If the Canadian government gave relatively little attention to the issue of Indian policy in the early years of the twentieth century, it gave even less to the Inuit of the Arctic. Officials apparently felt no need to extend treaties beyond regions that were required for resource development or settlement purposes, and The Indian Act made no specific references to the Inuit. From time to time, Ottawa had provided relief assistance (food and hunting supplies) to Inuit in need and the Northwest Territories and Yukon Branch of the Department of the Interior experimented with reindeer-herding as an economic development opportunity for the Inuit. But no clear Inuit policy existed.

photo of Charles Stewart, who expanded federal control over Inuit land resources

Charles Stewart, 1918

During his time as a federal cabinet minister in the 1920s, Stewart attempted to extend the Indian Act both to include the Inuit and to give the government control of their land and resources.

Then in 1924, the Minister of the Interior, Charles Stewart, proposed that The Indian Act be amended to extend its provisions to the Inuit and give the government control over Inuit lands and property. This proposal was entirely one-sided; no Inuit had requested such a move or been consulted about it. However, Leader of the Opposition Arthur Meighen (who had once been superintendent-general of Indian affairs) objected strongly to the proposal. In his view, the Indian Act had made the Indians wards of the state and rendered them helpless and dependent. Since few Canadians were likely to ever live in the Arctic, Meighen argued, the Inuit would be better off pursuing an independent livelihood. In response, the proposal was changed to read simply that “the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs shall have charge of Eskimo affairs.” Four years later, responsibility was transferred to the Northwest Territories and Yukon Branch of the Department of the Interior.

Photo of Inuit spear fishing

Inuit Fishing, n.d.

Of course, not all Inuit lived in the Northwest Territories and Yukon; there were also significant numbers in northern Quebec. These people seem to have been ignored initially by both the federal and provincial governments. But in the late 1920s, serious game shortages and the threat of starvation in the region made the question of assistance urgent. In 1929, an agreement was signed whereby the federal government would provide relief supplies to the Inuit and the Quebec government would reimburse Ottawa. As expenses mounted, however, the Quebec government began to argue that it was not legally responsible for the Inuit and thus should not have to pay the costs.

1939 - Inuit Deemed a Federal Responsibility

A funding dispute between the province of Quebec and the federal government ended uncertainty about the status of the Inuit at least in administrative terms. Ottawa had resisted taking full responsibility for the Inuit. In 1920, the Indian Act had been amended to include them, but there was a reluctance, voiced by Conservative prime minister Arthur Meighen, to impose upon them the regime that had so obviously undermined other Native peoples. Control was transferred to the Northwest Territories council in 1927, but this did not resolve the troubling question. Indeed, when faced with the support of the Inuit in its north, Quebec resorted to the courts to get Ottawa to take up its responsibilities. In a case called Reference re Eskimos, decided in 1939, the Supreme Court determined that the Inuit were, for administrative purposes at least, to be considered as Indians under the British North America Act. (This decision was based on the understanding of how they were viewed at the time of Confederation.) This did not result in the application of the Indian Act to them, but did resolve the question as to who was ultimately responsible for their welfare.

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The question went to the Supreme Court, which finally ruled in 1939 that the Inuit were Indians under the terms of the BNA Act—and hence the responsibility of the federal government, no matter where in Canada they lived. What the ruling would actually mean in practice was not to be worked out until after the Second World War.

Written By

Kerry Abel
Adjunct Professor
Carleton University
This is a brief description of Kerry Abel

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