Eskimos seek their own territory in Canada's icy north country

The Mace, the symbol of authority of the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories, is different. The shaft consists of a narwhal tusk. A harpoon passes through the Mace's center, joining its parts together. Other features include carved whalebone, muskox horns, gold from Yellowknife mines, and porcupine quillwork.

The Mace is not the only unusual feature of this 24-member assembly. Eight Inuit (Eskimo) and six Dene (Indian) members make up its majority. Were it to vote as a bloc (which usually it does not), this native group could exercise considerable authority over a landmass equal to nearly 60 percent of the contiguous 48 states.

And its authority is growing. The federal government is gradually devolving power to these representatives of the 50,000 residents of this huge territory.

Last month, spokesmen for many of the territories' 16,000 Inuit called for a halt in the devolution of powers. Instead they want to form their own government and territory in the part of the Northwest Territories (NWT) falling north of the tree-line, an area to be called Nunavut -- ``our land'' in the Inuktitut language of the Inuit.

Last February Ottawa approved in principle the proposal for a division of the NWT into two regions. But agreeing on a border and constitutional provisions for each has proved complex and difficult.

``It is hard slogging,'' says Robert MacQuarrie, the representative for Yellowknife Center, who is involved in talks aimed at resolving the issue.

Besides 16,000 Inuit in the territories, there are 8,500 Dene (of various tribes and some six languages and more dialects), 3,500 Metis (of mixed white and Indian races). The remainder are mostly white.

John Zigarlick Jr., president of Echo Bay Mines Ltd., which owns a gold mine at Lupin several hundred miles north of here, holds that the division would be ``a waste of resources'' because of the cost of administering two governments rather than one. ``One couldn't design a better high cost government make-work program,'' he says.

But the Inuit (the name means ``the people'') see Nunavut as a way of obtaining greater control over their own destiny, lives often controlled in the past by civil servants in Ottawa or here in Yellowknife.

In a 1982 referendum, inhabitants of the NWT voted for division. Later that year the territorial assembly voted unanimously in favor of division. Then the assembly and Inuit organizations created the Nunavut Constitutional Forum to work out details of a constitution for Nunavut and promote its creation. A similar group, the Western Constitutional Forum, was created to carry out similar tasks for the other half of the NWT.

The two groups come together in the Constitutional Alliance. At the moment the discussions are, according to a government spokesman, ``sort of stalemated.''

Drawing a border has been complicated by major oil finds in the Mackenzie River delta and Beaufort Sea, an area where population is mixed between Inuit, Dene, and whites. Which territory acquires this prize with its potential revenue riches? Will the Inuit of that area be left out of their new homeland?

Another controversy: What constitutional protection will be given the aborigines in the western area where they will be a minority? The Dene also want rights for their languages written into the constitution.

Inuit leaders promise special provisions for minorities in Nunavut.

At the moment, it seems unlikely that these various groups can work out a deal, at least quickly.

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