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: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/nunavut/the-trials-of-nunavut-lament-for-an-arctic-nation/article1963420/singlepage/#articlecontent

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