Nunavut: where ethnic division is peaceful

Arctic people get their rightful place on the Canadian map - and a

The Inuit of Canada's eastern Arctic officially will have a new name for their lands April 1, a territory to be called Nunavut and newly drawn on the maps.

It's a good name, a wonderful, celebratory name, because Nunavut in the Inuit language means "our land."

Nunavut is an example of peaceful self-determination for a people who see themselves as being apart. Unlike the terrible experiences in the Balkans, and even unlike the testy relationship between Francophone Quebec and the rest of Canada, here is a people who successfully pressed for greater control over their lands. Not a single act of violence occurred in the process. Everything was done through 15 years of talking.

The Inuit were a New World people who for a long time were deemed so insignificant that Europeans did not even make much of an effort to subdue them. Their region was regarded as undesirable - too cold, too much winter darkness - and their way of life unfathomably hard. Yet the creation of Nunavut shows that Canada's Inuit have done more than just survive, though that seems remarkable enough.

They are regaining a measure of control over their lives. Nunavut will be large and, by conventional measures, very nearly empty. It will account for 20 percent of Canada. It is larger than Quebec, six times the size of Germany, 10 times the size of Great Britain. It has all of 12 miles of road. Its population is 27,000 people - consider just 27,000 people scattered over six Germanys - 85 percent of whom are Inuit. Other than Antarctica, it will be one of the most sparsely populated lands on earth - less than 0.01 person per square mile.

Nunavut is being created because Inuit leaders never altered their key demand during the 15 years of negotiations with government ministers in Ottawa: They wanted a government that could protect their culture and their well-being. No outsiders had conquered them with military force, or forced them to sign a treaty of any kind, but the Inuit culture was in trouble.

The language was disappearing. Inuktitut was not surprisingly fast losing out to English, but the central government had exacerbated the problem. Beginning in the 1950s, officials had tried to "convert" young Inuit to modern ways by teaching exclusively in English in schools. They also moved the children to residential institutions away from their families. Thus generations of Inuit found it difficult to talk with family members who knew only Inuktitut.

You still cannot watch a movie or a television police show in Inuktitut, just as you cannot watch one in Provenal - and the dismal effects on the language are the same. You also cannot find much in the way of Inuktitut books other than translations of government reports. The new Nunavut government is committed to using Inuktitut as one of its working languages. This will be easier when sufficient Inuktitut speakers can be found, which will be possible when there are enough language teachers in the schools.

Inuit also lost control over their livelihoods. They worked for whaling ships until the whalers disappeared from the eastern Arctic. Then they caught white foxes for the fur trade and became dependent on the food the traders gave them in place of the caribou and fish the Inuit no longer had time to hunt - until the 1940s, when the fur trade collapsed. The experience was repeated with sealskins, when that market collapsed in the 1970s. By then, the government had forced families to leave their traditional camps for permanent settlements - where gifted hunters found themselves with skills useless for town life.

Most of the social measures are still grim. Inuit unemployment is nearly 40 percent. The average income is about 50 percent lower than the rest of the country; the cost of living is 65 percent higher, due to the necessity of bringing everything, from vegetables to construction materials, by airplane or ship. The violent crime rate is higher than the Canadian average; the suicide rate is five times the national figure, and those numbers are highest among the young.

That seems all the more reason for Canada to let the people of Nunavut try their own strategies. Voters have elected a 19-member territorial legislature that begins to govern April 1. This month, the new legislators chose 34-year-old Paul Okalik - the first Nunavut-born Inuk attorney - as the territory's first premier. Canada's territories have less authority over the management of public lands than do the country's provinces, but the Inuit of Nunavut secured special guarantees through a 1993 land-claims agreement.

People in Nunavut often mentally divide the world into halves, albeit unequal ones. Where they reside is the north. The south, the other half, is a distant, foreign place accommodating everybody else. People in the south are illiterate when it comes to reading the sky or reading pack ice, and they know surprisingly little about keeping warm in extreme cold. They do not know how to butcher a caribou. They have talents for the south.

The Inuit have special talents for the north. They indeed have more aptitude for northernness than any other people. And northern government may prove to be another of their gifts.

*Robert Ruby, a Baltimore Sun editor and reporter, is completing a book about early contacts between Inuit and Europeans. He wrote 'Jericho: Dreams, Ruins, Phantoms' (Henry Holt, 1995).

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