Some Inuvialuit living outside settlement region feel like '2nd-class citizens'

Pauline Gordon says since she lives in Fort Smith, N.W.T., she can’t vote or access programs and services offered by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation.

'You know, there is always supposed to be a sense of belonging somewhere,' says Pauline Gordon

'You know, there is always supposed to be a sense of belonging somewhere,' said Pauline Gordon. (Submitted by Pauline Gordon)

Pauline Gordon says it was reading the latest edition of Tusaayaksat, a magazine produced by the Inuvialuit Communications Society, that lit a spark in her to use her voice.

Dalee Samba Dorough, the new chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), was quoted in the magazine, saying, "Every Inuk is wanted by ICC, every Inuk is welcomed by ICC, and every Inuk is valued by ICC."

Gordon, who is Inuvialuit and lives in Fort Smith, N.W.T., says those words spoke to her because she hasn't had the sense of belonging for a while.

She said that under the Inuvialuit Final Agreement, signed in 1984, Inuvialuit living outside of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR) don't have a right to vote in elections for the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC), and have more limited access to IRC's programs and services.

Gordon, a former assistant deputy minister of Education and Culture, said many people who live outside the ISR — who call themselves "Inuvialuit 99'ers," a reference to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky's trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings — feel that their voices don't matter.

Gordon decided to write a letter last week to IRC chair Duane Smith to explain why she felt disenfranchised.

"A lot of us feel that we are second-class citizens, because of our inability to vote," Gordon wrote.

"I suggest that you work with those beneficiaries… living outside of the ISR, on exploring options for our active participation in governance, programs and services."

'We get nothing'

Gordon said she sent copies of the letter to the presidents of ICC, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada.

According to Gordon, IRC told her that 2,051 Inuvialuit over the age of 18 live outside of the ISR. About 2,540 live in the region.

She said that currently Inuvialuit living outside of the ISR are supposed to bring any concerns to the IRC chair, who would then present the matter to the board — but she says nothing comes from that.

I do feel like an outsider because when I go home, it's like: 'where did you come from? Who are you?'- Trudy Nelner

Gordon is originally from Aklavik, but has been living outside of the ISR for 24 years.

She said that she has previously applied to Inuvialuit-run programs and has been denied.

"We lose all of the benefits that those in the ISR receive daily. And they might think it's little, but we get nothing. We get our disbursement for our yearly dividends, and that's it."

She feels Inuvialuit could work together to allow those living outside of the region to feel more included, as other Indigenous organizations do.

'I don't get it. When I tried to go to school, I was denied financial assistance and I was like, 'woah, why?' Trudy Nelner said. (Submitted by Trudy Nelner)

"You know, there is always supposed to be a sense of belonging somewhere. And every time I saw the Gwich'in get together in Yellowknife when I lived there, I always felt so sad. I always felt like I didn't belong anywhere," said Gordon.

Trudy Nelner said that she shares the same frustrations as Gordon.

Originally from Tuktoyaktuk, Nelner moved to Fort Simpson about 20 years ago and said she would love to return home, but it's difficult to live there and make ends meet.

"There's not much for jobs, no security, and I do feel like an outsider because when I go home, it's like: 'where did you come from? Who are you?,'" said Nelner.

"I don't get it. When I tried to go to school I was denied financial assistance and I was like: 'whoa, why? 'Cause I'm not from the region?'"

Maintaining a connection

'It's not fair that I can't connect with my people,' said 13-year-old Alexandra Gordon, who lives in Fort McMurray, Alta. (Submitted by Alexandra Gordon)

Nelner says that she wants to maintain a connection to her culture — for herself, and her son.

She says when they go back to Tuktoyaktuk, her son feels out of place and not welcome. She also believes he would likely be denied financial assistance because of where they live.

"That's not fair for my son, because he is Inuvialuktun," she said. "They should just treat us like they treated everyone else long ago — as one. Not try to segregate us."

Gordon's 13-year-old granddaughter Alexandra Gordon lives in Fort McMurray, Alta., and has lived outside of the ISR her whole life. She envies some other Indigenous youth who have connections to their First Nations and other organizations.

"I feel left out, and that it's not fair that I can't connect with my people," Alexandra said.

'They work for every Inuvialuit beneficiary'

However, not all 99'ers feel the same way. Pamela Williams said she's always had a good experience with the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation.

Williams was born and raised in Inuvik, but has been living outside of the region off-and-on for the last 28 years, and currently resides in Yellowknife. 

Pamela Williams has living outside of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region for 28 years. She said she's never had a negative experience as a member of the IRC and has 'always felt like I belonged.' (Submitted by Pamela Williams)

"I feel as a 99'er… that Duane and his staff do a awesome job. They work for every Inuvialuit beneficiary, no matter where they live, in the world.

"I live outside of the region and I do not feel like a 2nd class citizen."

Williams said that when she went to school in the 1990s, the IRC supported her and gave her a scholarship. Her son is currently attending post-secondary in Fort Smith, with financial assistance from the organization.

She also said that "even though I live outside of the ISR, there are some services that we can apply for," including harvester's assistance, which helps beneficiaries pay for equipment like a snowmobile or sewing machine that will help them with harvesting.

"I feel if I needed anything from the organization, all I'd have to do is pick up the phone and ask."

Williams, who reached out to CBC after the story was initially published, said that prior to reading the story, she'd never heard people voice concerns about feeling disconnected. 

"I've lived outside for 28 years and have always felt like I belonged."

She said that she feels that IRC does everything it can for its beneficiaries, and tries to keep people updated through quarterly editions of the magazine Tusaayaksat, quarterly board reports in their newsletter, and updates on social media.

"I know who I am. I am Inuvialuit," said Williams. "I'm proud to be Inuvialuit and I have no sense of not being connected to anywhere because I know I belong to the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation as a beneficiary, so I've never felt displaced."

CBC reached out to IRC for comment but did not receive a response as of publishing time.