Date of Award

August 2019

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


John S. Burdick


Indigenous Studies, Inuit, Leadership, Nunavut, Social Movements, Women

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


This is a qualitative study of the 30-year land claim negotiation process (1963-1993) through which the Inuit of Nunavut transformed themselves from being a marginalized population with few recognized rights in Canada to becoming the overwhelmingly dominant voice in a territorial government, with strong rights over their own lands and waters. In this study I view this negotiation process and all of the activities that supported it as part of a larger Inuit Movement and argue that it meets the criteria for a social movement. This study bridges several social sciences disciplines, including newly emerging areas of study in social movements, conflict resolution, and Indigenous studies, and offers important lessons about the conditions for a successful mobilization for Indigenous rights in other states.

In this research I examine the extent to which Inuit values and worldviews directly informed movement emergence and continuity, leadership development and, to some extent, negotiation strategies. While I originally set out to deconstruct all factors that led to the creation of Nunavut – looking for a model for successful Indigenous movement outcomes – I found the focus of my work increasingly gravitating toward a more detailed study of Inuit ontology and the ways it shaped movement leaders and actors, but also how movement leaders and actors helped shape and define Inuit ontology.

Throughout the Inuit movement in Nunavut, Inuit ontology underwent a reflexive process of canonization resulting in a coherent philosophical framework that can be placed on a par with those emerging from more well-known European traditions. I used the outcome of this process to evaluate the narratives and rhetoric of movement actors on their philosophical constancy.

This case study strengthens the argument put forth by Marshall Ganz that social movement outcomes are directly informed by life experiences, particularly those of leaders. Ganz argues that those experiences were essential in shaping their thought processes, their motivations, their repertoires of collective action, and their extensive use of networks (Ganz, 2000, p. 1005). This particular study of one part of the Inuit movement that took place in Nunavut not only affirms Ganz’ arguments, but by looking at the relationship between Inuit ontology and leadership, helps to provide a model for how – at least in this one case – the life experiences of social movement actors directly inform both.

Analysis of the narratives and life stories of over 120 movement participants suggests that the degree to which members of a movement’s leadership share common life experiences, experiences working with each other in other contexts outside of the social movement (in this case through kinship ties), and ontological thought or worldviews may determine the degree to which they are able to achieve unity and maintain continuity over time. More specifically, culturally and experientially-rooted common understandings of leadership, common ways of dealing with internal conflict, and clearly defined and effective modes of leadership oriented cultural reproduction helped the Inuit leadership and Inuit organizations remain or appear cohesive for almost three decades.

As with most movements, the core number of actors in the Inuit movement was small; movement continuity did not depend upon recruiting and maintaining large numbers of people. The process of choosing movement members was mostly closed, and therefore far more likely to include Inuit from common leadership backgrounds who shared similar worldviews and were tied to each other through kinship. Many other factors, including those that fall under the more traditional purview of political opportunity frameworks, must be taken into account when looking at any movement as a whole. However, as this study has shown, far more attention needs to be paid not only to the life experiences of a movement’s leadership, but also to the ontological thought or worldviews (shared or divergent) that helped shape or give meaning to those experiences.


Open Access