Sami Eager to Learn About Canadian Inuit

Many Arctic people live the same way. The Sami of northern Scandinavia also live off the land, they are mainly reindeer herders. They came here to learn about the Canadian North.

Sami Eager to Learn About Canadian Inuit

By Harry Hill

In the far North of Europe lives a group of people whose lifestyle and environment bears many similarities to that of Canadian Inuit. Known for many years as Lapps, the Sami, like the Inuit have worked hard in recent years to organize themselves to protect their rights, their land and their culture. Last October Mark R. Gordon, vice-president of Makivik Corporation and Canadian vice-president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, was invited to a meeting of Sami from three countries – Norway, Sweden and Finland – to explain how Inuit here have dealt with problems which the Sami now face.

Almost the entire Sami homeland lies north of the Arctic Circle and overlaps the borders of four countries, including the Soviet Union. It is estimated that the Sami have lived in this region for 8,000 years. Many types of wildlife found in the area are also found in the Canadian Arctic – polar bear, caribou, arctic fox, wolf, wolverine, lemming, snowy owl, ptarmigan, eider duck, salmon and char.

Depending on whether they lived on the coast or inland, the Sami made their living by fishing or herding reindeer, in addition to hunting. Traditionally, the Sami were organized into siida, a kind of small-scale self-government which collectively owned the land occupied and used by a specific group. The strength of these small governments has been weakened as white people from the south have moved into Samiland.

The recent history of northern Norway has a striking resemblance in Northern Quebec. Plans to build a hydro-electric dam on the Alta River, in the heart of Samiland, brought strong protests from many Sami and served to unite most of them in a movement to protect their  land, culture and language. It also created strong feelings in the rest of the Norwegian population, who have always considered themselves to be very democratic and caring of the rights of others.

“The Norwegian government had to do something about it because it had become such a big political thing,” said Mark Gordon. “So they set up a special commission that would study Sami rights and that commission had come out with the first part of its report so they a meeting in Copenhagen with people coming from Finland, Sweden and Norway who had been involved in the Sami rights movement to have a general discussion of the recommendations.”

Mark Gordon of Canada and Robert Peterson of Greenland were invited to the meeting to explain native rights and the progress made towards native self-government in their countries.

“The Sami are going through a lot of the same things that the Inuit are going through so there are a lot of comparisons we can make with each other,” said Gordon.  “They want to determine what laws are needed to protect the Sami so that they can remain distinct societies within these countries. In some of these countries they’re contemplating including constitutional recognition, but the discussion is just beginning, whereas here in Canada we’ve already got something in the Constitution.”

Although the development of native rights in those countries has grown at roughly the same time as here in northern Canada, it has evolved in a different way.

“They explained to me that they have problems because they don’t have native associations like we have in Canada,” he said. “We’ve been able to come up with a strong native position while they find it difficult to do because they’re organized into reindeer herders associations and things like that. They don’t have lobby groups or anything like the ITC.

Gordon said the Sami face many of the same problems the Inuit do, so the two groups should share information and expertise.

“Big hydro and mineral development is starting to move into their area. They have exactly the same animals and resources as we have, so there are many things that we can learn from one another’s experiences. They have their own information that they have begun to gather – how to preserve a salmon run in case of a hydro dam, how to protect migration from development, things like that.”

“There is quite a lot of information that we could exchange back and forth, but you can’t do it all at once,” said Gordon. “First you find out how they are organized, who takes care of what, then get them in contact with the right people here so that they can start exchanging information. My meeting there was just the start of it.”

(Taqralik, December 1984, page 68)