‘We’re going to fight this’: Deportation of Inupiaq man living in Canada deferred
Published December 10, 2021 at 4:00 am
Herman Oyagak first travelled to Aklavik, N.W.T., from his home in Alaska by snowmobile in 2018, a trip that takes about 18 hours.
It’s a journey he does regularly now with his wife Carol, who grew up in the town of about 600 people above the Arctic Circle.
The couple, who are in their 50s, share a home in Aklavik and follow a traditional lifestyle of hunting and travelling on the land.
Their lives nearly changed when a call from the Canadian Border Services Agency said Oyagak was to be deported to Alaska on Monday.
The deportation order was deferred on Dec. 2. The couple is relieved but also uneasy.
“When I first walked into the house, I didn’t know anything about it, and my wife started crying, giving me a hug,” Oyagak told The Canadian Press.
His wife showed him the letter from the agency saying his deportation had been deferred.
“I just couldn’t believe it until I started reading it. As I was reading it, over and over and over, I just started crying.”
The deportation is based on Oyagak’s criminal conviction in 2015 for property damage under $250 when he broke a phone by throwing it at a wall.
“They started explaining to us that they were coming on Dec. 13 to pick up Herman,” his wife said.
“I said, ‘We’re going to fight this. We’re going to fight this.’ We were trying not to cry.”
Oyagak said he was deemed inadmissible to Canada because of the conviction. He was arrested and taken to Yellowknife where he was released on bond.
Border services said it could not comment on Oyagak’s case for privacy reasons.
The couple, like many Aklavik residents, still lives a traditional Inuit life living off the land.
“I just wake up and I think about hunting,” Oyagak said.
One of the conditions of his bond is that he has to make weekly calls to the border services agency, which means he has to be near a phone.
“We’d rather be out on the land. But since this came about, we’re kind of restricted from living our traditional life,” Oyagak’s wife said.
“We have the inherent right to go back and forth. We’ve been doing that for thousands of years and still continue to do it today,” she added.
Nick Sowsun, Oyagak’s lawyer, argues that his client has a right to be in the Northwest Territories and the deportation order violates his Indigenous rights.
“The Inuvialuit of Aklavik and the Inupiat in Alaska have very close cultural ties, social ties, and blood relations. They are both Inuit. Before land claims … these were considered to be one people,” Sowsun said.
“The land-claims process separated them into two different groups, and the border now divides families and friends. For these people, this border is arbitrary and is an affront to their social and cultural traditions.”
In a statement, Duane Ningaqsiq Smith, of the Inuvialuit Regional Corp. said deporting Oyagak is about Canada “blindly following process.”
“This failure to consider the rights of Indigenous people and their unique relationship with Canada is deeply concerning to Inuvialuit and should be concerning to all Canadians,” he said. “Indigenous rights take legal precedence over process.”
Although Oyagak is back home with his wife in Aklavik, he knows there is still a risk he could be deported.
“We’re going to fight the fight to continue our lives together,” he said.
Oyagak has applied for permanent residency based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. If approved, the deportation order would be nullified.
“I’m just glad that I’m still here with my wife and I pray every day that we continue to live together in Aklavik.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 10, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Emma Tranter, The Canadian Pressinsauga's Editorial Standards and Policies advertising