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History Table of Contents
1994 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1994
Globalism and Tribalism: The New World Disorder?

Tribalism: Recreating Community

ROSEMARIE KUPTANA, President, Inuit Tapirisat of Canada

This conference has been asked to discuss the meaning and implication of tribalism in today's world.

The term tribalism is not necessarily understood in the same way by everyone. And the merits of whether it should even be used as a point of discussion has been heavily debated by conference organizers. I assume this hesitancy was based on an acknowledgement of the term's past association with Eurocentric notions of the relative superiority of advancement of industrialised societies compared to non-industrialised societies.

From an intellectual or political perspective, the modern concerns about tribalism are basically concerns about whether the political expression of ethnic ties inevitably result in negative violent actions or reactions. The assumption is that ethnic loyalties compete with one another in ultimately destructive ways.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia into civil war and the accompanying bloodshed, violence and suffering is frequently cited as a contemporary example. The ethnic war in Yugoslavia has been cited to me at an international human rights conference as an example of why the right of self determination could not be extended to indigenous peoples.

The hesitancy of conference organizers to use the term tribalism to discuss global issues of peace and security was well placed, because the term tribe has been used by Western Europeans primarily in reference to non-white, pre- industrialized societies and in particular to indigenous peoples of the Americas, including at some time Inuit.

The obviously related term, tribalism, lately has been used to suggest extreme forms of ethnic loyalty in defence of the economic and political interests of the tribe. And often in disregard of the fundamental human rights of others. Those who use the term tribalism, usually do so in a pejorative way with further assumptions that the existence of tribalism in today's world is a return to less advanced, less civilized, less humane era.

The indigenous experience with the European colonization could be described as an experience with the worst aspect of European tribalism. However, there are probably not many non-Inuit Canadians who could relate to that. Whether or not the term tribalism is used with an intent to perpetuate negative stereotypes of pre-industrialised, non-white societies, it has the effect of doing so.

Beyond the world of academics, I do not think that there are many French or English Canadians who identify themselves as a member of a tribe. But many French and English Canadians would label indigenous societies tribal.

Though less common today, the term tribe has been used in an anthropological and historical sense to refer to indigenous peoples, including Inuit. If the term tribalism is used to suggest extreme acts of ethnic loyalties, including bloodshed and various inhumane acts towards other ethnic groups, you can understand that Inuit are effectively not willing to be held along with other indigenous peoples as a negative example in discussing contemporary politics and ethnic identity.

If we are to discuss the political aspects of collective rights and ethnic loyalties, we prefer to use the term, collective rights and ethnicity. Because they carry less historical baggage, and are therefore more neutral.

I will temporarily resolve the dilemma that is facing me today as a panel member, first by having you note my conclusion that the term tribalism is of limited usefulness to any contemporary analysis and is intended to be both accurate and free of ethnic, cultural or racial basis. Secondly, I assume the word tribalism in a political context is intended to evoke notions of group rights or collective rights and is intended to challenge the wisdom of recognizing collective rights within a state.

Therefore, I will focus on:

Whether the recognition of collective rights within a state contributes or detracts from the promotion of human rights and peace;

The struggle of Inuit and other indigenous peoples for recognition of our right of self determination at the international level, and;

The constitutional entrenchment of our inherent right of self government in Canada and our regional self government objectives will be the focal point for my discussion of this issue.

The issue of whether group rights are inherently counter- productive to long term inter-ethnic peace is an issues that underlies much of the political struggle of indigenous peoples for the recognition of our inherent right of self determination.

The situation of Inuit is of particular relevance, because Inuit exist as a people – both within Canada and within the Circumpolar world. And when I say the Circumpolar world, I mean Canada, Alaska, Russia and Greenland. Secondly, the Inuit support the recognition of individual and collective human rights within in international and domestic human rights systems. Third, Inuit tend to favour non-ethnic governments within our traditional territories and within existing states as a means of expressing our right of self determination.

Within Canada, Inuit seek constitutional entrenchment of our inherent right of self government as an aspect of our right of self determination. And we wish to express our right to self determination by becoming an integral part of the Canadian federal system through the establishment of four Arctic governments.

Some of you may have heard of the establishment of the Nunavut territorial government in 1999, in the Eastern and Central Arctic. We have had a proposal for a Western Arctic regional government since the early 1970's. A Nunavik Assembly in Northern Quebec, and a government in Northern Labrador.

The Inuit self government agenda is not a case of perusing special rights. In our view, our inherent right of self government is an aspect as our right as a people to self determination.

The right of self determination is a fundamental human right. It is obviously a collective right, but it is also a fundamental human right. Inuit are a people and as such, we are entitled to determine our political future.

The right of self determination is important because it recognizes the diversity of human beings at a collective level, as well as at the individual level. Just as individual human rights aim to protect the rights of individuals to be different and to free from unreasonable and inhumane interference from the state, so, too, does the right of self determination protect the rights of people to be different if they so wish and to decide for themselves their collective future.

Further, the right of self determination is clearly stated as a right of peoples not states. Although the two may coincide.

The European peoples who came to Inuit lands developed self-serving legal principle to justify their appropriation of our lands and to assert sovereignty over Inuit without our consent, or even for that matter, military conquest.

The so-called international law of Europeans decided that the lands of aboriginal peoples could be treated as empty of human occupation, otherwise known as the terra nullius doctrine, and, based upon that thinking, were free to acquire the lands for European nations.

Fortunately, international law has evolved since then and now aims to eradicate all forms of colonialism and racial discrimination. The counter point of colonialism and racism is the recognition of the equality of all peoples and the right of all peoples to self determination.

UN studies on the right of self determination have made clear that this right can, but does not have to be exercised by asserting full independence. The right of self determination is just as legitimately expressed by joining with other peoples in a federal state. And it may be of interest to you, but this is the choice that Inuit have made in Canada.

Although the Inuit support the system of liberal democracy we now find ourselves in, this legal and political system that is not culturally neutral. Every political, legal, educational and government institution that you choose to think of is infused with European-derived values and influences. I am not saying that European-derived values and systems are inherently bad.

What I am saying is that a system of government that purports to exercise sovereign authority over Inuit, that purports to honour all human rights, including the right of self determination, that strives to eradicate racism, must use the flexibility inherent in a federal system to accommodate Inuit aspirations to self government in Northern Canada.

There is an intimate and necessary connection between individual human rights and the collective rights of people. The international human rights system that has evolved under the United Nations is very clear in stating that the right of self determination is a pre-requisite of the enjoyment of other human rights.

For example, Inuit language rights can only be effective if we are able to use our language in public, political, educational and social settings. Obviously this right will hindered unless we are able to introduce and have an adequate level of control for the use of our language in these areas.

There is also an intimate connection between the denial of the right of self determination and racial discrimination.

The historical experience with colonialism in the Americas and the denial of the right to vote to Inuit and other aboriginal peoples in Canada until 40 years ago is one of the many examples of this.

From the Inuit perspective there is a need domestically and internationally not only for mutual respect and recognition of individuals, but for mutual respect and recognition among peoples.

Racism is not an individualised phenomenon. It is, after all, theories of groups superiority; ones that are based upon race culture, ethnicity, sex, religion and so on that led to the justification for violations of the rights of individuals.

Racism at an individual level is spawned by fundamental attitudes at a collective level. That is, by continuing assumptions about racial or cultural superiority and by rationalization of domination of other peoples.

The legal system is often an instrument for perpetuating such biases. The impact of racism and colonialism on aboriginal peoples can not be adequately addressed by individual rights alone. Individual human rights protection may provide freedom for individuals who wish to assimilate, but insufficient protection for those who do not want to.

We know that practically all human cultures are subject to change and to pressures from the outside, such as global economic forces and technological change. We have embraced many of these changes and have attempted to use them to express our collective identity and to improve the collective and individual welfare of the Inuit.

We manage the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation as a means of ensuring that Inuktitut is heard and that Inuit values and interests are reflected in the broadcasting system in the north. Inuit are also involved in the discussion to establish an information highway in Canada. We also operate airline companies and invest in business ventures in the North, as well as abroad. We continue to value our language, to hunt, to trap, to practice customary adoption, and to have a collective identity that is different from other peoples in Canada.

However, our survival as Inuit is dependant upon our continued existence as a people and our right to choose our path as a people. Our values and aspirations cannot be restricted to the private sphere.

We are as entitled as any other people to establish governments in our traditional territories and to express our identity and values through various northern institutions. We wish to exercise the fundamental human rights at a collective and individual level and we have no desire to trench on the fundamental human rights of others in that process.

Inuit also consider ourselves a practical and peaceful people. We recognize the interdependence of peoples in the modern world, while asserting our own identity. This is one of the reasons why the Inuit accept the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, while acknowledging that it has flaws. And while we tend to favour non-racially based democratic governments in our northern territories, in at least 3 of these 4 regions, Inuit proposed to establish democratically elected non-racial based governments in our traditional territories within Canada, where we currently constitute the majority.

The remedy to racism and ethnic violence will require more than a respect for individual human rights. It requires mutual respect and recognition at a collective level. We must encourage a respect for all peoples by all peoples. We must strive for mutual respect and recognition for all peoples if we wish to eradicate the many forms of racism and xenophobia that hurt innocent individuals throughout the world in so many ways.

As we all know, human ingenuity for causing suffering and expressing racism seems to have no bounds. I do not know whether we can tap into the source of that ingenuity and apply it to more constructive, objective promoting international and inter-ethnic peace, tolerance and co-operation. I believe that we must at least try.