An Inupiaq man living in Aklavik, Northwest Territories, opposes deportation to Alaska.
Herman Oyagak has been residing in Canada with his wife for the last three years.
An Inupiaq man living in the Northwest Territories is battling deportation to Alaska.
Herman Oyagak traveled across the Arctic on snowmobile in 2018 to live with his wife, Carol Oyagak, in her hometown of Aklavik, Northwest Territories, some 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle.
Three years later, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) initiated deportation proceedings against him. He was detained and transported to Yellowknife, where he was freed on bond.
On Dec. 13, he is scheduled to be deported to Juneau, Alaska – a city he has never visited.
"I'm not even going to consider that date," Carol stated. "I'm at a loss for words as to how I'm going to feel or what I'm going to do."
According to his lawyer, Nick Sowsun, Oyagak was deemed ineligible to Canada due to his criminal record.
He was previously convicted in Alaska of criminal mischief for property damage under $250, as well as burglary and walrus hunting off the Alaskan coast, Sowsun added.
Respected community member
However, Sowsun stated that since meeting Carol during an Alaskan drum dance festival, Oyagak has developed a reputation as a respected member of his community.
"Herman and Carol began a new life together," he explained. "Herman achieved sobriety, strengthened his ties to his customs and culture, and was rehabilitated... Herman has been married for five years and is three years sober."
Oyagak is a traditional harvester in Aklavik, where he is well-known for his understanding of the land and language. Additionally, he is a part of several local dance and drum groups.
"Since I've been here, I've met everyone and everyone has met me," Oyagak explained.
Aklavik is "where my wife was born and raised," and "it's a good fit for me."
The pair has received numerous letters of support from community members opposed to Oyagak being separated from his family in Aklavik, where his wife's son refers to him as "dad" and her nearly 80-year-old mother refers to him as "son."
'A slap in the face of cultural traditions'
According to Duane Ningaqsiq Smith, chair and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, the impending deportation is "not about defending the people or Canada; it is about blindly following process."
"Indigenous rights take precedence over process in the judicial system," he stated in a statement opposing the deportation.
Sowsun argues that Oyagak has the right to remain under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian Constitution Act.
"The Inuvialuit and Inupiat in Alaska have extremely strong cultural, societal, and blood links," Sowsun explained.
"Both are Inuit. And they were considered one people prior to the land claims procedure. They were divided into two groups throughout the land claims process, and the line now separates families and friends. This barrier is arbitrary and an affront to their social and cultural norms, according to these people. For thousands of years, they have crossed this barrier in order to engage in social and familial interactions.
Carol expressed her "extreme dissatisfaction" with the way her husband is being treated.
She stated that her family's request is simple: they should not be penalized for traveling the same route over the Arctic Circle as Inuit people have done for "hundreds and hundreds of years."
"All we want is to live our lives," she explained. "All we want is to live a happy little life with our family in our small village."
Sowsun will request a stay of deportation from the CBSA. In the absence of that, Sowsun has stated that he will take the case to federal court.
The CBSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
If Oyagak is deported, Sowsun believes he will be denied entry to Canada for many years, if at all.
That would be a tragic conclusion for the family.
"It would be extremely heartbreaking if I left my wife," Oyagak explained. "For me, it's a little difficult to accept that all of this is happening. I can't believe all of this is occurring right now." " We cry every day, hoping for the best. I'm wishing for the best."