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The Dawning Of Nunavut

The clock atop the Parniavuk Building in the capital city of Iqaluit on Baffin Island ticks away the days to the birth of Nunavut.

Close by, construction workers, rugged against the cold of the arctic winter, are rushing to finish Nunavut’s new Legislative Assembly building. A few doors away in the igloo-shaped office of the Interim Commissioner, Jack Anawak considers his options, now that his job to oversee the design of the new Nunavut government is nearing completion. Nunavut’s first elected ministers will soon be at their desks. Further along the ice-packed street of this 4,000-strong community, John Amagoalik, nicknamed the Father of Nunavut, stands at the window of the Nunavut Implementation Commission office and checks the list of guests he’s invited to the biggest party Iqaluit has ever seen. “This sort of thing has never happened in the world before and we want to give a good impression.”

What sort of thing?

At 12.01 a.m. on April 1, 1999, after an interfaith church service in one of the Iqaluit schools, a huge fireworks display will mark the official formation of Nunavut, Canada’s third territory. Nunavut is a new jurisdiction carved from the Northwest Territories as once the northern parts of Ontario and Quebec, the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and the territory of the Yukon were carved from the Northwest Territories. For the first time since Newfoundland and Labrador joined Confederation in 1949, the map of Canada has been redrawn. This is an exciting milestone in Canada’s history, a fitting launch into the new millennium.

Stretching north of the 60th parallel in a vast pie-shaped wedge from the Manitoba border to the tip of Ellesmere Island–almost to the geographic North Pole–and including islands in Ungava Bay, Hudson Bay and James Bay, Nunavut is almost 1/4 the size of Canada. It’s larger than any other province or territory, and with its myriad of islands, bays and channels, it takes in 2/3 of Canada’s coastline and covers three time zones.

Cynics who scoff at the billion-dollar-plus cost of this vast and remote territory for only 25,000 residents refer to Nunavut as “None Of It.” They complain that Canada can’t afford to pay the equivalent of $21,700 a year or more to support each person living in this new northern territory.

The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and the Nunavut Political Accord of 1993 is indeed the richest and most comprehensive land claim settlement between a government and an aboriginal group in the world. In payments that began in 1993, 18,000 or so Inuit beneficiaries will receive $1.15 billion over 14 years. This money is tax-free and paid into a Nunavut trust that protects, manages and invests it for the beneficiaries. Inuit also receive additional money for transition costs and for training people to upgrade their skills and prepare them for positions in the Nunavut public service.

Inuit beneficiaries own outright 355,842 square kilometres of surface rights to lands they hand-picked, approximately 18 per cent of the entire Nunavut Territory. This makes them sole landowners of the largest private property in North America. And on two per cent or 37,870 square kilometres of this fully deeded land, they own sub-surface rights to oil, gas and minerals.

The rest of Nunavut belongs to the Crown, but Inuit beneficiaries have the right to hunt, trap and fish and control its management. If royalties stem from oil, gas or mineral development, Inuit beneficiaries receive a 50 per cent share of the first $2 million and five per cent thereafter.

Management boards set up in 1994 ensure that Inuit control their resources. Five of the nine members on the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board are appointed by either the regional Inuit organizations or the Nunavut government. Inuit effectively control the Nunavut Water Board, the Nunavut Impact Review Board and the Nunavut (Land-Use) Planning Commission as well.

Inuit beneficiaries also have the right of first refusal to establish sports and naturalist lodges and other types of commercial development.

And although it’s controversial, Article 24 of the agreement is designed to give Inuit beneficiaries an advantage in business. Companies are more likely to win contracts from the territorial or federal government who are the main employers in Nunavut if they are at least 51 per cent Inuit-owned, if they buy supplies or seek services from Inuit companies and if they train and hire Inuit workers. The aim of the Nunavut government is to have a labour force that reflects the proportion of Inuit in the territory, which at last count was 85 per cent of the population.

It’s clear that Inuit are no longer content to be guides, labourers and janitors in a white man’s world. They intend to be owners and managers in their own world. Companies wishing to develop major projects, say in construction, mining, parks or hydro electric generation, must negotiate Impact and Benefit Agreements with local Inuit before they can proceed. Critics complain that such protectionism often means projects take longer and cost more. They resent such an uneven playing field. Others criticize the tendency of development corporations tied to Inuit political organizations that often put the political goals of Inuit employment, training and culture ahead of making a profit.

On the other hand, after many years of political uncertainty that drove many developers away from the north, such highly protectionist policies have advantages, even for non-Inuit. As so many Inuit leaders keep saying at trade shows and mining symposia, “Nunavut is open for business.” Rules are finally in place. Companies, whether they like the new regime or not, know exactly who they are dealing with, and they are more likely to see their projects go ahead now that Inuit are assured of a share in the profits and opportunities.

Nunavut is pronounced “New-na-vut” and the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and the Nunavut Political Accord are new. The blueprint for the design of the new government is called aptly Footprints in New Snow. But as John Amagoalik says, “The trip into the future is a return to the best of the traditional past.”

The uniqueness of the Nunavut government lies in its vision. Seven of the 11 principles in its mission statement refer to people. Caroline Anawak, born in a big southern city, and her husband, Jack, who was born in a skin tent near the Arctic Circle, have raised a large multiracial family and both have been in the forefront of the political struggle since it began. “We asked the people of Repulse Bay what kind of government they wanted,” Caroline said. “They want a government that puts people first, not paper; a government that listens to the people and is accountable to the people; a government that promotes harmony amongst people; and that blends the modern practices with old beliefs.”

Nunavut’s vast area is divided into three administrative regions: Kitikmeot (Arctic Coast), Kivalliq (Keewatin), and Qiqitaaluk (Baffin). It will have two levels of government, territorial and municipal, but with more power at the community level. It will have a 19-member, popularly elected Legislative Assembly–the first elections are slated for Feb.15, 1999–and most probably, a directly elected premier, cabinet and speaker.

The Nunavut government is a public government shared with non-Inuit, but Inuit leaders have set a goal of 50 per cent Inuit employment in the public service by start-up in April 1999, and eventually 85 per cent to represent the percentage of Inuit in the total population.

Nunavut will continue the consensus-style government of the Northwest Territories which is more in keeping with Inuit tradition than the adversarial multiparty system of the rest of the world.

Despite the practical drawbacks, including immense overhead costs, the lack of infrastructure and experienced staff, the Nunavut government is determined to decentralize according to its vision of bringing government to the people. Most Inuit want to stay in their communities so decentralization is designed to foster jobs and provide education close to home.

All 10 Nunavut government departments, along with the Legislative Assembly, will have head offices in the capital of Iqaluit, but there will be regional administrative centres in Cambridge Bay (Kitikmeot) and Rankin Inlet (Kivalliq), and regional headquarters for various departments spread around 11 of the territory’s 26 organized communities. Another innovative feature is to combine responsibilities under the management of one department. Two such departments are unique–Sustainable Development, and Culture, Language, Elders and Youth. Both emphasize the Inuit attachment to land and people. “We are striving to incorporate Inuit Qauujimajatuqanit (Inuit Traditional Knowledge) throughout all Nunavut governments,” says Jack Anawak. “This is something that has never been done before.”

Also new is the government’s attempt to match the workplace to the lifestyle by such innovations as job-sharing, shift work and working from the home. This allows for such seasonal activities as hunting, fishing and trapping, and permission to go on the land for a time to alleviate stress or promote healing.

Inuit culture has always treasured their hunters, their elders and their children. Inuit beneficiaries are encouraged to continue a subsistence living on the land by applying annually to the claim’s Wildlife Hunter Income Support Program for cash and equipment. Elders between 55 and 65 may apply to the claim’s Elders’ Pension Trust for money in advance of their Old Age Pension. Youth, the key to Inuit management of Nunavut, may apply to the Scholarship Fund Program to fund their post-secondary education.

Many of the youth whom I interviewed last summer paid little heed to the tremendous opportunities for jobs and training that the Nunavut government is prepared to give them. Some said they didn’t care for government jobs which they perceived as desk jobs. They wanted to be mechanics or mothers–or nothing at all.

It was refreshing to find that Ooleetoa Temela, a 21-year-old environmental technology student at Arctic College, was looking forward to Nunavut. I met her outside the visitors’ centre in Kimmirut, while she was busy arranging a display of wild plants to show cruise ship tourists. “I took a course in Ottawa called Nunavut Sivuniksavut which was designed for future Nunavut leaders,” she said with a lively smile. “It gave me an understanding of what our ancestors went through. I got a knowledge of Inuit history and a description of the organizations that worked on land claims for so long. I got a better understanding of what Nunavut is all about. It made me proud to be Inuk.” She had a chance to promote her new territory when she was sent to Europe for two weeks to talk about Inuit culture and the effect on Inuit of the European seal hunting and fur trapping ban.

Nunavut is to have only one court of justice and will handle as many problems as possible in the community. Even now, elders sit beside a judge or justice of the peace in a community court to advise on cases, describe traditional law and suggest more culturally appropriate sentencing such as counselling by elders, community service, or being sent to spend time on the land.

Everything relates back to the land. In Inuktitut, the word Nunavut means “Our Land.” Nunatsiaq–the name for a federal riding–means “Our beautiful Land.” There are no trees in Nunavut and for about 10 months of the year, land and sea are drawn together under the same blanket of ice and snow. Nunavut has probably the harshest environment on Earth yet few Inuit would live anywhere else. No longer do Inuit rely on the land to provide their homes, tools, clothing or groceries. But even modern Inuit in southern cities welcome “country food” and yearn to be back “on the land” again.

John Amagoalik’s advice to Nunavut’s first elected politicians was this: “Don’t let winning go to your head. Try to spend time out on the land. It will remind you how small you really are.”

Any examination of Nunavut’s history has got to include a look back at the 1960s and early ‘70s when outsiders spread over the north to explore for oil and gas, and plan roads, pipelines and tanker routes. The aboriginal inhabitants of Alaska, Yukon and Northwest Territories realized they were losing control of their land and way of life and began negotiating with governments to get them back again. In the words of John Amagoalik, “It was a wake-up call.”

The Inuit wanted more than money for land. They wanted a modern day treaty–a comprehensive land claim agreement, a division of the Northwest Territories, and a government of their own. In almost 30 years of networking and negotiating, they never wavered from that goal.

Inuit negotiators did not go to court, hold demonstrations, launch international campaigns, put up barricades or fire guns as aboriginal people did elsewhere in North America. With the same patience that traditional Inuit hunters used while waiting for a seal to emerge from its breathing hole, coupled with the traditional Inuit qualities of pragmatism and compromise, they eventually achieved more in less time than their counterparts.

They travelled constantly, exchanging their dog teams for taxis and planes, their muktuk for linguini marinara. When asked to name their father’s job, kids of Nunavut leaders replied, “Going to meetings.” Meetings in tiny, far-flung community halls dotted across a country as vast as India and ravaged by terrible weather conditions. Meetings at airports, in hotels, in restaurants, in radio and TV stations, in newspaper offices. Meetings in grandiose city halls and elegant ballrooms. Meetings as far away as Australia, Belgium and Russia.

Peter Ernerk, born in a snowhouse on the land near Repulse Bay, and now the deputy minister for the Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth in Iqaluit, speaks of the difficulty in constantly switching cultures. However, he reminds me that mobility and adaptability have always been typically Inuit traits. Ernerk survived the gruelling demands of two cultures lived at once, the long periods away from his family, the seemingly endless negotiations, the dithering and indecision about division and boundary lines, the waiting for governments, budgets and attitudes to change, the ups and downs of the political life. But other Inuit leaders paid a high price in stress, substance abuse and family breakdown.

All that was forgotten in the euphoria of Nunavut’s first birthday which was celebrated in Kugluktuk on July 9th, 1993, the day when both the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act and the Nunavut Act received royal assent. Hundreds of people from all over Nunavut gathered on the tundra in the 24-hour sunlight for the ceremonies. They waved flags and banners that named their communities, and proudly wore parkas, jackets and wind pants emblazoned with maps, inukshuks and the magic word NUNAVUT.

But will the euphoria last?

The vast size of the territory, the lack of roads, the vagaries of weather, the exorbitant costs of air travel, food, electricity and heating fuel, the reliance on federal transfer money, the ever-present social problems all pose enormous challenges for the fledgling government. The statistics are depressing. Half the population is under the age of 20. The birth rate is twice as high as the national average, teenage pregnancies three times higher, and families 1/3 larger than the national average.

Only 15 per cent of students finish high school, although school dropout rates are declining. The unemployment rate hovers around 30 per cent. Houses are overcrowded. Tuberculosis occurs at eight times the national average. Substance abuse–drugs, alcohol, solvents–is rampant. Sexual assault rates are seven times the national average, while the suicide rate is six times the national average. Nunavut’s leaders are well aware of the problems. Like their critics, they worry that they will run out of money to solve them. “We have had to adapt too quickly–a nomadic people asking to be whites too fast,” says Ernerk. “The rest of Canada had 500 years. For us, it was 30.” But he is optimistic. “We will do what we can. We grew up without money. Today we know that we must have it. Yes, I am greatly concerned about the high rate of suicide among our young people–everyone is touched by it, it is a Nunavut-wide problem. But by taking over control of our government, we will make the future better for our young people. We are teaching them Inuit history. But at the same time we are training them to be assistant deputy ministers and deputy ministers. We have 1,200 presently hired for the public service. Three of the 11 deputy ministers are Inuit. Thirteen of the 14 assistant deputy ministers are Inuit.”

To confront the challenges, Inuit leaders look to their innovative agreements and unique style of government for solutions. Says Caroline Anawak, “Inuit people have to get back to how Inuit people governed themselves a thousand years ago. Inuit must remind themselves of traditional Inuit values–patience, forbearance, endurance, interaction with each other to solve problems. Inuit must walk the tundra to grow strong again.”

And there is light at the top of the igloo.

Mining exploration is still strong despite the high cost of doing business, the current low mineral prices and market demand. Inuit know how to wait. The recent opening of Ekati, Canada’s first diamond mine, on the barren lands north of Yellowknife has inspired companies to look for diamonds in Nunavut as they continue their exploration for gold, silver, copper, nickel, iron ore and uranium. Inuit know how to adapt. They realize that mining provides employment, training and new money for their government.

Tourism offers economic advantages but in contrast to mining, it’s more suited to a traditional lifestyle. A small but growing group of travellers relish the wilderness, wildlife and frontier feeling of Nunavut. They want to hike a park, canoe a barren lands river, view polar bears or camp with an Inuit family.

Inuit dreams for Nunavut as their Utopia will take time, and other Canadians need to be tolerant while they work for that dream to come true. If they succeed in their vision, they will be an inspiration to the rest of Canada and the world. They already are.

Lyn Hancock is the author of Nunavut, Winging it in the North, Northwest Territories and There’s a Seal in my Sleeping Bag.

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