Zebedee Nungak | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Zebedee Nungak

Zebedee Nungak, OQ, Inuit activist, politician, author, journalist, broadcaster (born 23 April 1951 in Saputiligait, QC). Zebedee Nungak is an Inuit leader from Nunavik, Quebec. He represented Inuit interests in negotiations with the provincial and federal governments. He was a key negotiator of, and is a signatory to, the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Additionally, he co-chaired the Inuit Committee on National Issues from 1984 to 1987 and was president of Makivvik Corporation from 1995 to 1998.

Early Years

Zebedee Nungak was born into a traditional Inuit way of life in the small community of Saputiligait in the Nunavik region of Quebec. Saputiligait is on the northeastern Hudson Bay coast south of Puvirnituq. He was assigned the disc number E9-1956.

Nungak attended the Povungnituk Federal Day School. Based upon his success in this school, he was chosen by the Canadian federal government to be educated in the south. In 1962, two Inuit boys, Peter Ittinuar and Eric Tagoona from communities in Nunavut, were taken from their families and sent to Ottawa to attend school. In 1963, 12-year-old Nungak was also sent to Ottawa to attend school. They lived with middle-class, white, English-speaking families.

The three men were unknowingly part of the “Eskimo Experiment,” run by the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources (see also Federal Departments of Indigenous and Northern Affairs). The plan was to assimilate the boys and educate them to become northern leaders with a southern, Euro-Canadian way of thinking. The boys spent six years in Ottawa and had little contact with their families in the North. They only flew home for summer vacation.

Nungak has stated he was both a beneficiary and a victim of his southern experience. He learned about Shakespeare and calculus, yet had limited knowledge of his own Inuit culture, traditions and northern survival skills.

In 1997, the men learned they had been part of an experiment. They filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 2008 for their forced removal and assimilation. The 2009 documentary Experimental Eskimos highlights their story.

Nungak returned home in the 1970s fluent in Inuktitut and English. He worked for the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development as a translator and interpreter. He used his knowledge of the ways of both the southern Qallunaat (white people) and the northern Nunavimmiut (Nunavik Inuit) to advance the cause of his people. He was editor for the trilingual newsletter Tukisinaqtuk, and later worked as a broadcaster for a bilingual Inuktitut-English CBC North radio show.

Negotiating Inuit Rights

In 1971, the Quebec government began hydroelectric power projects on James Bay (see James Bay Project) without consulting the Inuit and Cree living in the region. In response, Zebedee Nungak and Charlie Watt established the Northern Quebec Inuit Association (NQIA). This organization was meant to represent and protect the interests of Nunavik Inuit. Nungak’s southern training was an asset in advancing the establishment of Inuit self-government.

The Inuit joined forces with the Cree and applied to the Quebec Superior Court for an injunction to stop the project. The court ruled in their favour. After years of negotiations, Nungak was one of the 11 Inuit signatories to the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). It was the first Inuit land claim in Canada.

Makivvik Corporation was formed to manage Inuit rights and the $225 million compensation funds from the JBNQA settlement. Nungak was president of Makivvik Corporation from 1995 to 1998.

From 1984 to 1987, Nungak was co-chair of the Inuit Committee on National Issues, negotiating with the Canadian government for Inuit rights to be included in the Constitution.

Lauded Author

Zebedee Nungak is a prolific writer, having published over 60 articles in Canadian magazines. He is an ardent advocate of Inuktitut. His writings promote Inuit stories, culture and language. He has published in English and Inuktitut in Inuktitut, Windspeaker, Atuaqnik and Taqralik. Nungak’s writing often satirizes what he calls qallunology, the Inuit study of white people. His film Qallunaat! Why White People are Funny plays this up.

Qallunaat! Why White People Are Funny, Mark Sandiford, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

In 2017, Nungak received the National Order of Quebec in recognition of his contributions in service to the Inuit of Nunavik.

Nungak lives in Kangirsuk with his wife, Jeannie. They have seven children.