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Throwback Thursday: Nunavut up and running

On April 1, 1999, Canada’s youngest population took control of its largest territory. Here’s how Canadian Geographic covered the story. 

Women in Nunavut running across a snow-covered field towards the camera Expand Image

Peter Ernerk was on the phone from Iqaluit, dealing in facts and figures about Nunavut, when he stopped and said, “Why don’t I just send you an e-mail?” And then he stopped again and said, “You know, sometimes I’m amazed. Forty years ago I was living in an igloo. Now I’m sending e-mails.”

Ernerk’s own experiences offer a context for understanding the latest development in the lives of the Inuit of the eastern Canadian Arctic: the birth this April 1 of the territory of Nunavut. Changes have come dizzyingly fast to the people in this stern and lovely world. A century ago, they were living in a stone age, hunting seals and caribou with weapons of rock or bone. Four decades or so ago, they left hunting camps and semi-nomadic lives for settlements with federally funded and administered schools and nursing stations. Now, with the creation of Nunavut, they will govern one-fifth of the Canadian landmass.

“The Inuit have shown themselves to be very adaptable to change,” says Ernerk, Nunavut deputy minister-designate for culture, language, elders and youth. “We’ve survived in a harsh land. We’ll survive this, too. I am very much challenged by events, but very confident of the people’s ability.”

The challenges are considerable. Nunavut will be a huge territory: 60 percent of today’s Northwest Territories including most of the Canadian Arctic islands. It is a land of tundra and mountains, of tiny shoreside hamlets and extensive mineral resources, of endlessly bright summers and unequivocally dark winters. The 27,219 people — 85 per cent Inuit and, with 56 per cent under 25 years of age, the youngest population in Canada — are scattered in 28 communities, most vast distances apart.

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Thousands of seabirds nest on the cliffs of the Bylot Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary at the northern tip of Baffin Island. (Photo: Michelle Valberg)

Nunavut has two facets: the land claim settlement, via the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act, and the creation of a new territory, via the Nunavut Act. The land claim settlement — largest in Canada — gives the Inuit ownership of 350,000 square kilometres of land (including subsurface minerals in a carefully selected 10 per cent of that) and compensation from the federal government of $1.148 billion over 14 years (held in a trust with the interest used to finance business, student scholarships and support for hunters).

The Inuit also gain a share of resource royalties, hunting rights and a greater role in managing the land and protecting the environment. In exchange, they signed away future claims to aboriginal rights and title to all remaining lands and water in Nunavut.

The second facet, the territory of Nunavut, is a 1.994-million-square-kilometre severance from the Northwest Territories, which is left with 1.299 million square kilometres. The Nunavut border north of the Prairie provinces more or less follows the treeline and, with some overlap, more or less delineates traditional Inuit, Dene and Cree lands.

Constitutionally, Nunavut has the same territorial powers and responsibilities as the N.W.T. and Yukon. However, the Inuit majority makes it a de facto model of self-government. By contrast, aboriginal groups — Dene, Inuit, Métis and others — will comprise only 48 per cent of N.W.T.’s population after the creation of Nunavut. Through their new government, Nunavut residents will be in charge of education, health, social services, language, culture, housing, justice and other areas. Government departments and agencies will be established throughout the territory to ensure access to services and jobs. Initially, some government services will be contracted back to the N.W.T. until a Nunavut infrastructure is in place. Given Nunavut’s small tax base and the cost of providing government services in the Arctic, it will receive up to 95 per cent of its operating budget from the federal government. Federally, residents will be represented by one member of Parliament and one senator. Municipal-level governments will remain in place.

All adults living in Nunavut will be eligible to vote and run for office — first elections are to be held on February 15. A 19-member elected legislative assembly, including a cabinet, and a single-level territorial court will be the primary institutions. The legislative assembly is expected to operate consensus-style without political parties, like recent N.W.T. legislatures. All members will be independents.

“What will make it different is the personality of the government and how it behaves, and how it does politics,” says John Amagoalik, chairman of the Nunavut Implementation Commission. “In terms of its organization, it’s not that different. It will be the people who will make a difference.”

An example of this occurred at a recent meeting of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., Nunavut’s land claim administrators. People were seated with others from their respective regions — Baffin, Keewatin, Kitikmeot — and respective organizations. One youth delegate stood up when it was his turn to speak and said: I see you all sitting in your three regional blocks as if you are here to defend the position of your region. I’d like you to switch places with him, and you to move over there, and you over there … and so on, until everyone was mixed up. When the shuffle was over, he said, “That’s how Nunavut will have to work.”

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Ladanian Ikuallaq (left) and Puyuaq Uttaq ride through Gjoa Haven on an ATV. (Photo: Michelle Valberg)

The earliest paleo-Eskimo cultures in the arctic regions of the western hemisphere date back 4,000 years, when the first of three or four increasingly sophisticated hunting societies moved across Bering Strait to present-day Alaska, northern Canada and Greenland. The Inuit in Canada are descended from the most recent of these societies, the Thule, whose presence dates back 1,000 to 1,200 years.

A strong, egalitarian Inuit society emerged from Thule culture, largely a result of eastward migration. Groups in Alaska and on the western Arctic coast hunted the abundant coastal whale herds, while the smaller social units that migrated east of the Mackenzie delta relied on more readily available and smaller animals — seal, walrus, caribou, muskox. Two general traits came to define the Inuit character: sharing in the hunt to ensure survival of the group and an attitude of patience, acceptance and enduring confidence, best captured as ayurnamat, loosely translated to “oh well, it can’t be helped, better luck next time.”

There were occasional contacts with Europeans — Norsemen a millennium ago, Northwest Passage seekers in Elizabethan times and again in the 19th century, and whalers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The beginning of this century also brought the triple presence of missionaries, mounties and Hudson’s Bay Company traders. Though no treaties were signed, the Canadian government took northern peoples under its jurisdiction with the creation of an Ottawa-based territorial council in 1870, waiting almost a century, until 1966, to create the first elected positions on the council for the people of the eastern Arctic. Indeed, it was only in 1960 that all aboriginal peoples in Canada were accorded the right to vote in federal elections. Canadian Inuit lived generally beyond the influence of southern society until the shift to settlement living in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Canadian government began providing health care, housing and education. Many parents’ desire for their children to learn to read and write in English led to their move from the land into settlements. The launch of the Anik A-1 satellite in 1972 brought television — CBC and Hockey Night in Canada — to the Arctic and played no small role in the precipitous decline in the use of lnuktitut. The demise of the sealskin industry in the 1970s eliminated a traditional occupation for many young men, some of whom turned, despondently, to substance abuse and suicide.

But the incursion of southern culture brought some benefits. Aside from the practical — rifles and outboards, radios and telephones — there were new social and political concepts: almost immediately, calls for an Inuit territory in the eastern Canadian Arctic were heard.

Precedents for Inuit self-determination included the Alaska Native Claims Settlement in 1971 (which awarded 180,000 square kilometres of land and $967 million (US) to Alaskan native peoples), the 1975 James Bay land claim (which established a basis for various institutions of Cree and Inuit self-government, such as school boards and health and social service agencies), the institution of home rule in Greenland in 1979 (by which the Danish government turned over control of domestic affairs to the almost entirely Inuit government of Greenland), and the 1984 lnuvialuit settlement (which gave western Arctic Inuit a portion of their traditional lands, including shares of oil and gas royalties).

About 25 years ago, Ottawa began in earnest a policy of “devolving” responsibility to native communities — passing on the administration of programs. Today, 82 per cent of programs are native-administered with varying degrees of autonomy.

In 1982, a N.W.T. plebiscite saw 56.4 per cent of voters answering yes to the question “Do you think the Northwest Territories should be divided?” The federal government agreed to an eventual division on the condition that all land claims be settled. Politicos such as Amagoalik, who is widely known as the “father of Nunavut” for his 28 years of campaigning and organizing, were unwavering in their quest for a home territory, but they were also patient. There were no strident demands, no demonstrations, no court cases. They used positive arguments only, highlighting their commitment to Canadian unity.

The approach wasn’t necessarily planned, says Amagoalik, but was “just our way of doing things. It was a good way in that it worked. I’ve been doing a lot of travelling in southern Canada, and I find Canadians feel good about Nunavut.”

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On the sea ice near Iqualuit. (Photo: André Gallant, scanned from the Canadian Geographic archives)

The Nunavut Agreement is the first step in building a foundation for a healthier community. “We have the means now and we have the responsibility,” says Amagoalik. “We must get down and tackle the problems.”

The problems are manifold: unemployment (averaging 29 per cent), substance-abuse (35 per cent of Nunavut residents have sniffed solvents), suicide (six times the national average). But there is optimism that improvements will come through community-level efforts. “One difference is that we will have control of the government, of the budget, of the priorities,” says Amagoalik. “A lot of efforts in past have failed I think mainly because the people who controlled the money were not part of the aboriginal community it was meant to serve.”

“We need to diversify our economy, create jobs, improve our education system … We want to create jobs, but at the same time stick to the principles of respect for the land and respect for the environment.”

Nunavut’s economic future is firmly linked to its renewable and non-renewable natural resources mining and petroleum development, commercial fishing and hunting, and eco-tourism. The land and water that once sustained a semi-nomadic society are now expected to sustain the modern Nunavut economy: 80 per cent of the territory’s known mineral reserves —copper, lead, zinc, gold and silver — are on lnuit-owned land.

With the creation of Nunavut almost all of the world’s 150,000 Inuit now enjoy a degree of self-determination: some 50,000 in Alaska, 55,000 in Greenland, 27,000 in Nunavut and 8,000 in Nunavik, as northern Quebec’s Inuit call their homeland. Nunavut is the latest beacon of hope for other aboriginal peoples, not only in Canada, whose land claims or other negotiations are proceeding at a glacial pace.

Nunavut illustrates that small populations and daunting physical distances are not insurmountable barriers to maintaining a distinct cultural community within Canada. “We are very much a distinct society,” Amagoalik says. “And the Nunavut government will have the responsibility of protecting and preserving that distinct society. Bur we’re not trying to break up Canada. We’re trying to join Canada.”

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Pond Inlet, an Inuit community on northern Baffin Island. (Photo: Michelle Valberg)

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