For Canada's Inuits, this land is 'our land' (Nunavut)

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For the first time in 50 years, Canada has redrawn its map.

The vast unwieldy Northwest Territories has been divided in two to create a new territory, Nunavut.

"We have regained control of our destiny and will now determine our own path," Paul Okalik, the premier of the newly launched territory, said at Thursday's inauguration festivities in the capital, Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay).

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The new subdivision, whose name means simply "our land" in the language of the Inuit (whose people called Inuk in the singular), is still huge. Comprising 20 percent of the land mass of Canada, Nunavut is as big as Western Europe, albeit with a population more like that of a commuter suburb: about 27,000, 85 percent of them Inuit.

To a world vexed by the issues of breakaway republics and "autonomous provinces," the Inuit of the eastern Arctic and the government of Canada have shown how the circle can be squared. They have shown how meaningful self-determination for a culturally distinct group can be provided for without coming at the expense of the rights of minority groups.

Nunavut represents the largest native land-claim settlement in Canadian history: a real estate deal, in effect, between the original inhabitants and the European settlers.

Equal status

But it also represents the establishment of a new political entity, a new "public government," as the phrase goes. With Inuit constituting the overwhelming majority of the population, the new territory will have, de facto, a "native government" - but one in which nonnatives participate fully. Of the 19 members of the new legislative assembly, for instance, four are non-Inuit.

By negotiating both the real estate and political deals simultaneously but separately, Ottawa was able to avoid creating an ethnic state, says Dennis Patterson, a former premier of the Northwest Territories. And by setting up Nunavut as a territory, constitutionally on par with the two territories (the Yukon and remaining Northwest Territories), the creation of a fourth level of government was avoided."There were lots of win-wins, if you like." For one, "It will provide a stable investment climate," says Mr. Patterson. Mr. Okalik, a slender young man with a Sergeant Pepper mustache, says, "We in Canada have demonstrated to the world ... that this can be done without civil disobedience or litigation."

A long process

What it did require was long, long years of patient negotiation. Okalik was ultimately the lead Inuk negotiator in the process that resulted in the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement - but the process had begun before he was born.

A milestone came in May 1993, Mr. Patterson remembers: "[Prime Minister] Brian Mulroney had gone boar hunting with [Russian President] Boris Yeltsin, and he came here to make a speech: 'I'm going to commit to this.' "

The new territory is not without its problems, to say the least: High unemployment, suicide, and teen pregnancy rates, to name a few. Nunavut will remain heavily dependent on transfer payments from Canada's capital of Ottawa for the foreseeable future. But with the launch of the territory as a separate entity no longer governed from the Northwest Territories capital of Yellowknife, two time zones to the west, the Inuit are hopeful of having their issues addressed more effectively closer to home.

"The government's going to be under a microscope," says Henry Kudluck, an Inuk who lives in Ottawa and attended the Nunavut celebration at the Museum of Civilization in Hull, just across the river from the capital. He expressed confidence that the new officials will soon "settle in" and do all right.

Room for optimism

Jim Bell, editor of the Nunatsiaq News in Iqaluit, predicted "a seamless transition" as the new government takes over. "They're inheriting a solid civil service," he says, noting that Nunavut is receiving 1,900 employees from Yellowknife. "Social assistance checks will go out, teachers will be back in class, economic development officers will be processing grant applications," he says, listing activities that represent "business as usual" in the eastern Arctic.

One issue: The need for more Inuit in the professional and business classes. Okalik is the first Inuk lawyer in the territory; there are no Inuit doctors or nurses working there.

The last time Canada redrew its map was in 1949, when Newfoundland joined the Confederation after a narrowly decided - and still controversial - referendum. At almost literally the 11th hour officials decided to bring forward Newfoundland's accession to March 31, 1949, to avoid April fool's jokes.

But last week, the people of Nunavut were untroubled by an April 1 realization of their long-cherished dream. They preferred to look forward to the Easter promise of new beginnings instead. Even for Inuit who live outside the Arctic, the Nunavut launch stirred deep emotions. Leah Pootoogook, an Ottawa resident who makes traditional jewelry, was in Hull for the celebrations: "This is like a release from chains," she says.

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