for comment regarding the details of the case.
Sowsun argues that conviction is dated and not serious enough to warrant deportation. He believes deporting Oyagak would be an “unjustified violation” of Indigenous rights under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian Constitution.
“The Inuvialuit of Aklavik and the Inupiat in Alaska have very close cultural ties, social ties, and blood relations,” Sowsun told reporters on Friday. “The land claims process separated them into two different groups and the border now divides families and friends but, for these people, the border is arbitrary and it is an affront to their social and cultural traditions.”
Sowsun added the CBSA has booked flights to deport Oyagak to Juneau, Alaska – a city he has never visited and to which he has no ties – on December 13. He called that “another example of the ridiculousness of the situation and a gross violation” of Oyagak’s rights.
‘I see myself changed’
Oyagak was convicted in 2003 for the wasteful killing of six walruses in Alaska, for which he was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2005.
Sowsun said Oyagak “fell into a cycle of being trapped in the criminal justice system” in the US as he “faced significant discrimination and family tragedy as a result of the racist and colonial society he grew up in.”
But the lawyer argues Oyagak has since been rehabilitated. He has been sober for three years, Sowsun said, has not had a criminal conviction since 2015, and has never been convicted in Canada.
“I see my life a lot better,” Oyagak told Cabin Radio. “I haven’t drunk or done any kind of other drugs or anything since I’ve been here. I see myself changed. I really open up to my wife and to the community.”
Aklavik residents and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation have written letters in support of Oyagak and his transboundary rights as an Indigenous man. The IRC said Oyagak is a respected community member and “shares his extensive traditional knowledge” for the benefit of others.
“Deporting Mr Oyagak is not about protecting the community or Canada, it is about blindly following process,” IRC chair and chief executive Duan Ningaqsiq Smith said in a statement. “The failure to consider the rights of Indigenous people and their unique relationship with Canada is deeply concerning to Inuvialuit and should be concerning to all Canadians.”
Carol and Herman said they live a traditional lifestyle and people often ask Herman for help when they go out on the land.
“He’s respected as a hunter. He’s respected as a language speaker. He’s respected as a traditional harvester,” Sowsun said. “He knows the lands and the waters in the area around Aklavik better than many people who have lived there for their entire lives.”
Deportation would be ‘devastating’
Sowsun said the Canadian government is rushing to deport Oyagak, denying him the chance to prove he has been rehabilitated and to file for spousal sponsorship to stay in Canada.
“This would be incredibly harmful and traumatizing for Herman, for his wife Carol and their family, and for the community of Aklavik,” Sowsun said if Oyagak is deported. “It would also be harmful to Inupiat, to Inuvialuit, and to Inuit everywhere because it would be a violation of their inherent rights.”
Carol said it would be “devastating” if her husband is deported as she, her family, and other community members rely on him for food.
“We need to have our governments hear us and we can’t stay quiet about this because it’s infringing on our rights, it’s infringing on our life,” she said. “All we want to do is just live freely and live our traditional life.”
Sowsun is calling on the CBSA to stop the deportation order for Oyagak and for the Canadian government to recognize Oyagak’s right to freely travel between the US and Canada and live in Aklavik.
“I just hope this gets resolved in a good way,” Oyagak said. “It hurts me for what I’m going through and seeing my wife dealing with it.”