A year later, 'Our Land' struggles

Nunavut, Canada's newest territory, takes up the challenge to rectify economic shortcomings.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The map shows beige earth surrounded by blue water, but the reality of this place, at this time of year, is still all white: snow on the ground, and snow and ice out where, for the brief weeks of summer, Frobisher Bay will be.

It was just over a year ago that Canada redrew its map for the first time in half a century to carve out a new territory: Nunavut. The territory is three times the size of Texas, and has an estimated population of 30,000 people.

A year after the skies of this frontier capital in the Arctic blazed with celebratory fireworks, the people here still have a sense that, as Peter Irniq, the new territorial commissioner puts it, "Every day we're making history."

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"It's been a joy and a challenge," says Premier Paul Okalik.

Iqaluit, capital of the new territory, has something of the look, feel, and pace of the World War II military base it once was. An air of subdued bustle pervades it. Battered taxis and sturdy trucks loop endlessly around on its few miles of paved roads. Everywhere, one hears the whine of snowmobiles, answered by the distant roar of the cargo jets that remind a visitor how much this place depends on air freight. On the ground, the number of freight containers abandoned, or perhaps creatively recycled as low-cost warehouses, is a reminder how the air freight is mostly one-way.

Nunavut, which means "our land" in Inuktitut, has high rates of unemployment, welfare dependency, and alcoholism. Yet it is a gentle, friendly place, where sharing taxis is taken for granted, and where relations between Inuit and non-Inuit seem relaxed and comfortable. All over, one sees people wearing duckbilled caps with the logo of the new Legislative Assembly, as if it were the local team they were cheering on. And most do.

"It would astonish most Nunavummiut to know how much they have already contributed to Canada. Their persistence and determination ... has forced Canadians and their governments to review many assumptions and habits of public policy, and has expanded the national outlook," Peter Jull, a Canadian who is adjunct associate professor at the Centre for Democracy at the University of Queensland in Australia, wrote recently.

He continues: "In the international arena, Nunavummiut and other Inuit from Canada, Greenland, Alaska, and Chukotka have not only brought the problems of the Arctic region and its environment to world attention ... [and] they have also been showing that they have answers."

The record of the new government has been mixed. It finished its first fiscal year, March 31, in the black - largely because it wasn't able to do all the hiring it must.

Meanwhile, basics are in short supply - most notably housing. The healthcare system is strained and day-care funding is so tight that providers marched into the Legislative Assembly in protest the other day - with their small charges in tow.

Still, Nunavut is seen by many as one of the most successful efforts by indigenous people and a Western government to come to terms, however belatedly, and all without a shot being fired. "Everybody is watching" this bold new venture, says Gail Osherenko, a senior fellow at the Arctic Studies Center at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

The new territory rests on two pillars: a land-claim settlement with the Inuit as aboriginal inhabitants, and a political agreement for a new territory with a government open to full participation by all. That it was not an ethnic homeland made Nunavut a constitutional construct that even conservatives could like.

Many, however, question how "independence" can mean anything in a territory getting over 90 percent of its budget from Ottawa? A sympathetic observer in the capital calls Nunavut "per capita the most expensive jurisdiction in Canada."

John Amagoalik, former chairman of the Nunavut Implementation Commission, takes issue with that perspective. "Some people in the south" - outside Nunavut - "think that we're spending a lot of money. But the [federal] government has been spending billions in the north - and they didn't think anything about it."

Premier Okalik identifies a number of areas where having "a land of our own" has already made a difference. "We're reforming the way our laws are written," he says, with Inuktitut now an official language. "More Inuk justices of the peace are being trained, and we're getting additional probation workers, so that we can focus on keeping people out of jail."

"Each sitting [of the Legislative Assembly] is seeing more 'made in Nunavut' solutions," says Ken MacRury, deputy minister of intergovernmental relations. For instance, a nurses' training program - long sought by communities in the eastern Arctic, was launched last September.

The ultimate goal is for the public workforce to reflect the population; that is, to be 85 percent Inuit. But MacRury says, "[There is] a significant problem, a challenge you might call it, in hiring Inuit. It's a training and education issue. Among those who are qualified, [Inuit] unemployment is zero. We have to turn out a lot of trained Inuit."

At Nunavut Arctic College, John Clay, director of certificate and diploma programs, explains: "It's important for the preservation of culture in the North to develop Inuit instructors."

The plan in Nunavut was to spread public employment around among smaller communities, where a few dozen new jobs would represent a significant boom. "It's not as cost-effective as centralizing the government," says Mr. Wortman. "But the idea of Nunavut was to bring everyone up." Cape Dorset is to get 52 jobs - down from the originally announced 65, Mr. Wortman says, but still enough to make a difference.

But who will fill those jobs? The likeliest candidates in a place like Cape Dorset, population 1,200, are already employed, typically in local government. Many say that the new jobs will be filled by people from outside Nunavut.

Jim Bell, editor of the Nunatsiaq News, a weekly newspaper in Iqaluit, observes that the 1990s, the years of preparation for the launch of Nunavut, were years of major spending cuts as Ottawa struggled to balance its budget. "Every time Ottawa cuts, Nunavut feels it," Bell says. "Over the past five or six or seven years, the quality of life here has been steadily declining."

Meanwhile, housing is in such short supply that a three-bedroom house may hold a dozen people.

Iqaluit still has no street names. Rather, buildings have numbers, a practice left over from the town's military beginnings. A member of the Legislative Assembly, Ed Picco, observed on the chamber floor last week: "It may be quaint, but it may also have public-safety consequences for emergency-response teams." He also expressed the hope that some of the unofficial names long in use would make their way onto the new map, such as "the one-way street" and "the road to nowhere."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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