Saturday, April 30, 2011

Culture Influences Judgment of Others

European Americans are more likely than Asian-Americans to judge an individual's personality based on behaviors, such as presuming someone who, say, won't touch a door handle is neurotic, a new study suggests.

The key is cultural, according to the researchers. European American culture emphasizes individual independence; meanwhile, Asian culture is more interdependent and more sensitive to social contexts. This difference means European Americans are inclined to account for someone's behavior by making assumptions about their personality, while Asians are not (at least not without some context), according to the researchers.

"Culture can be very important in shaping some fundamental aspects of the human mind," said study researcher Shinobu Kitayama, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. "This study is one example of a demonstration that culture can influence what appears to be a very deep part the human mind, something that happens automatically and continuously."

Personality testing

To test for this particular cultural difference, the researchers recruited European American and Asian- American students at the University of Michigan. The Asian-Americans were born in Asia and had spent at least several years in their home country before moving to the United States. [Face Recognition Varies by Culture]

In the first part of the study, the participants were given what they believed was a memory test, and asked to learn faces paired with behavior — for instance, when shown an image of a woman called Julie, they were told she checks the fire alarm every night. The faces were the same race as that of the participants.

"Some people make the immediate inference about what kind of person Julie is based on this behavior: Julie is very neurotic or Julie is very cautious," Kitayama said. "That is the effect we wanted to capture."

The participants were then shown the face followed by a series of single words, either similar to the implied trait or irrelevant to it. In Julie's case, these could be "cautious" or "outgoing," respectively. They were also shown random groups of letters. Kitayama and fellow researcher Jinkyung Na, also of the University of Michigan, asked them to identify what they saw was an English word or not, and they also measured the participants' reaction time.

This experiment was based on the idea that the image would make the participants more responsive to words relating to personality traits associated with the person. They saw that European Americans reacted more quickly to the relevant words and more slowly to the irrelevant words; meanwhile, there was no difference in reaction time for Asian-Americans.

A second study confirmed this difference by looking at brain activity. The researchers once again showed the participants’ faces paired with behavior and followed this by showing them the faces again followed by similar or contradictory words or random letters.

Among the European Americans, they saw a spike in electrical activity in the brain, an indication of surprise, when the contradictory words appeared.

"The effect size is very huge for European Americans, but there is none for Asian-Americans," Kitayama said. "There is a very pronounced difference."

In fact, European Americans even registered some surprise at traits that were consistent with the person's behavior. Kitayama attributes this to variations in the traits the participants inferred — someone might label Julie as "cautious," while someone else might think she is "absolutely neurotic," he said.

Cultural influences

Other research has shown that Asians pay more attention to context than European Americans. In a study published in 2003, Kitayama and colleagues found that when shown a box with a line it, then shown an empty box and asked to draw a line the same absolute length as the previous line — regardless of the size of the box — North Americans outperformed Japanese. However, when the task was altered so that the participants had to draw a line of the same proportion relative to the box as the line they had seen earlier, the Japanese had the advantage.

There is also evidence that Latin Americans have an interdependent mindset, perceiving people and behaviors as part of a larger picture, similar to that of Asians, and that Western European culture falls between Asians and North Americans in terms of interdependence and independence. American history of settlement in low-density, harsh environments may account for Americans' stronger culture of independence, according to Kitayama.

And some parts of the United States show more of an independent mindset than others. In a previous study, Kitayama and Michael Varnum of the University of Michigan found residents in newer states give their babies more unique names.

The most recent study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, adds to other work being done in cultural neuroscience, a field that has begun to investigate brain processes as a function of culture, Kitayama said.

"One interesting question is, 'To what extent is this coming from experience and to what extent from some genetic predisposition,' because right now we don’t know," he said.

Parry, Wynne. 2011. "Culture Influences Judgment of Others". Live Science. Posted: April 13, 2011. Available online:

Friday, April 29, 2011

Looting in Revolutionary Egypt and its aftermath

I am publishing two different articles about the looting of the Cairo Museum during the recent Revolution.

About '1,000 Relics' Stolen During Egypt Uprising

Thieves stole around 1,000 relics from museums and archeological sites across Egypt since protests against the government broke out in January, Egypt's minister for antiquities Zahi Hawass said Sunday in a newspaper interview.

"We are investigating all the incidents to find the items. Up until now we have identified many culprits, criminals who were looking for gold or mummies and who lacked knowledge of the value of the items they stole," he told Spanish daily El Mundo.

"They were not organized, they lived near the archeological sites where the objects were kept. They would take advantage of the night to enter the archeological sites and pillage," he added.

"About 1,000 objects were stolen, none of them major items. There is an inventory of everything and it will be difficult for the items to leave the country."

The inventory of all the items that were stolen during the uprising and the weeks of unrest that followed will be given to UNESCO, the UN cultural agency, Hawass said.

The tomb of Hetep-ka at Saqqara and the tomb of Em-pi at Giza as well as the Egyptian museum in Cairo, which houses most of the King Tutankhamen collection, were among the places targeted by thieves, he added.

Hawass was named minister of antiquities last month. He had served as head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and later became minister of state under ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

Priceless Egyptian Treasures Returned

A statue of King Tutankhamun, which was looted during Egypt's anti-government protests, has been returned to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo along with three other pharaonic artifacts, Zahi Hawass, Minister of State for Antiquities, announced today.

Stolen when vandals and looters broke into the Cairo museum during the January revolution that brought down President Hosni Mubarak, the statue, cataloged as JE 60710.1, is one of three gilded wooden statues of King Tutankhamun that were declared missing in March (the official list of the items that were stolen from the Egyptian museum included a total of 63 objects).

Showing the boy king standing in a boat and throwing a harpoon, the statue suffered a minor damage.

"A small part of the crown is missing as well as pieces of the legs. The boat is still in the museum, and the figure of the king will be reunited with it and restored," Hawass, who was named minister of antiquities last month, said in a statement.

One is the pharaoh's gilded bronze and wooden trumpet (JE 62008).

"It was received in excellent condition and will be put on display immediately," Hawass said.

Also returned was a part of Tutankhamun's fan. One face is in good condition, while the other has been broken into 11 pieces.

The fourth retrieved piece is a shabti statue cataloged as JE 68984. It is one of 10 missing shabtis belonging to the pharaonic couple Yuya and Tjuya, which recent DNA tests identified as King Tut's great-grandparents.

"It is still in very good condition. It does not require restoration and will be placed on display again immediately," Tarek El-Awady, director of the Egyptian Museum, said in a statement.

About 1,000 relics have been stolen from museums and archeological sites across Egypt since protests against the government began in January.

Hawass announced today that a special police force will be set up to protect sites and museums around the country.

AFP. 2011. "About '1,000 Relics' Stolen During Egypt Uprising". Discovery News. Posted: April 10, 2011. Available online:

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2011. "Priceless Egyptian Treasures Returned". Discovery News. Posted: April 12, 2011. Available online:

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The absence of evidence for banning burqas

Are arguments in favour of the French ban supported by any actual evidence, and what happens when we ban burqas anyway?

The secular republic of France has banned face veils, which means that anyone wearing the niqab or burqa in public there can be fined €150, or suffer the infinitely worse fate of being forced to endure lessons in French citizenship.

Much of the debate about this has focused on the moral aspects, but are the arguments in favour of French policy supported by any actual evidence, and what happens when we ban burqas anyway?

Wearing a burqa is apparently bad for your health, or at least that's what Wikipedia says, and to be honest the supporting evidence isn't massive. A nice summary of the negative health claims comes from a law student at the Washington College of Law whose unreferenced article "The Health Care Crisis Facing Women Under Taliban Rule in Afghanistan" (oddly one of the main sources for the Wikipedia article) makes the following claim:

Furthermore, the mandatory act of wearing burqas itself causes health risks. They are so heavy and enveloping that they restrict women's activities by making it difficult for them to move. The simple act of walking outside becomes hazardous because the mesh opening severely restricts women's field of vision and they are unable to see their path clearly. In addition, burqas are linked to hearing loss, skin problems, headaches, cardiac disorder, asthma, and also can contribute to mental health problems. PHR revealed that the Afghan women who participated in its study demonstrated alarmingly high levels of mental illness: 97% displayed symptoms of major depression, and 86% reported signs of anxiety. These problems are linked to the oppressive conditions imposed on women and are significantly aggravated by the constant stress of restrictions on their movement and confinement to burqas.

You can pretty much just scrawl "citation needed" in red pen across that lot, but if we merge it with other research reported by the media it all boils down to three main claims:

  • Burqas dangerously restrict movement and vision.
  • Burqas cause vitamin D deficiency (leading to various related issues)
  • Burqa-wearing is linked to high rates of mental health issues.

    The evidence for some of this is patchy. For example, both the Reuters and Wired articles linked to from Wikipedia to back up the Vitamin D claim are based on the same research, which doesn't actually test the claim but takes it as a given, and refers to 'conservatively-dressed' women, rather than any specific form of dress.

    But to make things easy, let's assume all three claims are true. Burqas may restrict movement and vision - well trust me, so do corsets and high heels. Burqas cause Vitamin D deficiency due to the lack of sun exposure - well so does science blogging, or wearing a coat, hat and trousers, or being a fan of Twilight. At best, there may be a case for educating wearers about vitamin requirements so they can compensate for their lack of sunlight exposure.

    As for the mental health issues, are they related to wearing a burqa, or are they related to the situations that burqa-wearing women may live in? As the author of the above quote admits, "these problems are linked to the oppressive conditions imposed on women." With the best will in the world, banning someone from wearing a burqa is not going to somehow fix their oppressive husband or improve their home environment.

    Health isn't one of the serious justifications for this policy though. The main debate has focused around three areas: issues of security, the preservation of 'French values', and of course the oppression of women.

    To put this in some sort of context, how many people are we actually talking about? Various media sources quote French government estimates suggesting that somewhere in the region of 2,000 women wear full veils. Other Muslims suggest the figure is lower, and both my attempts and the efforts of Full Fact to shed light on the question produced a rather semi-skimmed result:

    Though the statistic apparently comes from French Interior Ministry data, the details on how it was calculated are a little thin on the ground. [...] ...this is because the report from which the figure originates by the Information Directorate of the Interior Ministry appears to be a confidential one, unavailable to members of the public [which] was leaked to French Newspaper Le Figaro.

    According to the paper, the figure was arrived at after French police were asked to estimate the number of traditionalist Salafist Muslims present in the country based on the number of places at which they worship.

    [...] Meanwhile, another leaked note produced by the the domestic intelligence department of the police suggested that there were just 367 women wearing the Burka in France, although in the article this is dismissed as "totally absurd" by [Judge Andre] Gerin.

    2,000 is a private guesstimate leaked by a newspaper then, not the reliable statistic it's been presented as by the media. My hunch is that the real number is probably lower, but for the sake of argument let's work with it for now.

    Are 2,000 women in face veils enough to threaten the survival of 'French values'? As always, cultural conservatives are inadvertently the biggest critics of the heritage they seek to defend. Are their values so weak, their culture so feeble, that they cannot tolerate the unusual clothing choices of a few thousandths of one percent of the population?

    That number might grow of course, but then if you have to pass laws to stop people from abandoning your way of life... well maybe you're tackling a symptom rather than the cause. Is the number actually growing? Again we don't know.

    What about the security argument? I've not seen any evidence of crime-waves orchestrated by burqa-wearing hoodlums, but anecdotally there have been some striking cases, such as the gunmen who raided a French bank last year:

    Employees let the pair through the security double doors of the banking branch of a post office, believing them to be Muslim women. But once inside, the men flipped back their head coverings and pulled out a gun, officials said.

    They seized 4,500 euros (£4,000) in cash, according to staff at the branch in Athis Mons, just south of Paris, and made their getaway.

    Shocking indeed, but it's a pretty isolated anecdote. While predictably the escapade intensified calls for a ban in France, the problem with appeals to security is that they tend to fall back on the same, narrow examples. Banks, airports, schools... yes, these places need to be cautious about security, but that's an argument for de-veiling in those places, not an argument for a complete public ban. There are far greater dangers in my local cafe than face veils. Many of them are on the menu.

    Arguably the most compelling argument is that the ban protects women from oppression. How many we don't know, because as we've seen there are no reliable statistics to tell us how many veil-wearers there are in the Republic, let alone what percentage of that handful do so of their own free volition.

    Apparently the Interior ministry claim at that around 25% of veil-wearers are recent converts from non-Muslim backgrounds, but that's from a Daily Mail copy of a Reuters infographic based on stats that apparently haven't don't exist in the public domain. I can't help but feel that, in a way, that last sentence sums up the whole body of evidence in this debate.

    No doubt some of them will be subjected to abuse by their husbands or families. Meanwhile some who choose to wear the veil are subjected to abuse by members of the public, so-called "Burqa-Rage." How many fall into each camp is hard to pin down.

    Not only do we have little idea of the existing situation, we also have next-to-no hope of understanding the impact of the ban (assuming it's enforced with enthusiasm, which at present seems fairly unlikely). Would oppressed women be liberated by vigorous application of the law, or would their husbands satisfy their religious sensibilities by simply keeping them indoors, or restricting them some other way?

    The BBC quote government figures suggesting that a third of a million French women suffer violent attacks annually, with around 150 murdered. Against these statistics, the handful of women affected by this new law will be lost in the noise unless someone makes some effort to monitor what happens to them.

    If these women were to disappear from view completely, then how would we ever know?
    Robbins, Martin. 2011. "The absence of evidence for banning burqas". Guardian. Posted: April 12, 2011. Available online:
  • Wednesday, April 27, 2011

    Immigration tracked through desert detritus

    Discarded possessions reveal dangers of journey from Mexico into Arizona.

    Every year, thousands of undocumented migrants make the dangerous crossing from Mexico to Arizona in the United States through the Sonoran Desert. One anthropologist is hoping to demystify these clandestine crossings by collecting discarded belongings and mapping rest stops, and analysing these using scientific methods.

    In the United States, debate about illegal immigration is coloured by myth, misconception and a paucity of scientific data, says Jason De León, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

    "We've talked about migration quite a bit in academia, but it's mostly sort of sociological or reliant on survey data after the fact," says De León. He estimates that around 200 people die near the border between Arizona and Mexico each year.

    Just trying to do research in such an environment hints at the hazards of migration. "I've gotten out there, gotten in trouble, just borderline about to have sunstroke or something like that. You get a sense of how difficult it is," he says.

    Since 2008, he has analysed around 100 sites used by migrants for rest stops in a roughly 50-kilometre stretch of desert between Nogales, Mexico, and Arivaca in Arizona. Working with students, he maps each site, notes what it was used for - whether people have made beds, for example - and records all the discarded objects. He has collected more than 6 tonnes of items, including backpacks, shoes, first-aid kits, clothes and water bottles.

    Such artefacts help De León identify trends in migration and estimate the number of people making the journey. The presence of women's and children's shoes, for example, shows that it's not just adult men crossing the desert.

    Nearer to Arivaca, sites become larger and clothing and backpacks replace food packaging in the litter. "Their guide will say, 'Ok now you gotta clean up. You look like you've just walked through the desert.' So you change your clothes, brush your teeth, wash your face - that's when you get a lot of this stuff left behind," De León explains. He presented his findings at the Society for American Archaeology's annual meeting in Sacramento, California, on 1 April.

    Blood, sweat and tears

    De León has also spent months in a migrant shelter in the Mexican border town of Nogales, interviewing those about to begin the journey through the desert and those recently deported back to Mexico.

    In total, his data show that migrants circumvent stricter border controls — such as increased patrols or fences — by using routes that are more remote and dangerous. "Enforcement strategies that create suffering and death are clearly no match for the hunger and poverty that drive migrants to the United States," he says.

    "This is a groundbreaking type of research. De León is pushing the archaeological envelope," says archaeologist Ran Boytner of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "His research will have a very strong impact, both in and out of the discipline. It takes a lot of guts to do what he's doing."

    De León now anticipates expanding his survey areas in Arizona, and possibly including sites in California, Texas and New Mexico.

    Studying these objects humanizes undocumented migration, says José Antonio Lucero, a political scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Most people don't understand what drives a person to leave his or her home and embark on a risky journey.

    "Jason can say a lot about the whole experience through the artefacts and the folks he meets," he says. "It's a world that we don't know very well. I hope the project leads to a more enlightened conversation about immigration."

    Drake, Nadia. 2011. "Immigration tracked through desert detritus". Nature News. Posted: April 11, 2011. Available online:

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011

    Cookies or careers?

    New study reveals messages about gender in Boy Scout and Girl Scout manuals

    Nearly 5 million American children participate in the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, but until now no one has looked at the gender messages young people get when they start collecting those coveted badges.

    Kathleen Denny, a sociology graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park, analyzed scouting manuals and found that—despite positive aspects—today's scouts are being fed stereotypical ideas about femininity and masculinity. Her findings were recently published in Gender & Society, the highly-ranked journal of Sociologists for Women in Society.

    Girl scouts, for example, are steered away from scientific pursuits while boys are discouraged from pursuing artistic interests. While gender has been analyzed in children's books and television, it has rarely been examined in scouting manuals.

    "The disproportionate and gendered distribution of art and science projects aligns with the large body of research that finds girls being systematically derailed from scientific and mathematical pursuits and professions due to cultural beliefs and stereotypes about their relative ineptitude in these areas," says Denny.

    Among Denny's other key findings:

  • Girls are more likely than the boys to be offered activities involving art projects; Girls' art activities make up 11 percent of their total activities.

  • Scientifically-oriented activities make up only 2 percent of all girls' activities, but boys science activities take up 6 percent of their scouting time.

  • Girls are offered proportionately more communal activities than boys; 30 percent of the girls' badge work activities are intended to take place in groups, either with or for others.

  • Boys are offered proportionately more self-oriented activities than girls; Less than 20 percent of the boys' activities are intended to take place with others.

  • Despite her findings of stereotypical notions of femininity, Denny found that the boys' handbook "fosters intellectual depen¬dence and passivity." Boys are routinely instructed to look for answers in the back of their guide, while girls are encouraged to do original research.

    Denny also found that the names of Scout badges convey strong messages about gender. Stereo¬typical ideas about "embellished femininity and stoic masculinity" are communicated in the level of playfulness (and the lack thereof) that char¬acterize the different badge titles.

  • Some 27 percent of girls' badge titles use playful literary techniques such as alliteration and puns, while 0 percent of boys' badge titles do so.

  • All 20 boys' badges (100 percent) have descriptive titles without using any playful wording, while only 73 percent of the girls' badges have descriptive titles. The boys' badge dealing with rocks and geology, for example, is called the "Geologist" badge, while the comparable girls' badge is called the "Rocks Rock" badge.

  • Denny found boys' badge titles use more career-oriented language (such as Engineer, Craftsman, Scientist), whereas girls' badge titles consistently use more playful language with less of a career orientation. (Instead of the boy's "Astronomer," the comparable girls badge is called "Sky Search." Instead of "Mechanic," a similar girl badge is called "Car Care.")

    "When boys speak to others about their Geologist badge, they have a legitimate career title to use and are likely to be taken more seriously in conversations than girls discussing their achievement of a 'Rocks Rock' badge," Denny says.

    She also found that the types of activities the badges entail are "the most explicitly gendered dimensions in the girls' handbook." Examples of badges that have to do with stereotypically feminine activities include: Caring for Children, Looking Your Best, and Sew Simple. In addition to activities about personal hygiene and healthy eating, the Looking Your Best badge offers activities such as a "Color Party" that asks the girls to "take turns holding different colors up to your face [to] decide which colors look best on each of you." That same badge also offers the activity option of an "Accessory Party" where the girls "experiment to see how accessories highlight your features and your outfit."

    These badges are not offered in the Boy Scouts; the boys' Fitness badge, the only one approximating a personal-style badge, offers activities such as completing a weeklong food diary and telling a family member about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

    EurekAlert. 2011. "Cookies or careers?". EurekAlert. Posted: April 8, 2011. Available online:
  • Monday, April 25, 2011

    iPad Helps Archaeologists

    New technology is revolutionizing the precise recording of history at an ancient, lost city, bucking a tradition that has been in place for centuries. University of Cincinnati researchers will present "The Paperless Project: The Use of iPads in the Excavations at Pompeii"* at the 39th annual international conference of Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA). The conference takes place April 12-16 in Beijing, China.

    UC teams of archaeologists have spent more than a decade at the site of the Roman city that was buried under a volcano in 79 AD. The project is producing a complete archaeological analysis of homes, shops and businesses at a forgotten area inside one of the busiest gates of Pompeii, the Porta Stabia.

    Through years of painstaking recording of their excavations, the researchers are exploring the social and cultural scene of a lost city and how the middle class neighborhood influenced Pompeian and Roman culture.

    The standard archaeological approach to recording this history -- a 300-year tradition -- involves taking precise measurements, drawings and notes, all recorded on paper with pencil. But last summer, the researchers found that the handheld computers and their ability to digitally record and immediately communicate information held many advantages over a centuries-honed tradition of archaeological recording.

    "There's a common, archival nature to what we're doing. There's a precious timelessness, a priceless sort of quality to the data that we're gathering, so we have made an industry of being very, very careful about how we record things," explains Ellis. "Once we've excavated through it, it's gone, so ever since our undergraduate years, we've become very, very good and consistent at recording. We're excited about discovering there's another way," Ellis says.

    "Because the trench supervisor is so busy, it can take days to share handwritten notes between trenches," explains Wallrodt. "Now, we can give them an (electronic) notebook every day if they want it."

    Wallrodt says one of the biggest concerns of adopting the new technology was switching from drawing on a large sheet of paper to sticking one's finger on the iPad's glass. "With the iPad, there's also a lot less to carry. There's no big board for drawing, no ruler and no calculator."

    The researchers say they plan to pack even more iPads on their trip to Pompeii this June. The research project is funded by the Louise Taft Semple Fund through the UC Department of Classics.

    *The iPad research experiment, led by Steven Ellis, UC assistant professor of classics, and John Wallrodt, a senior research associate for the Department of Classics, has been featured on the National Geographic Channel as well as Apple's website. That's after the researchers took six iPads to UC's excavation site at Pompeii last summer. The iPads themselves were just being introduced at the time.

    Science Daily. 2011. "iPad Helps Archaeologists". Science Daily. Posted: April 8, 2011. Available online:

    Sunday, April 24, 2011

    Scientists make bamboo tools to test theory explaining East Asia's Stone Age tool scarcity

    Bamboo knives are easy to make, and will cut meat but not hides, suggesting prehistoric people preferred crudely made stone flakes

    The long-held theory that early human ancestors in East Asia crafted their tools from bamboo and wood is much more complicated than originally conceived, according to a new study.

    Research until now has failed to address a fundamental question: Is it even possible to make complex bamboo tools with simple stone tools?

    Now an experimental archaeological study — in which a modern-day flint knapper replicated the crafting of bamboo knives — confirms that it is indeed possible to make a variety of bamboo tools with the simplest stone tools.

    However, rather than confirming the long-held "bamboo hypothesis," the new research shows there's more to the theory, says archaeologist Metin I. Eren, the expert knapper who crafted the tools for the study.

    Bamboo knives were efficiently crafted and able to cut meat, but not hide

    The researchers found that crudely knapped stone choppers made from round rock "cobbles" performed remarkably well for chopping down bamboo. In addition, bamboo knives were efficiently crafted with stone tools. While the knives would easily cut meat, they weren't effective at cutting animal hides, however, which could have discouraged their use during the Stone Age, say the authors. Some knives made from a softer bamboo species entirely failed to produce and hold a sharp edge.

    "The 'bamboo hypothesis' has been around for quite awhile, but was always represented simply, as if all bamboo species, and bamboo tool-making were equal," says Eren, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Our research does not debunk the idea that prehistoric people could have made and used bamboo implements, but instead suggests that upon arriving in East and Southeast Asia they probably did not suddenly start churning out all of their tools on bamboo raw materials either."

    The findings appear online in the article "Were Bamboo Tools Made in Prehistoric Southeast Asia? An Experimental View from South China," which will be published in an issue of the journal Quaternary International, edited by Parth Chauhan and Rajeev Parnaik.

    "The importance of experimental archaeology, of replicating the production of bamboo tools with simple stone artifacts, was needed for a long time. Due to successful cooperation in every stage of the experiments with our Chinese colleagues, we managed to demonstrate the potential of a simple stone tool technology to produce many different daily tools made of bamboo," said archaeologist and lead author Ofer Bar-Yosef, professor of Stone Age archaeology at Harvard University.

    In addition to Bar-Yosef and Eren, co-authors were archaeologists Jiarong Yuan and Yiyuan Li of Hunan Provincial Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Relics; and archaeologist David J. Cohen of Boston University.

    Poor diversity of prehistoric stone tools in East Asia

    As in Africa, previous fossil discoveries in East Asia have indicated that early human ancestors continuously inhabited those regions for as much as 1.6 million years. Unlike Africa and western Eurasia, however, where stone tools show increasing and decreasing complexity, East Asia's stone tools remain relatively simple.

    Researchers know that simple flaked "cobble" industries existed in some parts of the vast East and Southeast Asia region, which includes present-day China, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, parts of Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, East Timor and Vietnam. Stone tool discoveries there have been limited to a few hand axes, cleavers and choppers flaked on one side, however, indicating a lack of more advanced stone tool-making processes, innovation and diversity found elsewhere, say the authors.

    The lack of complex prehistoric stone tool technologies has remained a mystery. Some researchers have concluded that prehistoric people in East Asia must have instead crafted and used tools made of bamboo — a resource readily available to them.

    Scientists suggest several reasons for missing stone tool industry

    Scientists have hypothesized various explanations for the lack of complex stone tools. On one hand, it's been suggested that human ancestors during the early Stone Age left Africa with rudimentary tools and were then cut-off culturally once they reached East Asia, creating a cultural backwater.

    Others have suggested a lack of appropriate stone raw materials in East and Southeast Asia. In the new study, however, Bar-Yosef, Eren and colleagues showed otherwise by demonstrating that more complex stone tools could be manufactured on stone perceived to be "poor" in quality.

    Studies set out to test "bamboo theory" by replicating stone tools

    Prolific in East and Southeast Asia, bamboo stands grow fast and thick, reaching maturity in 5 to 7 years and totaling more than 1,000 species, the authors say.

    In a 2007 pilot study and a 2008 expanded study the authors worked with the Archaeological Field Research Station of the Hunan Provincial Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Relics in Shimen, China. Experiments were carried out in three locations across Hunan province known to possess clusters of Paleolithic sites.

    The researchers gathered different kinds of cobble-sized rocks along the banks of the Li, Wu and Xiao Shui rivers, similar to those that would have been available to prehistoric human ancestors.

    From those rocks, Eren easily replicated flake tools and stone choppers, some of them flaked on one side and some flaked on two sides. The team then observed a local bamboo toolmaker — who used metal tools to easily slice the bamboo — to learn techniques for sawing, shaving, splitting, peeling and chopping bamboo.

    Stone tools efficiently chopped down bamboo stalks and produced knives

    Using the crudely knapped stone choppers, the researchers in 84 minutes chopped down 14 bamboo stalks representing five species. When cut, the stalks, both small and large in diameter, totaled more than 65 meters in length. The stone tools performed remarkably well for that purpose, the authors write. That was especially true, they said, considering the tools were wielded by two modern people who were inexperienced with chopping bamboo, researchers Eren and Li. But Eren sometimes found himself scrambling up trees to release felled bamboo wedged in branches.

    After numerous trials, the researchers developed a simple "bamboo knife reduction sequence" that could produce 20 sharp, durable bamboo knives in about five hours. Using pork purchased from a local market, the researchers write, they found that the knives easily cut meat, but not hide.

    In other findings, the authors write that with a simple stone unifacial chopper, Bar-Yosef was able in 30 minutes to easily make a sharp spear that would have been capable of killing an animal. Also, using the replicated stone tools they were able to produce strips of bamboo thin enough for weaving baskets. "For some items, like baskets, bamboo might have been an ideal raw material," Eren said.

    "But one is left to wonder, at least for butchery tasks, why a prehistoric person would go to the trouble of producing a bamboo knife when a stone flake would certainly do the trick," the authors write.

    "The so-called bamboo hypothesis, to explain the virtual absence of complex prehistoric stone tool technologies in eastern and southeastern Asia, has been often cited but always remained somewhat ambiguous," said Parth Chauhan. "This unprecedented experimental study by Ofer Bar-Yosef, Metin Eren and colleagues represents a first step in the right direction, to confront a long-standing assumption about early human technological adaptations."

    EurekAlert.2011. "Scientists make bamboo tools to test theory explaining East Asia's Stone Age tool scarcity". EurekAlert. Posted: April 7, 2011. Available online:

    Saturday, April 23, 2011

    Historian weeps at groundbreaking Alexander the Great exhibition

    Robin Lane Fox calls Oxford show of artefacts dug from ancient capital 'the greatest day of classical exhibitions in my lifetime'

    The historian Robin Lane Fox was reduced to helpless tears at the opening of an exhibition in Oxford, over the glittering golden diadem of a woman who died more than 2,300 years ago and silver cups and wine jugs last used by Alexander the Great and his father, Philip II.

    Lane Fox – an Oxford academic who has not only written widely on Alexander the Great but also led the cavalry charge as an extra and adviser in the recent Hollywood film – described the treasures at the Ashmolean museum, retrieved from the graves and the palace of the king and his ancestors, as "the greatest day of classical exhibitions in my lifetime". He called the diadem of hundreds of golden myrtle flowers and leaves, probably worn by a queen who killed herself to join her husband, Philip II, in the grave, "the single most beautiful object in gold on the planet".

    Another diadem of golden oak leaves on display had only been rediscovered in 2008 after it was deliberately hidden with the cremated remains of a teenage boy who may have been Alexander's murdered son.

    Only a handful of the jewellery, weapons, armour, sculptures and fragments of architecture has ever been seen by the public anywhere, even in Greece. Some were excavated only in the past few years. Most of the pieces have been brought by Angeliki Kottaridi, curator and archaeologist, straight from her stores in Vergina – a small town situated on top of Aegae, the ancient capital of Macedon. The site has only begun in the last 30 years to reveal its secrets, which include the unlooted tombs of Philip II, of a queen who may have been his grandmother buried covered from head to foot in gold, and of Alexander IV, the last of the line of kings.

    Only a fraction of the cemetery (comprising more than 500 burial mounds) and Philip's huge palace have been excavated – enough, Lane Fox said, to suggest it made Buck House "look like a cottage". The building, as proved by the dazzling silver, was the scene of royal banquets on a scale which might have made Cecil B DeMille splutter: the 16 banqueting halls had space on double couches for more than 400 diners, while the court had room for 3,500 seated guests.

    Future excavation, and the plans for a major museum to display the extraodinary finds, may depend on what the future holds for the tottering Greek economy.

    "Our strength is our past, and our memory," Kottaridi said. "We need Alexander to help us; we need our pride restored again."

    Kennedy, Maev. 2011. "Historian weeps at groundbreaking Alexander the Great exhibition". Guardian. Posted: April 6, 2011. Available online:

    Friday, April 22, 2011

    ‘Citizen scientists’ help search for tomb of Genghis Khan via photos of Mongolia

    Albert Lin is hunting for Genghis Khan.

    Legend has it that Khan, the ruthless conqueror who was the first emperor of the Mongol Empire, was buried in an unmarked tomb in northern Mongolia about 800 years ago.

    But finding said tomb is a task that has eluded scientists for years. Mongolia encompasses more than 600,000 square miles of largely uncharted, rural territory, which makes Lin’s mission an extremely challenging one.

    Luckily, the explorer and research scientist at the University of California at San Diego has more than 7,000 people around the world helping with his mission, called the Valley of the Khans Project. The idea is to find the tombs of Genghis Khan and his descendants, and other ancient Mongolian artifacts.

    Lin’s army of helpers are amateurs, working from the comfort of their home computers.

    Through a Web site called Field Expedition Mongolia, which Lin and his colleagues developed jointly with National Geographic, volunteers are helping sift through 85,000 high-resolution satellite images of Mongolia.

    Every time volunteers log in to the site, they are shown some of these images. An online tutorial instructs them on how to look for particular objects and tag them as “roads,” “rivers,” “modern structures” or “ancient structures.” They can zoom in and out and scroll in all directions.

    They are also told to simply tag places as “other” if they see something peculiar. This is the sort of vague judgment that humans can perform but that computers cannot, Lin said.

    “What a computer can’t do is look for ‘weird things,’ but when you ask a human brain, you don’t have to tell it what ‘weird’ is; we know,” Lin said.

    Those weird things could be important archaeological finds, he said.

    Last summer, Lin and his colleagues were in Mongolia inspecting the places that had been tagged by the online volunteers. Anytime there was a cluster of tags marked as “ancient structure” or “other,” they would note the latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates, grab their GPS devices and scope it out.

    “We’d literally jump on horses or get in a helicopter and go check it out,” said Lin. “Every tag was weighted on how many other people tagged the same thing.”

    Projects like this one mark a new twist in “citizen science,” where new technology, when used effectively by large groups of people, can help speed up scientific developments, reduce costs and increase efficiency.

    Sometimes online volunteers led the explorers to disappointing finds, such as a herd of sheep on a satellite photo that looked like an ancient structure. But there were also some remarkable ones, such as the discovery of 3,000-year-old Bronze Age tombs, remnants of large cities and ancient monoliths hidden in the region’s vast, grassy steppe.

    “These are hard to find on horseback, but from space and in the images, you can make out these shapes,” Lin said.

    Making it fun

    Though professional scientists have collaborated with amateurs for decades, social networking and the Internet are making it more fruitful than ever.

    “We found that we could make something that was engaging enough to inspire people to participate without having to pay them,” says Lin. “This is the part of citizen science that is most interesting to me: How can we motivate people to dedicate their time?”

    How? By making it fun, Lin said.

    Lin began thinking about creating an online expedition that tied into his real one about five years ago, when’s Mechanical Turk made its debut.

    An online crowdsourcing marketplace, Mechanical Turk allows requesters with small tasks to pay people for their time. Anyone with an Amazon account can participate, and the tasks are usually quite simple, such as “pick out the images with tattoos from this set,” or “verify the existence of these business Web sites.” Some tasks pay just pennies, per task or verification, while others pay more.

    Lin believed that he could get more traction by creating a site that offered a fun experience rather than a paid one. “People are so excited to learn about Mongolian archaeology,” he said. “They start to learn stuff about what they’re doing and feel more connected to what’s going on in that part of the world.”

    Every volunteer who logs on to the Valley of the Khans project site, developed with a design company called Digitaria, gets to feel like an explorer, digging through images and playing what feels like a game but performing work that has much more significant ramifications.

    “It connects you more on a personal level than going to a museum,” said Allison Shefcyk, a 24-year-old in Connecticut who tagged more than 50,000 images from her home computer. “I ended up picking up some books on Genghis Khan and Mongol culture, and even though I never set foot there, it all provided a deeply moving experience."

    Biomedicine and galaxies

    The Khan expedition is not the only research project engaging people on their home computers with gaming strategies.

    Another is EteRNA, created by researchers at Carnegie Mellon and Stanford universities. It allows players to tinker with nucleotide bases and come up with synthetic RNA designs.

    The creators of the site hope that by generating a large assortment of designs, they can speed up discoveries in biomedicine. Every week, the most promising designs are actually synthesized by scientists in a lab at Stanford.

    An older project, Galaxy Zoo, allows volunteers to help classify images of galaxies taken by a robotic telescope in a project called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

    There were thousands of images to classify, so researchers decided to create a crowdsourcing tool that uses the public’s help in making classifications.

    To participate, volunteers flip through images and answer simple questions, such as whether a certain galaxy looks completely round, partially round or cigar-shaped.

    A year after its July 2007 launch, Galaxy Zoo had more than 50 million classifications from more than 150,000 people. The project so far has generated more than 20 academic papers by researchers around the world in astrophysics and astronomy journals.

    And birds, too

    Another project, run by the U.S. Geological Survey, is using crowdsourcing and technology to digitize a project called the Bird Phenology Program.

    The project was started by Wells Cooke, an American ornithologist who wanted to gather information on bird migration. Starting in 1881, amateur bird-watchers mailed in thousands of index cards detailing information on birds they had seen, first to Cooke and then to the American Ornithologists’ Union. The federal government maintained the program in its final years, but participation declined and it was closed in 1970.

    But the cards, and the wealth of information they contain, remain in file cabinets. The U.S. Geological Survey is scanning the cards, and volunteers can log on and enter the information into a central database.

    It’s secretarial work, not rocket science, said Jake Weltzin, executive director of the National Phenology Network, the USGS-funded organization that is coordinating the program, but “people really like to contribute to the scientific process and really feel they are contributing to a bigger project,” Weltzin said.

    “These are all volunteers; one person has digitized 20,000 cards,” Weltzin said. “We couldn't afford to pay her.”

    Eventually, researchers will be able to use the data to study population changes, and perhaps better understand the effect of climate change on birds and their habitats.

    Shefcyk, the enthusiastic volunteer in the Valley of the Khans project, said that participating was particularly meaningful to her.

    As a child, Shefcyk had trouble fitting in with other kids and was eventually identified as having an autism spectrum disorder. But she spent her time devouring books on archaeology and reading nonstop about dinosaurs, Egyptian pyramids and Mayan ruins.

    “I didn’t have many friends, and archaeology was the whole world to me,” she said. “I would always start conversations and ask things like ‘Who’s your favorite Mayan king?’ ”

    Flash forward 15 years and Shefcyk is still fascinated by archaeology and is a frequent visitor to the National Geographic Web site. When she found out that ordinary people could help Lin with his project, she was intrigued. So every day last summer, while Lin’s team was in Mongolia, she would tag images and look out for blog posts from the scientists. She was enthralled to read their chronicles and get quick feedback on the sites they visited. The explorers also offered tips to help volunteers tag objects more accurately.

    “It’s one of those things where you’re adding your piece, and it’s about knowing that you’re something that’s much bigger than yourself, no matter how small the involvement,” she said.

    As for whether any of the tagging has gotten him closer to finding the burial site of Genghis Khan or one of his successors, Lin is coy. “I can’t say yet what we found,” Lin said. “We’re in the midst of compiling the research.”

    Bhanoo, Sindya N. 2011. "‘Citizen scientists’ help search for tomb of Genghis Khan via photos of Mongolia". Washington Post. Posted: April 4, 2011. Available online:

    Thursday, April 21, 2011

    April 9: Letters to the editor: Another Side

    There is always another side to a story. In this case I was asked to publish the response to the previous posts about Nunavut and I agreed. The response is important because it is from the Premier of the Territory, Eva Aariak, who adds to the story, bringing hope where none was presented.

    Another side

    Re The Trials of Nunavut (April 2): I am saddened by the stories of people in Nunavut in distress, as these are stories that I know too well. But I am also saddened that writer Patrick White managed to get through six full pages of text without a glimmer of hope.

    While the article was factual, by excluding important progress that has taken place it paints an incomplete picture of our territory.

    Mr. White states that Nunavut’s representatives refuse to talk about social ailments, and that we foster a culture of silence in which problems are denied. Unfortunately I was not even provided an opportunity to speak with the reporter about these ailments and the work that is taking place to address them.

    Between poverty reduction, social housing, food security, community wellness, suicide prevention, and education, improving conditions in Nunavut dominates our discussions and our work on a daily basis.

    There is no culture of silence. In fact, the first act of our government was to go to every community to talk to people about the challenges we face and our shared role in overcoming them. As a consensus-style government with no party politics, this mandate came directly from the people of Nunavut.

    Mr. White talks about women’s roles in Nunavut without mentioning that top positions are held by women including Leona Aglukkaq, our Member of Parliament, Cathy Towtongie, president of our land claims organization and myself as Premier.

    The article also implies that the creation of Nunavut is somehow part of the problem rather than part of the solution. As if Inuit would be better off being governed by those who don’t live here, can’t understand the local language, and have no stake in our future.

    The people of Nunavut are doing great things every day and these stories deserve to be told as well.

    Eva Aariak, Premier of Nunavut

    For more information on Nunavut, visit the following sites:
  • Government of Nunavut
  • Nunavut Tourism.
  • Polar Net


    Aariak, Eva. 2011. "April 9: Letters to the editor: Another Side". Globe and Mail. Posted: April 9, 2011. Available online:
  • Wednesday, April 20, 2011

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

    Part IX

    The morning after the church service, the man with the broken back borrowed a snowmobile and sledged home to a ramshackle assemblage of landfill scraps about six kilometres from town. He has been on a waiting list for a real home 18 months and counting. He creaked upstairs to his bedroom filled with Montreal Canadiens memorabilia, cookie tins, Cuban cigar boxes, pulp paperbacks and video cassettes. An old brass thermometer read minus 15. It felt colder. He lit two Coleman stoves for heat and lay on his bed beneath a huge ceiling mirror.

    “I can't stand to look at myself,” he muttered, and sat back up.

    Leo Nangmalik's life story is a kind of microcosm of the modern history of Canada's Eastern Arctic. As a boy, he attended Sir Joseph Bernier School in Chesterfield Inlet. He remembers the Catholic nuns stripping him down and washing him, focusing a special vigour on his genitals. There was a priest who did worse, he says. When he tried to tell his mother, she would hit him and call him a liar.

    He would go on to spend years in prison. He has held a rifle to his head. “I could never pull the trigger,” he said, adding that he didn't want his 13 kids growing up without a father, even though he hasn't been much of a father.

    The hiss of the Coleman stoves masked Mr. Nangmalik's sobs. “Until now, until the Coral Harbour group arrived, whenever I told these things, I was called a liar,” he wheezed. “I am here. This was done to me. I am not lying.”

    And then, as if the thought had just occurred to him: “I want to live,” he said. “I want all of us to get past the hardships.”

    He said he had gone to the healing service because it was run by men like him, not qallunaat or even government workers. If Nunavut is to overcome its culture of low expectations, part of the answer must come that way, up from the bottom, as the church leader, Mr. Kaludjuak, had said that night.

    “I can see now that the federal government was trying to help,” Mr. Kaludjuak said. “They tried to get us in houses, to feed us, to have us live like them. … There were consequences they could not see. And now the men here sit around like children. It is up to us to change that, not government.”

    This is one of Nunavut's biggest problems: The region's history has left its people so distrustful of change from above that they may not accept interventions even from their own territorial government.

    “In the past,” Mr. Bell said, “change has been painful. So they've become reactionary in the literal sense of the word. It's rooted in the trauma of the past and a sentimentalized view of the past.”

    But things must change in Nunavut, and its leaders must tell the truth of how the system is failing – just as Mr. Nangmalik must tell his truth.

    Outside his shack, darkness had won the battle of contrasts. A blue halo encircled the moon, just as it did on that hopeful night a dozen years ago. A clear night sky promised a bright day tomorrow.

    “What I have told you,” Mr. Nangmalik said, looking across the bay, “I have never been able to tell. I feel a peace right now. Maybe this is what we need, this talking.”

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

    Tuesday, April 19, 2011

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

    Part VIII

    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:

    Monday, April 18, 2011

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

    Part VII

    Throughout Nunavut, Inuit leaders appeal to tradition as a response to violence and despair. Outsiders are bewildered by the claim that to progress, society must regress. But in smaller, more remote places such as Repulse Bay, you can at least partly see their point.

    Repulse Bay is an 800-person hamlet two flights northeast of Iqaluit. Located directly on the Arctic Circle, about 2,000 kilometres due north of Thunder Bay, it ranks near the basement of territorial socio-economic indicators. The median income is below $20,000; unemployment sits around 40 per cent. As of 2006, only five of the 175 young people here between 15 and 24 had a high-school diploma.

    But, despite the lack of an economy, schooling and any real government presence, the Repulse Bay crime rate is far closer to the national average. RCMP records show just 156 Criminal Code violations last year and 150 in each of the previous two years, probably giving it the lowest crime rate in Nunavut.

    “If you talk to people who visit a lot of remote communities across Nunavut, they'll tell you people in Repulse just seem happier than people elsewhere,” said a visiting physician, dining on dry meat loaf and cherry pie one evening at the local hotel. “It's hard to describe.”

    Steve Mapsalak, a former MLA and renowned hunting guide who is now the town's Senior Administrative Officer, said his town may not be perfect, but its relative peace stems from a way of life grounded in fishing and hunting.

    “We don't hunt as a hobby here,” Mr. Mapsalak said. “It's our way of life, our currency, our welfare system, our culture. We spread our meat to the old and the poor. A good hunter raises the entire community.”

    Still, old ways cannot erase the recent history. The ghosts of residential schools and the harsh transition to settlement life linger here as everywhere else. But Repulse Bay is working its way past them, with a little help from Jesus Christ and Sigmund Freud.

    Also in the hotel dining hall was a grey-haired clinical psychologist named Bruce Handley. As the Newfoundland construction workers around the table gobbled down their last crumbs of pie, Dr. Handley tried to recruit bodies for a community-healing service at the town hall later that night.

    “I promise it will be a very interesting service,” he said. “They get up front and confess their sins and sing and cry. When they really feel the spirit, I've actually seen them vomit that evil all over the floor.”

    Around 7 p.m., he took a seat among 150 chairs filled with stern hunters, acned teens, even babies. This was the culmination of a three-day visit by a men's healing group from nearby Coral Harbour. Dr. Handley, who spent decades working largely in prairie prisons, would mediate. The approach was not exactly clinically orthodox: The Coral Harbour group, complete with four-piece rock band, was running a Pentecostal prayer service.

    “Others in my profession might dismiss it,” he said. “But after 40 years doing this, I've found that putting therapy in spiritual terms makes it much easier to understand. They are a very spiritual people, and always have been. We shouldn't be fighting that.”

    A man named Willie Eetuk had started the Coral Harbour group nearly four years ago, when he realized he had to speak about his addictions to conquer them but could find nobody, government-

    sponsored or otherwise, to help. He put a call out on the bush radio. The first meeting attracted 15 and soon grew to 50.

    Noel Kaludjuak was one of the first. “I was an alcoholic,” he said. “I drank because of my past. My parents were born on the land. In the 1960s, the government moved us to communities. But my father stayed out hunting. I grew up fatherless. Many of us did.

    “We didn't learn how to lead a household, to be a man, so we abused drugs. When my father returned, he beat my mom. I did the same thing. I disassociated from the world.”

    The band launched into a tune. As the kick-drum rattled the blue and yellow walls, a woman in the front row rose, dancing with her hands reaching to the heavens. A dozen more mimicked her. The Coral Harbour men did a laying-on of hands with a family of five who had walked to the front of the room, telling them that Jesus knew their sins and loved them still. A woman gyrated, her legs failed and the Coral Harbour men caught her. A man with a broken back said he felt cured.

    When the band finished, a succession of men took the microphone. “I have hurt my family,” John Tinashlu said tearily. “I have raised my voice and my fists. I said this in prayer now I say it to you. I have not been a good father. I drank. I cannot hide it any more. I love you, son. I hurt you. I love you. I used to blame others. No more.”

    It was bedlam, rapture, therapy – a homegrown truth-and-reconciliation hearing. After the four-hour service, all 200 people streamed out wiping their red eyes and revved home on snowmobiles. The next day, some sought out Dr. Handley for one-on-one sessions.

    While self-help and evangelism are surely no cure-all for Nunavut's shortcomings, they do offer one way to give voice to personal demons – a non-violent means of release.

    “We don't pretend that we can fix the pain of all Nunavut,” said Mr. Kaludjuak, the Coral Harbour church leader. “We have many problems here. But you can't make a healthy place without healthy minds.”

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

    Sunday, April 17, 2011

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

    Part VI

    The generation gap, overcrowding, poor education, alcohol and cycles of violence – the casualties of all these faults languish in a squat, metal-sided building that the Deputy Director of Corrections likes to refer to as “the sardine can.”

    The Baffin Correctional Centre lies roughly 30 seconds from downtown Iqaluit. On a recent weekend shift, security doors hung crookedly from bent hinges, sinks didn't work and doors had been ripped from toilet stalls.

    Inmates sipped fruit punch from melamine mugs, played checkers and stared longingly at bedside magazine cut-outs of Taylor Swift, Scarlett Johansson and federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq – or “Queen Leona” as one male inmate referred to her.

    In the basketball gym, narrow cots crowded the court from baseline to baseline. J.P. Deroy, the deputy director, said there were a few days last year when the gym was free of beds, but usually it's teeming with around 100 inmates, almost 100 per cent above the jail's capacity.

    “How are you supposed to run rehab programs in a place like this? Most of the year, it's too cold outside and it's too crowded inside,” Mr. Deroy said, pacing the jail's halls.

    One inmate in solitary leaped from his bed and waved through a small window when he saw Mr. Deroy walk by. A guard opened the door. “You need something?”

    “Nope,” said the prisoner, a broad-shouldered Inuk in his early 20s with buzzed hair. “Just wondering what you guys was up to.” He and the guards lapsed into neighbourly banter.

    Asked his name, he turned his back and pointed a thumb at a tattoo stretching between his soldier blades: “INUKSTA.” He then drew attention to several places where he had scratched the moniker on the cell wall.

    “I spend a lot of time here,” he said. “Gotta find something to do with my time.”

    Inuksta grew up in poverty with his Inuktitut-speaking grandparents. His struggles with English led to fights, first with other students and then with teachers.

    He has been in and out of juvenile-detention facilities and the Baffin Correctional Centre ever since, on a string of charges.

    “We know you very, very well, don't we?” Mr. Deroy said. “Are you still causing the guards problems?”

    Inuksta just smiled, looked bashfully at his prison-issue sandals. “Maybe a little, yeah.”

    Criminologists debate endlessly about the root causes of crime waves, but one thing is generally agreed: The larger the proportion of youth in a given population, especially undereducated ones, the worse the crime problem.

    “While the rest of the country is getting older, Nunavut is getting younger,” said V Division's Chief Supt. McVarnock. “You mix a young population with alcohol and limited options, you're going to have problems.”

    Rising crime has put stress on the courts as well. The average number of prisoners waiting for court dates has increased to 63 in 2010 from 18 in 1999.

    In its proposed budget before the federal election call, Ottawa had pledged $4.2-million over two years to hire judges and prosecutors for Nunavut, responding to a terse letter from Nunavut Chief Justice Robert Kilpatrick that cited the territory's youthful demographics.

    For the time being, Inuksta seemed resigned to calling prison a permanent second home.

    “I get out, and I try, but I always end up here,” he said, smiling at the guards. “Wouldn't be surprised if that keeps happening, I guess.”

    As his visitors moved on, he shuffled his sandals back into solitary, and closed his door behind him.

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

    Saturday, April 16, 2011

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

    Part V

    If Nunavut has any shot at beating back its demons, it needs to dry out first. On average, Nunavummiut spend $940 each a year on alcohol, more than almost anywhere else in the country, according to Statistics Canada. That doesn't include black-market purchases, which easily run as high as $100 for a 375-millilitre mickey of vodka. Such sums cripple household budgets as much as the booze cripples household health – a whole society in a state of cirrhosis.

    “I'd say nine out of 10 – heck, even 10 out of 10 – things we deal with stem directly from alcohol,” Constable Pottie said. “We cut down the booze, we cut down the crime.”

    And this is despite the country's most draconian alcohol regulations. Since 1976, Nunavut's hamlets have had a choice of three types of booze control: open, restricted or dry – with respective efficacy rates of limited, not much and nil.

    Just as American Prohibition was a paradise for the likes of Al Capone, Nunavut's scattershot liquor laws have been a windfall for smugglers and bootleggers whose influence has continuously undermined the territory's efforts at social stability.

    Iqaluit is among five “open” communities. Even there, residents can't legally buy liquor in stores. They must order it, for personal use, or drink inside select establishments. Seven Nunavut hamlets are currently “dry” and the remaining 13 are “restricted.”

    One of those 13 is Cape Dorset, where one Tuesday evening, a skinny young woman, 19, sat fidgeting in a chair, waiting to appear before the town's Alcohol Education Committee to apply for her first alcohol permit.

    “I want to start off slow, ask for a 60-ouncer at first,” she said. “Then I'll work my way up.”

    This panel of prominent locals scrutinizes individual alcohol orders, deciding to reject, accept or reduce each request based on its assessment of a person's ability to hold his or her liquor. In light of the Incidents, the five-person committee was considering new monthly alcohol limits: 72 cans of beer, five 750-millilitre bottles of hard liquor, 30 bottles of wine. They did not seem to discuss what a doctor might think of someone chugging 30 bottles of wine a month.

    “We want to be helpful without restricting people,” said Chris Pudlat, one of the committee members.

    Yet the biggest problem with alcohol in Nunavut is not how much people drink, but how much they drink all at once. Darryl Wood, an assistant professor at Washington State University and the only criminologist who has studied alcohol policies in Nunavut, characterizes it as “low frequency, high quantity” – consumption habits that stretch binge drinking to dizzying new levels. It is common for people to guzzle a mickey of vodka straight, barely stopping to breathe. Inebriation sets in immediately and forcefully.

    “I once saw a little girl slugging back a bottle,” said Constable Alex Benoit, one of the Cape Dorset policemen involved in the Incidents. “When we stopped her and asked her what she was doing, she said she was trying to pass out. That was the goal. Not to have fun or enjoy herself. It was to black out. Alcohol is used differently here.”

    Last April, Mr. Peterson struck a task force dedicated to solving Nunavut's alcohol problem, which is entertaining the counterintuitive idea of opening beer-and-wine stores to combat liquor consumption.

    Many people argue that the open sale of lower-proof alcohol would break the vodka-bootlegging trade and reduce the extremes of intoxication.

    But few issues in Nunavut are as politically combustible as liquor legislation.

    Thirty-five years ago, residents of Iqaluit (then called Frobisher Bay) could buy booze at a regular liquor store. But when a drunk driver struck and killed a child, a full-fledged temperance movement developed, soon amassing such fervent support that the territorial commissioner ceded to popular demand and shuttered the Iqaluit liquor store.

    “Since then, few local politicians have dared propose that the Iqaluit liquor store be reopened for retail sales,” Mr. Bell wrote in a recent Nunatsiaq News story on the issue. “It's still a radioactive issue, capable of incinerating all who go near it.”

    After a little while, the Cape Dorset Committee called in the young woman.

    “So you want a 60-ouncer?” Mr. Pudlat asked.


    “How old are you?”


    “What will you do with it?”

    “Just mix a few drinks. No parties.”

    The committee conferred for all of 10 seconds.

    “Yes, one 60-ouncer is fine,” Mr. Pudlat ruled.

    The teen smiled. But if she had been turned down, she would have had other options.

    “Black market,” she said. “That's where I get it now.”

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

    Friday, April 15, 2011

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

    Part IV

    By day, Iqaluit can seem downright sleepy. Locals sit for hours in warm hotel lobbies to pass the time. The half-dozen restaurants here keep such irregular hours that it's a gamble to try to find breakfast on a weekend morning.

    “From the statistics, one would get the sense that you walk around our communities and you get shot at,” said RCMP Chief Superintendent Steve McVarnock, head of Nunavut V Division in Iqaluit. “It's not like that. We don't have the big-city crime issues. Our stuff is self-destruction.”

    And on a weekend night, those implosions are on full display.

    That's what makes the detachment a perfect place to break in fresh-faced Mounties such as Constable Shane Pottie, a 23-year-old Nova Scotian nearly two years out of training, who patrolled the capital city on a recent Friday night.

    “It's a great experience,” he said of northern policing, navigating his GMC pickup down a hill overlooking the small bowl where most of Iqaluit's inhabitants live. “I'll kick in more doors in a year than a lot of guys do in a career.”

    His shift began at 9 p.m. For an hour, he crisscrossed town waiting for a call, slowing down on each five-minute pass to idle around a knot of kids playing road hockey late into the night.

    “That's just the way it is up here for kids,” he said. “Safer to be on the street than at home.”

    But after that, the whole city seemed to erupt. Over the next few hours, Constable Pottie would kick in two doors, wrestle several drunkards to the ground, track footprints at a break-in scene outside a school, help process 15 prisoners, continually dodge the widening river of urine forming on the floor of the detachment's lock-up and save an infant from falling out of her mother's amauti (a Inuit parka with an extra-large hood designed to carry a baby).

    At 2 a.m. came an innocuous-sounding call. “Detox male standing in the road punching cars,” a dispatcher monotoned over the truck radio.

    “Alpha-7, 17,” Constable Pottie responded. He was on his way, deking around the hockey boys again, their little bodies now steaming in the minus-10-degree night. Then the dispatcher crackled again: “Detox male now has a knife and is threatening people.” The policeman gunned the truck. City scenery blurred past: unsteady drunks milling around the four main bars, the dim orange lights of an entire grid run on diesel generators, dinged-up cabs delivering intoxicated people or their intoxicants.

    Constable Pottie fishtailed around a corner and headed down an alley until his brake lights burst red against the snow. Thirty metres ahead, barely visible at the edge of his high beams, someone in socked feet leaned unsteadily against a house. Constable Pottie drove close, jumped out and drew the nine-millimetre gun from his holster.

    Another squad truck charged in from the opposite direction. Two Mounties jumped out, nine-millimetres up. The young man was cornered.

    “Get down on the ground!” one of the other officers yelled. “Drop the knife and get down now.”

    The guy's eyes darted about until three blurry gun barrels came into focus. He couldn't have been more than 15.

    He glanced down at his two-inch blade and then at his socks. For a moment, he seemed to think he would test his knife-at-a-gunfight odds, and lunged forward.

    The three Mounties raised their guns. In the midst of his lunge, the kid lost his footing, stumbled and, finally, fell, belly against snow. One young Mountie leaned his knee against the man's back. There were convulsions, then vomit – the rage all gone.

    The officers took turns comforting him, patting the back of a teenager who had threatened them with a knife moments earlier.

    Ambulance lights reflected off the dark white hills surrounding Iqaluit. Constable Pottie's shift had several hours to go.

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

    Thursday, April 14, 2011

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

    Part III

    Iqaluit is Nunavut's boom town, its big smoke, its metropolis. The airport hums all night. Big banks, absent from most other hamlets, line the main drag. In a new and welcome development, Iqalummiut can even buy double-doubles.

    And yet, here in Nunavut's bridge to modern Canada, one in five houses is overcrowded and one in 10 families use their living room as a bedroom. Hundreds of homes need major repairs.

    The government of Nunavut is working on it: The town is filled with welding sparks, hard hats and the growing steel skeletons of sturdy apartment blocks. But Iqaluit's residential boom is outpacing the construction boom – its population has nearly doubled, to 7,250, since it officially became the capital in 1999 and professionals from all over the country started coming to seek high-paying government jobs.

    That invasion ramped up the already-existing tension between Inuit and newcomers. Despite a mandate to fill 85 per cent of government jobs by 2020 with Inuit, the rate has languished around 50 per cent for a decade, because Nunavut's education system cannot produce enough qualified candidates.

    Ms. Redfern, the new mayor, is perhaps the most prominent critic of this broken system. “We live in a chilly banana republic,” she said last year, a few weeks before she would become mayor.

    At the time, she was bemoaning her chances of ever holding public office in her home territory. Born in the North to an Inuit mother and a father who had immigrated from England, she went through grade school in Ottawa before going on to law school and becoming the first Inuk to clerk for the Supreme Court of Canada. She doesn't speak Inuktitut fluently, and her southern education is treated suspiciously up here.

    “I think it's the same in a lot of small places,” she said. “It's an insular culture here and when you go away, you're not always trusted immediately upon your return.”

    This discourages some youth from seeking education away, even as dropout rates at home sit at 75 per cent. Those who do graduate receive an education that falls well short of standards in the South. Thanks to an unofficial policy of “social promotion” that grants students passing grades regardless of academic performance, graduates can possess both a high-school diploma and functional illiteracy. Last autumn, one non-Inuit family in Cape Dorset was planning a move to Ontario because the hamlet's high school didn't offer a single university-recognized course.

    And yet education is what Nunavut arguably needs the most. Half of the territory's population is under 25, with a birth rate that leads the nation – a demographic crush of ignorance and incompetence that could hamstring the territory for decades.

    Nunavut's political culture is overtly populist but deeply conservative. There is a strong resistance to change, and reverence for all things traditional. Encouraging young men to hunt is a popular remedy to virtually every social problem, though one might question the encouragement of gun use in such a violent climate. The majority's views on women's roles, abortion and gay marriage hark back to an era before the suffrage movement. Elders are the ultimate authority, their wisdom unquestionable as an oracle's.

    Such a culture can become incapable of identifying its core problems, let alone addressing them. For example, the territory introduced a suicide-prevention plan only last year, even though the crisis was well documented at the very outset of Nunavut. Two people involved with the process said it was impossible to convince Inuit leadership that Southern solutions such as increased mental-health services and providing training in suicide intervention were viable solutions to a uniquely northern problem.

    Even Nunavut Health Minister Tagak Curley, one of the original Inuit activists, told The Globe and Mail, “Suicide isn't such a big problem any more” – a statement in plain contradiction of the facts.

    One of Mr. Curley's colleagues, Justice Minister Keith Peterson, is far more forthcoming. He sees all the suicide death notices (more than 320 since 1999), speaks with the shattered families and talks openly about the plight of Nunavut's youth.

    “I'm not going to sit here and tell you why they're doing it, or how to solve it,” Mr. Peterson said. “We don't know.”

    Nor does he have the money to find out. Roughly 90 per cent of the territorial budget comes directly from Ottawa, which works out to about $32,000 for every Nunavummiuq. Earlier this year, Mr. Peterson, who is also Nunavut's Finance Minister, was scrambling to fill a $110-million shortfall in the Housing Department caused by the inability to keep pace with population growth – a shortfall that worked out to roughly 10 per cent of the territory's total budget.

    To make matters worse, the Nunavut Act bars its government from holding debt greater than $200-million. Already owing $140-million, the territory has little room to borrow or sell bonds to erase the shortfall, especially with an ever-growing list of badly needed infrastructure projects it can't afford.

    That means cuts. Big ones. “We're stretched. … It's taken some real stick-handling on my part to straighten this thing out.” Mr. Peterson said. “Good thing I'm a hockey player.”

    But the rink is tilted against him. In a series of investigations, federal Auditor-General Sheila Fraser has revealed the extent of Nunavut's bureaucratic dysfunction: In one recent audit, her office found that its public service limps along with 23 per cent of its positions unfilled, and a hiring process so sluggish it undermines the most basic functions of government.

    “It's clear we have a crisis in leadership here,” Ms. Redfern said, bumping along Iqaluit's icy roads in her Ford pickup one afternoon. “People here have to realize Nunavut is a tool. It will give us a leg up only if we use it properly – if we decide to embrace self-improvement, education, good governance. So far, we haven't.”

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

    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 Chrétien, 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. Chrétien'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:

    Tuesday, April 12, 2011

    The trials of Nunavut: Lament for an Arctic nation

    I intend to post each of the nine parts of this article over the next nine days. Is it the ghost of Davis Inlet rising again? Has Canada, as a nation, not learned its lessons?

    Part I

    Inside the dead man's house, Elisapee Qaumagiaq fell silent. She let the walls speak for her.

    Someone had plunged his knuckles through the hallway drywall again and again and again, from the kitchen all the way down to the bedrooms. The blood had been washed away, but the tale of murder, outlined in felt-pen evidence markings, swirled beneath Ms. Qaumagiaq's snow boots.

    She looked around for a few moments before saying the place was giving her “the creeps” and heading outside for a smoke in the minus-10-degree gale strafing the shores of Tellik Inlet. Ms. Qaumagiaq was with Cape Dorset's housing agency. She was responsible for getting the place back in shape, to help answer the never-ending shortage of shelter in the area. But, with so many scenes of death in recent months, the task was weighing on her.

    “He was a good kid,” she said of the young man who lived there until he was shot last September. “Just a little angry.”

    His death began a run of gun violence that terrorized Cape Dorset, the 1,300-person hamlet and famed sculpture and printmaking centre nuzzled against the Precambrian cliffs of tiny Dorset Island, just off the southwestern coast of Baffin Island. Around here, the events are simply referred to as “the Incidents,” if they're mentioned at all.

    On the night of Sept. 19, a Sunday, a Grade 11 student named Peter Kingwatsiak allegedly crept into his uncle's bedroom and tried to stab the older man in the head while he slept, then fled after his uncle awoke. According to police, the teen then grabbed a gun, walked into his stepbrother's home and opened fire on the slumbering young man. Mappaluk Adla, or Mupp as he was known among friends at the youth centre, crawled for help, but never made it past the front door. He was eight days short of his 23rd birthday. The next day, schools were locked down until police picked up his accused killer around lunchtime.

    Three weeks later, on Oct. 10, a 19-year-old man named Elee Geetah allegedly shot dead his brother, Jamesie Simigak, in a dispute over an iPod. He then barricaded himself inside a house and came out only after the RCMP flew in an emergency-response team from Iqaluit.

    Finally, three days later, two Grade 9 boys sprayed the town with gunfire and traded shots with the police. One bullet flew through a constable's front window and embedded in his bathtub. His wife and two daughters were away at the time, but afterward the entire family left Cape Dorset, never to return.

    The police and local media talked of a town unravelling, of a place where social norms had collapsed. What no one said aloud was that the unhinged town was symptomatic of an unhinged territory. While Canadians were aware there were social problems in the North, the outbreak of mayhem in Cape Dorset last fall drew broad attention for the first time to their violent extremes – the toll Nunavut pays in cold blood.

    The rate of violent crime per capita here is seven times what it is in the rest of Canada. The homicide rate is around 1,000 per cent of the Canadian average. And the number of crimes reported to the police have more than doubled in the dozen years since the territory was formed. If it were an independent country, Nunavut's crime statistics would place it in the realm of South Africa or Mexico.

    Even more than Nunavummiut harming each other, they are hurting themselves: Inuit males aged 15 to 24 have a suicide rate 40 times that of their peers in the rest of Canada, and children are abused at a rate 10 times the national average, even as 50 per cent of social-worker positions stand vacant.

    Beyond physical violence, on the 12th anniversary of its founding, Nunavut is struggling on all levels just to meet the basic needs of its 33,000 inhabitants. Seven in 10 preschoolers grow up in houses without adequate food. Within Confederation, Nunavut ranks last in virtually every measure – education, general health, substance abuse, employment, income and housing.

    With this kind of havoc and hardship, it's hard not to conclude that Nunavut is a failing state – that the bold experiment in domestic nation-building Canada launched in 1999 has gone deeply wrong. Is it at risk of becoming our own Haiti of the Arctic Circle, or can something be done to reverse the damage?

    When they are asked, however, many Nunavut politicians refuse to talk about the violence and dysfunction. This includes the most powerful local bureaucrat in Cape Dorset, its Senior Administrative Officer, Olayuk Akesuk. “Us Inuit have a different way of trying to forget,” he said. “We keep it to ourselves. You don't want to remind people, or it comes back. We don't want to remind anyone of what happened in the past.”

    There are many explanations for this reticence – from a desire to deflect attention from the societal ills so often reported in the southern media, to a deep and historically understandable mistrust of qallunaat (white people), to a belief that the spirits of the dead walk among us and must be respected. Perhaps most important, Nunavut is an ethnic state, formed of Inuit, by Inuit, for Inuit. Any slight against the territory can be perceived as a slight against the people.

    Unfortunately, the result is a culture of silence in which problems are denied, or reflexively answered with an appeal to the traditions of the elders. In a territory with a burgeoning youth population and staggering social problems, this tight lid can serve to heighten the pressure, and there is danger that it will explode. If Cape Dorset, a bustling artists' enclave that should be one of the North's great success stories, can't hold it together, what hope do the other 24 Nunavut towns have?

    One of the few people who would speak openly was the new mayor of the territory's capital, Madeleine Redfern, and she put it bluntly: “What's increasingly clear is that we were not ready for Nunavut.”


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