An Inupiaq man living in the Northwest Territories is fighting a deportation order that would see him sent back across the border to Alaska.
In 2018, Herman Oyagak travelled across the Arctic Ocean by snowmobile so he could live with his wife, Carol Oyagak, in her home community of Aklavik, N.W.T., located about 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle.
Three years later, when the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) found out about his presence in Canada, they moved to deport him.
He was arrested by the RCMP and taken to Yellowknife, where he was then released on bond.
If nothing changes, Oyagak will be deported to Juno, Alaska — a city he has never been to — on Dec. 13.
“I don’t even want to think about that date,” said Carol Oyagak, “I want this resolved before that date. … To have that date and the thought of them coming to pick up my husband and take them away from me, I don’t even want to put into words how I’m going to feel or what I’m going to do.”
Nick Sowsun, Oyagak’s lawyer, said his client was found inadmissible to Canada due to criminality — in Alaska, he was convicted of criminal mischief for property damage under $250.
“That relates to an incident in early 2015 where Herman threw a phone against a wall and damaged the phone,” said Sowsun.
Before that, Sowsun said Oyagak had also been convicted of offences like burglary and poaching walrus off the Alaskan coast.
Respected member of community
But since meeting Carol at a drum dance festival in Alaska, Sowsun said Oyagak has become a respected member of his community.
“Together, Herman and Carol started a new life,” he said. “Herman became sober, deepened his connections to his traditions and culture, and he became rehabilitated. And when Carol moved back to Canada to be with her family in Aklavik, Herman joined her there.
“Herman is now five years married, three years sober and three years a respected community member in Aklavik, but the Canadian government is attempting to deport Herman.”
In Aklavik, Oyagak is a traditional harvester and is well-known in the community for his knowledge of the land and the language. He is also a member of the local dance and drum groups.
“Ever since I’ve been here, I got to know everybody and everybody got to know me,” said Oyagak. “I see Aklavik as a good place. It’s where my wife was born and raised [and] Aklavik is a good place for me, as far as I see it. … Ever since I’ve been here, it’s been my daily thing, trying to support our family and the community.”
The couple have received many letters of support from others in the community who do not want to see Oyagak sent back to Alaska separated from his family in Aklavik, where his wife’s son calls him “Dad” and her nearly 80-year-old mother calls him “Son.”
“In all the support letters we get, a lot of people say that we’re a good example of what true love is,” said Carol.
Border ‘an affront’ to cultural traditions
The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC) also released a statement opposing the deportation.
“Deporting Mr. Oyagak is not about protecting the community or Canada, it is about blindly following process,” IRC chair and CEO Duane Ningaqsiq Smith said in the statement.
“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. Indigenous rights take legal precedence over process.”
Under the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People and the Constitution Act of Canada, Sowsun is arguing that Oyagak has the right to stay in Aklavik rather than being sent back across the border.
“The Inuvialuit and Inupiat in Alaska, they have very close cultural ties, social ties and blood relations,” said Sowsun.
“They’re both Inuit. And before the land claims process, they were considered to be one people. The land claims process separated them into two groups, and the border now divides families and friends. For these people, this border is arbitrary and it’s an affront to their social and cultural traditions. They have been travelling across this border for thousands of years to engage in social and familial relations.
“Canada’s use of this border as a tool to forcibly separate Inuit families is unjust and it is a violation of Inuit rights under international law to travel to be with their social and familial relations.”
As this process has moved forward, Carol Oyagak said she is “really frustrated” with how her husband is being treated.
“I’m born and raised in Canada,” she said. “And I feel — how could this government do this to me? How could they not recognize us?”
She said her family is not asking for much — just that they not be penalized for travelling along the same route through the Arctic Circle that Inuit people have taken for “hundreds and hundreds of years.”
“We just want to live our life,” she said. “We just want to live our happy little life in our small town with our family.”
As Oyagak’s case moves forward, Sowsun will be asking the CBSA to defer the deportation order. If it doesn’t approve the deferral, Sowsun said he will take the case to federal court to seek a judicial review of the decision.
A representative of the CBSA was not immediately available to comment on this case.
If Oyagak is deported, Sowsun said he would likely not be allowed back in Canada for many years — if at all.
For the family, that would be a devastating outcome.
“It would just be so heartbreaking if I leave my wife,” said Oyagak. “For me, it’s kind of hard to believe all this is happening. I just can’t believe all this is happening and it’s happening now.
“We cry daily, wishing for the best. Praying for the best.”