Our Language Rights Canada Conference 2023 February 22nd Keynote - Aaju Peter
Updated: Jan 25
This biographical note is based on the available written material from a collective research by the trilingual Inuit Literature Site at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Please visit the site to find out more about the Inuit men and women who have written about their culture, their territory, and their vision of the world, and to discover their perception of history.
Aaju Peter, is an activist, lawyer, clothing designer and musician born in Arkisserniaq, a village in northern Greenland. She grew up in a nomadic Inuit family, who moved along the west coast of the island, following the postings of her father, a pastor and teacher. Aaju Peter's parents sent her to Denmark when she was eleven years old to attend high school, where she learned to speak Danish and read English, German, French and Latin. During these school years, she almost lost her native language and culture, and she was teased about it when she returned to Greenland at the age of 18. In the early 1980s, she married a man from the Canadian Arctic and moved to Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit). As a mother of five, left to raise children on her own, she immersed herself in Inuit culture and learned to speak Inuktitut and English. It is in her adopted homeland, which became Nunavut in 1999, that Aaju Peter settled and pursued her life interests.
In the 1980s, Aaju Peter became an interpreter and worked as a volunteer in various cultural organizations and women’s groups. She helped establish a shelter for Inuit women who were victims of domestic violence and a food bank in Iqaluit. In 2020, the Iqaluit Women's Shelter is still one of the only shelters for Inuit women in the Canadian Arctic. Aaju Peter was also involved in the construction of the Iqaluit breakwater as a heavy equipment operator. The lack of infrastructure in the Canadian Arctic or its inadequacy for modern life has been a constant concern for her.
In the late 1990s, Aaju Peter began training in Inuit studies at Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit. Her academic background and interest in Inuit advocacy led her to enroll in the Akitsiraq Law School, a legal education program established in Iqaluit in 1999 to address the shortage of lawyers and judges in Nunavut. At the time, there was only one Inuit lawyer in the young territory, Paul Okalik, a future Premier of Nunavut. The Akitsiraq Law School allows its students, who are often responsible for their families, to undertake funded studies without having to travel south. Aaju Peter was awarded the McCarthy Tetrault Award for academic excellence in her first year of study. In 2005, she received her Bachelor of Law degree from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, after four years of study and articling at Nelligan, O'Brien and Payne, a law firm based in Ottawa, Ontario. She was called to the Bar in 2007 and has since been an advocate for the rights of Inuit communities, from the right to hunt and make a living from the seal hunt to the right to be involved in any political decision-making in Arctic waters.
As a lawyer, she has written several articles on the rights of Inuit communities: "The seal: An integral part of our culture" (2002), "How do you reconcile International Sovereignty Claims within Inuit Homelands?” (2005) and "Inuit use and occupation" (2013). In 2007, accompanied by her son Aggu, Aaju Peter travelled to The Hague (Netherlands) to challenge a European bill banning the importation of seal products. She continues to bring the Inuit perspective on the issue to the public, including coordinating the "Celebration of the Seal" event in Iqaluit in March 2008, and in 2009, wearing the traditional sealskin parka, the amauti, as she addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. The bill was passed by a majority vote and Aaju Peter denounced the hypocrisy of such a measure, as well as the economic disaster it causes for Inuit hunters. Aaju Peter's activism has earned her recognition from the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (Inuit Association of Canada), with an Advancement of International Issues Award in 2008. Already featured in John Walker's documentary Arctic Defenders (2013), which traces the genesis of Nunavut, Aaju Peter is also featured in Alethea Arnaquq-Baril's documentary Angry Inuk (2016), released in French (under the title Inuk en colère) and in Spanish in 2017, which chronicles the struggle of Inuit communities against European regulations on seal products, and which was awarded multiples prizes.
An advocate for her community about the European boycott of seal products, Aaju Peter is also a craftswoman and designer. Indeed, her rediscovery of Inuit culture and traditions in the 1980s, allowed her to learn how to work with sealskin. She soon designed vests, coats, slippers, mittens and bags, blending traditional Inuit designs with a contemporary style. The most notable of her creations is the sealskin coat she designed for the Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson. In September 2004, she participated as a designer in the Vestnorden Arts and Crafts Symposium in Reykjavík, Iceland. In 2011, when she received the Order of Canada for her contributions to the preservation and promotion of Inuit culture and the Inuktitut language, she wore a self-made amauti and expressed the wish that her two-year-old granddaughter may one day wear a similar garment. In 2018, a parka by Aaju Peter was displayed along with other traditional Inuit clothing in an exhibition organized by the American explorer Matty McNair at the Nunavut Parliament. Fashion design is not the only means by which Aaju Peter defends and transmits her community's culture. In 2008, by participating as a performer in the filming of Tuuniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos (2010, 2011), a documentary by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, she was tattooed on her forehead, chin and hands with traditional Inuit designs that she wears proudly. In 2009, she lent her voice to the audiobook devoted to the diary of Abraham Ulrikab, a Labrador Inuit who tragically died in 1881 while exiled in a Parisian garden exhibition.
Aaju Peter is also a musician and singer. In 2007, her first album, The Third Age, was released, bringing together Inuit songs and musical classics from Greenland. In the fall of 2012, when the National Arts Centre Orchestra toured the Canadian Arctic (Iqaluit, Yellowknife, Whitehorse, Pangnirtung, Rankin Inlet), Aaju Peter was among the artists invited to give workshops. Since 2010, she has travelled across Canada, Greenland and Europe to perform drum dancing and traditional song recitals, as well as present her clothing creations.
In addition to her work as a lawyer, activist, fashion designer and musician, Aaju Peter is involved in the development and promotion of school and university programs for Inuit communities. She teaches Inuktitut at Nunavut Sivuniksavut in Ottawa, while also serving as a cultural advisor and lecturer for the Nunavut Law Program. Aaju Peter is an inter-generational cultural facilitator, regularly collecting Inuit customary law from community elders on behalf of Nunavut's Minister of Justice.
The desire to pass on Inuit culture has also prompted Aaju Peter to become involved as a guide and advisor in the Arctic tourism industry in Canada and Greenland. As an expert in Inuit culture, she has been asked to participate in the writing of books dedicated to the subject, for both Inuit and non-Inuit. She wrote the preface for Arctic Kaleidoscope: The People, Wildlife and Ever-changing Landscape (2013) by Michelle Valberg and Julie Beun, and the chapter "Moon, seasons, and stars" published in Inuit Worldviews: An Introduction (2017) by Jarich Oosten and Frédéric Legrand. In October 2019, Aaju Peter was a guest speaker at the 21st Congress of Inuit Studies in Montreal, along with Lisa Qiluqqi Koperqualuk and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (among others), promoting the need for a university in the Canadian Arctic with a program focused on the transmission of Inuit knowledge.
Aaju Peter currently lives in Iqaluit, Nunavut where she continues her activist and artistic work. In the film Twice Colonized by Danish director Lin Alluna, released January 21, 2023, at the Sundance Film Festival, she traces the personal drama of her son's death and her quest for justice that brought her before her colonizers, both in Canada and Greenland.