Statement – Tribute to Senator Charlie Watt, 30 Years in the Senate
February 26, 2014
Senator Charlie Watt stands out amongst Aboriginal Leaders in Canada and in the north. I have high respect for him and wish to explain why now that he has marked his thirtieth year in this place. Our history in northern Canada has been marked by those who have had the courage to stand up for their people.
You know, Inuit – or Eskimos as they are still described in other parts of the world, are very well known and highly regarded. One of the best known qualities of Inuit is what has been described as their benign approach to confrontation – reflected in the image of the smiling Eskimo. The great anthropologist, Jean Briggs, who lived amongst Inuit in the 1960s, wrote a book which celebrated this engaging quality of the Inuit, titled Never in Anger.
This is a quality which is admired and has endeared Inuit to all those with whom they have been in contact, from early explorers, whalers, traders, missionaries, anthropologists and government officials and even politicians.
But this quality has sometimes made Inuit vulnerable and victims of arbitrary authoritarians. They shared their hunting grounds, their knowledge of survival with waves of invaders: explorers, whalers, traders and clergy. Where the visitors to the harsh land and climate occupied by Inuit were wise enough to avail themselves of that generosity of spirit and goodwill of the Inuit, they profited greatly – often to mutual benefit. One thinks of Amundsen, Rasmussen and Arctic explorers of their ilk, who sought the assistance and expertise of the Inuit, wore their clothing, ate their food, learned how to use dogs for transportation of people and cargo. But those who were stubborn, like the imperious British explorer Franklin, who clung to wool instead of fur clothing, stiff cow leather instead of supple sealskin boots, who made their own men pull sledges instead of relying on surefooted Inuit husky dogs; paid with their lives.
Also in our history, there were some who tried to steamroll over that good nature of the Inuit for exploitative purposes. This happened in James Bay and Northern Quebec in the 1970s, where a powerful Premier, intoxicated with a vision of hydropower as the means to turn Quebec into an economic powerhouse, backed by Wall Street and big banks; had a plan to steamroll over the indigenous residents of Nunavik, Senator Watt’s lifelong home region.
Many felt powerless to stop this juggernaut. But stop it they did – Charlie Watt and Mark Gordon and a stalwart band of Inuit rebels tied up that massive economic project with a demand that their land claims be settled before it was built. In 1972, the Northern Quebec Inuit Association, an organization he founded joined with the Quebec Association of Indians to apply for an injunction to stop the hydro project of the century in the Quebec Superior Court. It was David against Goliath. But by 1975, the Inuit had successfully negotiated the first major comprehensive land claims agreement in northern Canada, heralding a new era in aboriginal land claims.
Charlie Watt was not to be steamrolled. He stood out amongst his fellow Inuit because he was not willing to see the lands and waters of his home region exploited without respect to his people.
Reviewing Senator Watt’s marvellous career to this day, I have a renewed sense of gratitude for his leadership and inspiration to the Inuit and Aboriginal people of Canada. He has always stood up for the rights of his people but was also always a loyal Canadian.
He attracted national attention in the referendum for Quebec sovereignty in 1980 by delivering the Inuit vote against sovereignty. The legend is that Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau rewarded Charlie Watt with a Senate appointment that year. But it was not only his leadership during the sovereignty referendum that earned Charlie Watt his Senate appointment. It was his heroic work as champion of the Inuit against the James Bay Hydro project and also his involvement as co-Chair of the Inuit Committee on National Issues pushing for the rights of Aboriginal people to be recognized in the repatriated Constitution of Canada, also recognized by Senator Joyal during this Inquiry, which led to his appointment to the Senate thirty years ago by Prime Minister Trudeau.
But that was not the only time Senator Watt was noticed in high offices in Ottawa. As a newly married apprentice in mechanical engineering, working for Indian and Northern Affairs in his home region in 1964, Charlie kept his ear to the ground and became concerned that the province of Quebec was trampling over the rights of Inuit, seeking to take over responsibility for the Inuit of his homeland, and that Canada was unaware that this was happening, ignoring their fiduciary responsibilities to the Inuit.
So Charlie wrote and expressed his concern to the then Leader of the Opposition, John Diefenbaker. Charlie found a willing and understanding ear in Mr. Diefenbaker. “Young man, when you take up a fight, you carry it through”, Mr. Diefenbaker told him over the telephone in stentorian tones. Hearing that distinctive voice over the telephone where he was then taking further apprenticeship training in Brandon, Manitoba, all the young Charlie Watt could say was “yes, sir.” And so began an ongoing relationship with Diefenbaker, a great champion of human rights and so began the career of Charlie Watt another champion of human rights who we honour in this Chamber
But this fight was not without struggles. The Department of Indian Affairs was not happy with the political activism of their young employee. He was called to Ottawa to meet the Deputy Minister who told him: “Young man, you have no right to speak on behalf of your people. Only Bishop Marsh can do that.”
But Bishop Donald Marsh, Anglican Bishop of the Arctic, was Charlie’s friend and Charlie knew that Bishop March would not agree with that. “Don’t you think it’s about time we started to voice are own opinions. We are the original people. We were here first,” he told the Deputy, courageously adding “Are you done?” He turned to walk out of that office. This was at a time when Deputy Ministers were like kings in the federal hierarchy. On his way out of that august office, the Deputy changed his tune. “Can you work for us as a liaison with the Inuit,” he asked Charlie. “Some day we will meet again when I have my plan worked out,” Charlie told him, as he walked out the door.
Not long after, a regional administrator newly arrived from France, told Charlie he would be transferred from his home community of Fort Chimo, now Kuujuaq, to remote George River, now Kangiqsualujjuaq. Transfer or else, Charlie was told. Now with a wife and two young children to feed, he had no choice.
He had been sent far away from home to pursue his education: Yellowknife, Halifax, Churchill, Manitoba. But I’ve never heard Charlie complain about this. And he never lost touch with his culture and connections to the land.
No, neither isolation nor the residential school experience prevented Charlie Watt from carrying on the struggle for recognition of his people. With the late Mark Gordon, who lost his life in the struggle, Charlie won recognition of Inuit rights in the James Bay and Northern Quebec comprehensive land claims settlement. Charlie went on to become the founding President of NQIA and the Makivik Corporation, created by the land claim. He’s known for founding the Inuit Committee on National Issues, with Zebedee Nungak and later John Amagoalik and Peter Ittinuar, and successfully pushing for the recognition of Aboriginal Rights in s. 35 of the repatriated Constitution of Canada, a feat recognized by Senator Joyal earlier in this inquiry.
Charlie has stayed involved since his appointment to the Senate in 1984. When he thought something was wrong, he spoke up. In 2008, he spoke up against board members of First Air, an airline he had been President of, saying he was “disgusted” they paid themselves large bonuses from the company’s profits. It is wrong, he said, especially when Nunavik communities are suffering and people are having problems paying their bills, finding suitable housing and dealing with the high cost of living.
And Charlie Watt has been a champion of his people in this place, fighting valiantly for tax relief for his region, speaking out against declining purchasing power and the high cost of living. He introduced Bill S – 277, an Act to amend the Income Tax act and Excise Tax Act, and has been a strong advocate for standardizing and strengthening the non-derogation clause through amendments to the Interpretation Act – Bill S -207.
Senator Charlie Watt, my friend, I salute you for your service and I am honoured to have been sponsored by you when I was sworn into this august body. You bring credit and honour to this place. We may stand on opposite sides of this Chamber, but you will always be my friend and you will always have my respect.
Innunut pimmariujutit, uppinaqtutit, Inuksiavaujutit qujanamiimarialuk