Nellie Cournoyea recalls role in 1984 Inuvialuit land claim negotiations

For the former chair of the IRC, her participation in negotiating the Final Agreement was one of the major highlights of her career

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Nellie Cournoyea has accomplished a number of great feats in her 79 years of life.

From 1991 to 1995, she served as the first female premier of the Northwest Territories. For 20 years, from 1996 to 2016, she was the chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC).

Nellie Cournoyea, the former chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, is pictured giving a speech at the Northern Housing Summit in Inuvik on April 23. Aaron Hemens/NNSL photo
Nellie Cournoyea, the former chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, is pictured giving a speech at the Northern Housing Summit in Inuvik on April 23. Aaron Hemens/NNSL photo

She’s received numerous awards and honours from various institutions, which includes being made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2008.

But of all her achievements and accolades, she said that the years she spent helping to negotiate the final settlement of the 1984 Inuvialuit land claim is at the top of her list.

“I always said that’s number one. We had to work. I’ve been involved in a lot of things for sure, but it all led up to a decision: we had to do something,” said Cournoyea.

Cournoyea was a key figure in the Committee of Original People’s Entitlement (COPE), an Inuvialuit political organization formed in 1969 that spent years at the negotiating table before reaching the Inuvialuit Final Agreement 35 years ago.

“The land claim took nine or 10 years. Prior to that, we probably were involved with 15 or 20 years of trying to battle with the government to set the procedures to how we could work together to move forward, because people got involved with the oil and gas industry the best they could,” she said. “But the thing is, we needed government to establish some rules or procedures, factors that they would have to live by.”

As the federal government continued to cater towards oil and gas industries by granting them access to traditional Inuvialuit lands and resources, Cournoyea said she knew that the group had to act fast and settle a land claim as soon as possible.

“It was difficult for people to hang on for nine or 10 years because most of the people were very rooted in their culture, tradition and lifestyle. To pull them away on a continuing basis was heartbreaking for me,” she said.

“I don’t think there was anyone impressed in running around with government and spending time in these negotiations. But there were so many real committed people who left their homes for long periods of time.”

It was a long and hard process, she continued, but no one complained, for they knew they had to get it done.

“We were a strong team. I had the privilege of working with people and Elders from Paulatuk, Ulukhaktok, Sachs Harbour, Aklavik,” she said. “I was brought up with them, so we were all in this stage of knowledge and respect for what allowed us to survive.”

She added that there were hundreds of residents from communities throughout the Beaufort Delta that got involved in the grassroots effort.

“This is our area of survival. We’re part of Canada,” she said. “I don’t think people sitting in Ottawa behind a desk are going to solve our problems. People come and go, and we’re here.”

When the Inuvialuit Final Agreement was signed in Tuktoyaktuk on June 5, 1984, she recalled being excited and happy that there now existed “some clear rules of who’s in charge up here,” she said.

“It’s our home. It’s where we live and that’s where we’re going to be. A lot of our people are starting to get the education they need so that they can have a broader participation,” she said. “But at the same time, we needed to be in some driving seats to push our agenda accordingly, to establish a good basis for young people to move ahead.”