THE INUIT OF CANADA'S ARCTIC have a word to define the Canadian legal system, says Qajaq Robinson as she sits inside the Nunavut Court of Justice library. It’s aiva, which translates roughly to “banging heads on silly issues.”
Behind her, light floods in from large windows overlooking a recently thawed Frobisher Bay, where snowmobiles roared no more than a few weeks earlier. June is a month of change in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut located on the southeastern coast of Baffin Island. It’s a time when purple saxifrage and Arctic poppy blossoms emerge from the tundra, when the ocean melts and the long winter disappears.
This June also ushered in a big change to Nunavut’s legal system. The month marked the graduation of a historic class that many hope will help lead Canada’s newest territory as it finds its way toward self-government. Robinson and 10 others graduated with bachelor of laws degrees from the University of Victoria after completing a special program offered by the university, Nunavut Arctic College and the Akitsiraq Law School Society.
The program, named after an ancient ring of stones where elders used to meet to resolve disputes, launched in September 2001 to bring together Inuit perspectives and legal expertise. Past attempts to establish an Inuit law program in the south failed, so Akitsiraq was taught almost exclusively in Iqaluit with professors from across Canada brought here to teach.
Almost four years and $5 million later, the graduates donned their caps and gowns and filed into the darkened gymnasium of Inuksuk High—a bulging, blue building that looks more like a submarine than a school, complete with the odd porthole.
A crowd of supporters and officials awaited them, including Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik, UVic Chancellor Ron Lou-Poy and President David Turpin. As Okalik addressed the grads, he noted it was no coincidence the date of their ceremony, June 21, coincided with National Aboriginal Day. The students picked the date themselves. “This is our day as Aboriginal people,” Okalik said. “You made the right choice.”
Okalik, for now, holds the distinction of being Canada’s only Inuk lawyer. When the graduates write their bar exams in a year, that will change. In the meantime, they’re completing their articles by working in the offices of prestigious law firms, heavyweight Inuit organizations, and within the court system.
Robinson is articling in the Nunavut Court of Justice. Part of her job involves teaching at the local high school. She hopes to get through to students about their legal rights, both under Canadian law and the land claims agreement that created Nunavut—two million km2 stretching north and west from Hudson’s Bay—in 1999.
Another graduate, and a mother of five, Aaju Peter is articling with a law firm in Ottawa where she hopes to improve her ability to argue key issues like the copyrights of traditional Inuit knowledge and Canadian sovereignty of the Arctic. “Until you understand how something works, you can’t change it. You have to speak the language,” she says.
Peter remembers the shock she felt as her grades plummeted during the first year. “It was like dropping someone in ice-cold water. It was devastating.” But now that she’s through, she sees herself as a new person. “I’m a lot more aggressive. I think I’m ready to jump into anything and just fight.”
As the only male in the graduating class, Henry Coman hopes to serve as a positive role model for many of the young, aimless men in the territory who wander into lives of crime and eventually pass through the courts. As an RCMP officer, he also hopes to see justice served. He’s currently articling with the Crown counsel office in Iqaluit, and will return to the force when he’s passed the bar.
“At the end of the day you’re helping victims of crime who may not have a voice of their own,” he says.
Scrutiny aimed at Akitsiraq from the media and members of the community was intense during the program, at times making the classroom feel like a rather large fishbowl. Some residents criticized the steep price tag, which helped cover the costs of living of most graduates during their studies.
Others suggested the program wasn’t up to the same standard as southern universities—a suggestion that makes graduates bristle. “It gets me really mad,” says Robinson. “I think there’s no justification to it.” At the courthouse library, she pulls out textbooks written by her professors—John Burrows of UVic and Allan Manson of Queen’s, for example. She also points out the degrees are accredited by the University of Victoria, consistently ranked as one of the best law schools in the country.
The Inuit have an opposite for aiva, their term for Canadian law. It’s ajiqatigingniq, and it means “to learn to come to understanding,” with an emphasis on Inuit values of negotiation and dialogue. Those values are rooted in a time when Inuit ancestors were too busy hunting for their next meal to needlessly bicker. As Robinson says, “Adversity is dangerous in the North.”
She sees these values born out in small communities like Iglulik, where she was raised, when Inuit elders are invited to speak at sentencing hearings, both to the individual and to the court. “The elders have insight we don’t have.”
But ajiqatigingniq shouldn’t be mistaken for passivity. Robinson says if she took one thing from the program, “it’s made it easier to ask why, and to question things. We need that in Nunavut. We can’t be a carbon copy of the other territories and provinces.”
“The Famous 11” Akitsiraq law
graduates, as then-Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, dubbed them: