John Amagoalik | The Canadian Encyclopedia


John Amagoalik

John Amagoalik, OC, ONu, leader, activist, politician, writer (born 26 November 1947 in Tasialuk, QC). John Amagoalik is an Inuit leader sometimes known as John A., the Father of Nunavut (see also Fathers of Confederation; Nunavut and Confederation). His leadership and involvement helped in the creation of the territory of Nunavut on 1 April 1999. He was instrumental in the signing of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement in 1993 and helped plan Nunavut’s government structure. Also, he lobbied the federal government to apologize and compensate Inuit for damages caused by the forced relocation of families to the High Arctic and the killing of sled dogs (see Inuit High Arctic Relocations in Canada).

John Amagoalik

Early Years

John Amagoalik was born north of Inukjuak in the Nunavik region of Quebec to a traditional Inuit hunting and gathering way of life. In 1953, when he was five, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police persuaded his parents to move. His parents were told game was more plentiful there. Seven families from the Inukjuak area were moved 2,000 km north to the High Arctic (see Inuit High Arctic Relocations in Canada). Three families from Mittimatalik (also known as Pond Inlet) on northern Baffin Island were also relocated. The federal government believed those families could help the families from Inukjuak learn to live in the High Arctic.

Broken Promises - The High Arctic Relocation, Patricia Tassinari, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

The government promised they would remain together. However, the group was split in two. Half of the families were dropped off on southern Ellesmere Island. Amagoalik’s family was with the group deposited on a gravel beach near Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island.

Resolute Bay, Nunavut in 2002

It was a desolate place. The climate was colder and harsher than Inukjuak and Mittimatalik. This far north, winter months included 24-hour darkness. They were not provided shelter and lived in the tents they brought. Furthermore, animals were not as plentiful as government officials told them.

The government also reneged on its promise to return people to their homeland after two years if they chose to leave. The families were effectively forced to live in the High Arctic. They starved and suffered extreme hardship.

Amagoalik attended school in Resolute Bay. In 1964, he went to residential school in Churchill, Manitoba. When his father was diagnosed with tuberculosis, Amagoalik left school to support his mother.

Political Life

From 1971 to 1974, John Amagoalik worked as the Baffin Regional Information Officer for the Government of the Northwest Territories. He was a proponent of Inuit self-government of their own territory. From 1977 to 1979, he was head of the NWT Inuit Land Claims Commission. In this position, he actively championed the creation of an Inuit homeland called Nunavut. Nunavut means “our land” in Inuktitut.

In 1979, Amagoalik was the vice-president and director of land claims for the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (now Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami [ITK]) based in Ottawa. This organization protects and advances the rights and interests of Inuit. He then served two terms as president of ITK from 1981 to 1985 and 1988 to 1991. From 1980 to 1983, he was a member of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference’s Executive Council. He was also co-chair of the Inuit Committee on National Issues from 1982 to 1985. From 1986 to 1987, he was chair of the Nunavut Constitutional Forum. This was an association representing all Canadian Inuit in constitutional matters.

In 1991, Amagoalik worked as a constitutional and political advisor to Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut (now Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated). In 1993, he returned to Iqaluit. The association was created to negotiate the Nunavut land claims agreement with the Government of Canada. After the ratification of the Nunavut Act in 1993, Amagoalik was appointed chief commissioner of the 10-member Nunavut Implementation Commission. This commission oversaw the creation of Nunavut. It focussed on detailed planning and designing of the government structure of the new territory. The new government would be culturally based, with Inuktitut as its working language.

Amagoalik continued to advance Inuit rights (see also Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada). He pursued compensation for Inuit families, like his own, who were relocated to the High Arctic (see Inuit High Arctic Relocations in Canada). Survivors of the relocation have coined the term High Arctic Exiles for themselves. In this work, he lobbied the federal government to acknowledge the human tragedy caused by the High Arctic relocation.

He said, “In order for forgiveness to be given there must be truth and an acknowledgement of what happened.” Research found that the intent behind the relocation was to uphold Canada’s Arctic sovereignty requirements of occupation. The federal government made a formal apology in 2010. Additionally, it made financial compensation to the relocated families.

Amagoalik participated in the Qikiqtani Truth Commission’s inquiry into the killing of qimmiit (sled dogs). In August 2019, Carolyn Bennet, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, presented the government’s apology for harmful colonial actions between 1950 and 1975. These actions included forced relocation of Inuit and killing of qimmiit. Compensation included $20 million in funding for Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) programs. Amagoalik worked as a policy advisor for QIA.

Amagoalik wrote a regular column, “My Little Corner of Canada,” for Nunatsiaq News from 1995 to 2016. He has published articles in Inuit Today magazine. In 2007, he published his autobiography, Changing the Face of Canada: The Life Story of John Amagoalik, in English, Inuktitut and French. He appeared in documentaries promoting Inuit rights, such as Qallunaat! Why White People Are Funny (2006), Martha of the North (2008) and Arctic Defenders (2013).

John Amagoalik lives in Iqaluit. He and his wife Evie have four sons as well as grandchildren.

Recognition & Awards

John Amagoalik has received numerous accolades for his leadership and contributions to Nunavut. In honour of his work, Qikiqtani Inuit Association provides the $5,000 John Amagoalik Scholarship to Qikiqtani Inuit post-secondary students. Additionally, QIA gave Amagoalik a Special Recognition Award.