Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The trials of Nunavut: Lament for an Arctic nation - Part Two

Part II

From an airplane's perch, each of Nunavut's 25 communities seems like a speck of contrast against a uniform landscape. Together, they hold a population the size of Moose Jaw's, spread across the land mass of 14 Britains, five Germanys or one Mexico – all without a single road connecting them.

In 1999, that population and the Canadian government launched an experiment in forging this scattering of hamlets into a united whole. At midnight on April 1, with the minus-45-degree night air framing the moon in a blue halo of ice crystals, Ottawa sliced the Northwest Territories in two, creating Nunavut (“Our Land”) out of the eastern 60 per cent.

The new territory would be 80-per-cent Inuit and the new government would have a mandate to protect their culture and lifestyle, in part by legislating that the ethnic makeup of the bureaucracy mirror the makeup of the population.

Some right-wing pundits bristled at the creation of a federally funded territory along ethnic lines, even branding it a variety of apartheid, but there was no going back. Nunavut's political fate was sealed. Its human fate was less certain: The social problems were already pronounced, but the fledgling territorial governors (then convening in a high-school gym) proclaimed themselves uniquely qualified as locals to tackle them.

“What we affirm today, with the stroke of a pen, is the end of a very long road,” said prime minister Jean Chr├ętien, who travelled to Iqaluit for the celebration. He meant that the path to Nunavut began at least in 1976, when a handful of Inuit dared to submit a land claim to the federal government. In truth, its roots lay much deeper in the troubled history of contact between Inuit and the white arrivistes from Europe.

In Cape Dorset, qallunaat first came in significant numbers around 1903, first bringing religion, then trading posts, then law enforcement and bureaucracy. The Hudson's Bay Company set up in 1913, soon drawing hundreds of Inuit into the fur trade. But in 1949, when prices plummeted for white-fox furs, the most coveted pelts, so did Inuit fortunes.

By the 1950s, RCMP officers at the sparse Cape Dorset settlement saw mass starvation setting in. People were eating dog food to stay alive. The Mounties radioed for a massive food airlift, and urged Inuit in far-flung seasonal camps to move to Cape Dorset, close to food and health care.

It was then, in the words of Mary Simon, president of the advocacy organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, that “the colonization process evolved to the point where our people expected things to be given to them.” Expectations grew and grew, on federal assurances that life would be better when this nomadic hunting people instead settled in one place.

While the shift increased Inuit life expectancy from 35 in the early 1940s to 66 in the late 1980s, the transitional period sapped all manner of Inuit self-reliance, replacing it with shoddy government homes, abusive residential schools and social-assistance cheques. Generations since have been raised to sentimentalize the past and expect little of the future, a recipe for the cultural disorientation and undirected anger that breed violence.

For Ottawa, the relocation tidied up the North, sweeping a scattered population into pockets suitable for social assistance, health care and all the other stuff of Canadian governance. It also helped to satisfy four distinct quandaries: a series of court decisions beginning in the 1950s that ruled Canada was responsible for the welfare of its aboriginal peoples; a long-standing policy of assimilating aboriginal people into mainstream culture; a burgeoning desire to open the North to mining; and the need to solidify Canada's international claims to Arctic sovereignty.

Throughout the push into settlements, however, the federal government systematically excluded Inuit from decision-making roles. Their fates would be sealed in faraway offices, without consent or consultation.

Finally, Inuit Tapirisat of Canada was formed in 1971 to lobby for Inuit rights. By 1976, it had submitted a land-claims proposal to the federal government demanding a vast tract of land and mineral rights under Inuit title, along with the creation of a new Inuit-dominated political entity called Nunavut.

After 17 years of grinding negotiations, prime minister Brian Mulroney signed those tenets into law with the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and the Nunavut Act. A few years later, Mr. Chr├ętien's signature made the territory official.

About a year after its formation, Jim Bell, the conscientious editor-in-chief of the Nunatsiaq News (who is not an Inuk), wrote that Nunavut was a “made-for-failure territory” – overburdened with bureaucracy, paralyzed by an inadequate budget, destined to be a political basket case into the foreseeable future. More than a decade later, “I can't be anything but pessimistic,” Mr. Bell said recently.

“Part of the promise of Nunavut was that, once in control, the majority Inuit government would offer better government – that has not happened. ... The only thing Nunavut has been successful at doing is creating a space were Inuit identity can be expressed. But it is not meeting the basic needs of the population right now.”

That failure was evident at the home of Peter Ningeosiak, a neighbour of Mapalluk Adla in Cape Dorset. A bloody seal lay outside his bungalow, its whiskers dangling with icicles. Inside, the 73-year-old man sat at his kitchen table, leaning his right ear toward a radio blasting the CBC hourly news and looping his thumbs around a twine belt holding up ragged trousers.

Mr. Ningeosiak was born in a remote hunting camp at a time when Inuit still relied on dogs for transportation and snow for shelter, and firmed up those hands over decades of hauling seal and slicing beluga muktuk.

Today, his beaten-down government home houses nine to 11 relatives.

In 2006, University of British Columbia social work professor Frank Tester surveyed 91 homes in Cape Dorset to glean the human toll of housing shortages and overcrowding. Some issues cited were obvious, such as cleanliness, privacy and sleep. Others were not. One in four brought up anger. About one in five said depression and violence. Dr. Tester noted that at times one woman a week was being removed to a shelter in Iqaluit.

At Mr. Ningeosiak's house, his adult children sleep on two couches in the front room. His grandchildren sleep on the floor. When they wake up, they watch television and fight.

“They argue and they shout, smash glass,” Mr. Ningeosiak said. “The children get scared when there is violence. When we were out on the land, this didn't happen.”

White, Patrick. 2011. "The trials of Nunavut: Lament for an Arctic nation". The Globe and Mail. Posted: April 1, 2011. Available online:

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