Special to Northern News Services
The event, entitled Canada: A Global Model for Multiculturalism, attracted over 400 delegates to Edmonton from across Canada and abroad. A youth conference paralleled the main event.
The 22 youth from Nunavut were students in the Ottawa-based Nunavut Sivuniksavut (NS) program, where they are studying Inuit history, land claims and other issues. Delegates to the conference came from a diverse array of ethnic and cultural groups within Canada. Foreign delegates learned how Canada's policy of official multiculturalism has worked since it was introduced in the 1970s.
For some students, the encounter changed their view of Canada.
"It was the first time I really realized how diverse Canada was," says Noah Nashaooraitok of Taloyoak.
Many of the delegates talked about their experience as immigrants and how they were accepted -- or not accepted -- when they arrived in Canada, mostly into urban centres in the South. Some students found this hard to relate to.
"I didn't like not having the experience of seeing immigrants come into our community," said Elisabeth Avinqaq of Igloolik, "because I wasn't able to give suggestions about the issue."
Still, there was much more at the conference that they could relate to, and make suggestions about.
Racism was one such topic.
"Everyone experiences some form of racism," says Lynn Rose Tologanak of Cambridge Bay, "and this kind of conference allows discussion and solutions."
Workshops rewarding - and controversial
Students attended a variety of workshops where they shared their experiences, learned specific skills, and most importantly, got to know other youth delegates.
"Some workshops were very good and interesting," said David Joanasie of Cape Dorset. "But just meeting new people was the best part."
One workshop that proved controversial was given by Kiviaq, an Inuk man who lived almost his entire life in the South. He attacked the government's historical record of dealing with Inuit, claiming it had "ignored" them by, among other things, never signing treaties with them like it had with First Nations. Many students found his views too much to take.
Inuujaq Dean of Rankin Inlet openly questioned what she felt was his negative portrayal of Inuit and the North.
She told the audience, "I don't feel like a victim ... there are lots of good things happening in the North right now."
The conference also gave the students a chance to listen to expert speakers.
For Avinqaq, Stephen Lewis, Canada's former ambassador to the United Nations, was the most memorable.
"He was a very strong speaker, and he knew what he wanted to say. He managed to put all kinds of words together and make sense."
For Pauloosie Akeeagok of Grise Fiord, it was the delegate who spoke on behalf of the youth at the closing ceremony.
"He was smiling, looked at the people, raised his voice when he wanted it to be heard. And he really knew what he was talking about."
The presence of such a large delegation of youth from Nunavut did not go unnoticed at the conference. Organizer Amanda Bombard called them the "most popular" delegation at the event, because they were "very friendly, open to meeting new people, and had positive attitudes." The students themselves were pleased with the opportunity to share their experience and viewpoints.
"Just by us being there," said Tologanak, "it brought awareness of Inuit and aboriginal people to many southerners."
- Murray Angus is an instructor in the Nunavut Sivuniksavut program and a freelance writer. He lives in Ottawa.