Tuesday, April 19, 2011

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


There was another kind of hope to be found in Repulse Bay, in the form of a little green logo stitched to tuques and gloves all over town.

A few days earlier, staff from the French nuclear-power giant Areva had held a community meeting to tell the locals about the benefits of a uranium development the company is pitching 500 kilometres southwest, in Baker Lake. The town was buzzing with talk of potential job opportunities.

The Areva bid is one of several developments that have raised hopes throughout the Eastern Arctic that a prosperous age is coming.

In Baker Lake and two nearby towns tucked along the eastern shore of Hudson Bay, Rankin Inlet and Arviat, optimism around mining is accompanied by anticipation of a highway development that would extend upward from Northern Manitoba, creating the first land link between Nunavut and the provinces.

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger signed an agreement with Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak to study the highway's construction late last year, a project expected to cost about $1.2-billion.

“We get that road in here, and you'll see this part of Nunavut change in a hurry for the better,” said John Hickes, the mayor of Rankin Inlet, who has been so single-minded in his pursuit of the highway that some refer to him as John Road.

“There's a lot of stories in Nunavut, but this is the good news story here in the region around Rankin. You keep your eyes on us. We're not standing still.”

Optimism comes in other forms as well. Premier Aariak has declared it her personal mission to overhaul the education system.

She also wants to strike a devolution deal with the federal government: Under its current territorial jurisdiction, Nunavut has little control over resources sitting under Crown land. Ms. Aariak wants to change that and have Nunavut collect resource revenues that might otherwise go to Ottawa.

But there's a catch: Her pitch relies on convincing federal negotiators that her government is on a strong organizational footing. For Nunavut, that's a tough sell.

Her education plan is more promising, a new act that would stress bilingualism, Inuit culture, community control and improved academic standards. But such vague ambitions still fall far short of those, for example, in Greenland.

That largely Inuit nation has a long head start on Nunavut in grappling with the social and economic ravages that come with a polar climate and isolated population.

In Greenland, the government maintains a hard goal of ensuring that two-thirds of its population has a trade or academic education by 2020.

The island nation offers other lessons as well. Greenland was granted home rule from Denmark in 1979 and increased local powers in 2009. Today, with a 6.8-per-cent unemployment rate, it hauls in 60 per cent of its revenues from domestic sources, relying on Denmark for the remaining 40 per cent – the equivalent of $11,000 per Greenlander.

Nunavut, by contrast, posts a 20-per-cent unemployment rate and generates 7 per cent of its revenue internally. The rest – $1.1-billion or roughly $33,000 per capita – comes from Ottawa.

Mr. Peterson's alcohol task force is looking to the steps Greenland took in the mid-1990s to address rampant alcoholism there. It liberalized liquor sales, took addiction care more seriously and, in a symbolic gesture, banned drinking in government offices.

While the island still has its share of alcohol problems, per-capita liquor consumption has dropped significantly.

“I don't know a single sane Greenlander who would go back to the policies of the past where you drive people to obsess about alcohol,” said Jack Hicks, a social researcher who has worked closely with governments in both Nunavut and Greenland.

Mr. Hicks is one of the Arctic's foremost experts on suicide. “We have to get young people off of drinking cupfuls of vodka with no mix. If you acknowledge that people are going to drink instead of pretending you can stop them, you can do some good.”

Finally, it must be acknowledged that for all its woes, Nunavut remains livable, at least for those lucky enough to be members of the territory's small but growing middle class.

“I sometimes ask myself if this is something of a failed state,” said Mr. Bell, the journalist. “And I have to say no. When I go home and flick a switch, the power comes on. The garbage gets picked up. The hospital functions. The RCMP protects us.

“Compared to the other provinces and territories, we're doing very poorly. A failed jurisdiction maybe, but it's not Sierra Leone. It's not Somalia.”

True. But so far, it's also not Greenland. Not even close.

White, Patrick. 2011. "The trials of Nunavut: Lament for an Arctic nation". The Globe and Mail. Posted: April 1, 2011. Available online: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/nunavut/the-trials-of-nunavut-lament-for-an-arctic-nation/article1963420/singlepage/#articlecontent

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