An Inupiaq man living in the Northwest Territories is fighting a deportation order that would see him sent back to Alaska.
In 2018, Herman Oyagak travelled across the Arctic by snowmobile so he could live with his wife, Carol Oyagak, in her home community of Aklavik, N.W.T., about 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.
Three years later, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) moved to deport him. He was arrested, taken to Yellowknife, and released on bond.
He’s to be deported to Juneau, Alaska — a city he has never been to — on Dec. 13.
“I don’t even want to think about that date,” said Carol. “I don’t even want to put into words how I’m going to feel or what I’m going to do.”
Oyagak was deemed inadmissible to Canada due to criminality, according to his lawyer Nick Sowsun.
He was convicted in Alaska of criminal mischief for property damage under $250 and, before that, of offences like burglary and poaching walrus off the Alaskan coast, Sowsun said.
A respected member of the 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 … Herman is now five years married, three years sober.”
In Aklavik, Oyagak is a traditional harvester and is well-known 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.
Aklavik is “where my wife was born and raised [and] Aklavik is a good place for me.”
The couple has received many letters of support from others in the community who do not want to see Oyagak separated from his family in Aklavik, where his wife’s son calls him “dad” and her nearly 80-year-old mother calls him “son.”
‘An affront’ to cultural traditions
The pending deportation is “not about protecting the community or Canada, it is about blindly the following process,” according to Duane Ningaqsiq Smith, chair and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation.
“Indigenous rights take legal precedence over process,” he said in a statement against the deportation.
Sowsun is arguing that — under the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People and the Constitution Act of Canada — Oyagak has the right to stay.
“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.
Carol said she is “really frustrated” with how her husband is being treated.
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.”
Sowsun will ask the CBSA to defer the deportation order. Failing that, Sowsun says he will take the case to federal court.
A representative of the CBSA was not immediately available to comment.
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.”