Unlike most jurisdictions Nunavut was recognized as a result of negotiation and a statute. The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA) created Nunavut as jurisdiction and recognized the right of the Inuit of Nunavut to self-government and a separate territory.
The basis for the NLCA was an exchange or conversion of existing Inuit rights into a new form – the Territory of Nunavut together with specific ancillary benefits. In a sense Nunavut existed before the NLCA – the NLCA just recognized existing rights.
As a result the NLCA must not be seen as a gift of the Federal Government. Rather it is an agreement between two sovereign parties (Canada and the Inuit of the eastern Arctic) in which the Inuit exchanged their existing Aboriginal title to all their traditional land in the Nunavut Settlement Area for the rights and benefits set out in the NLCA.
Aboriginal title is the inherent Aboriginal right to a territory. This right was not granted from by Canada but is a result of Inuit occupation and use of the territory we now call Nunavut. Accordingly Aboriginal title is quite independent of Canada and preexists Canada – the surrender of such title was a major concession by the Aboriginal people of Nunavut.
Negotiating the NLCA took two decades and involved the Government of Canada through the terms of four prime ministers. The final result - self government and a separate territory – reflects how exhaustive the negotiations were. Nunavut has its own Legislative Assembly and public government, something unique in North America – this alone is a massive achievement.
Although Nunavut has a modest population it covers nearly one-fifth the land mass of Canada – giving up even partial jurisdiction to such a huge territory was a dramatic step for the Federal Government. Equally though the surrender of existing Aboriginal title to the entire area of Nunavut was a major leap of faith for Inuit negotiators. Compromise was made by both sides.
Beyond self government the NCLA provides specific legal rights to Inuit to harvest wildlife. Inuit always take part in decisions on wildlife management through the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board. More generally the NLCA creates tribunals and Boards that allow for joint management of all lands, waters and wildlife resources in Nunavut. There will be joint management of planning and impact review, negotiated benefits agreements and resource revenue sharing.
The NLCA gives legal title to vast Inuit-owned lands measuring about 350,000 square kilometres of which about 35,000 square kilometres include mineral rights.
Finally, as part of the NLCA the Federal Government agreed to make capital transfer payments of $1.148 billion over 14 years. The NLCA ensures a share of federal government royalties for Nunavut Inuit from oil, gas and mineral development on Crown lands. The NLCA also provides the right to negotiate with industry for economic and social benefits as part of non-renewable resource developments.
There have been teething problems implementing the NLCA – that is to be expected – but the NLCA is a framework for the future. In the time of our grandchildren the NLCA will still be remembered as the foundational document for relations between Nunavut and Canada.