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:

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