Canada's Inuit (Eskimos) have moved another step toward winning their own government and territory - Nunavut - in the far north. After years of wrangling, two forums created to discuss the issue - the Western Constitutional Forum and the Nunavut Constitutional Forum - agreed last month on a boundary to divide the huge Northwest Territories (NWT) into two regions that could eventually become Canada's 11th and 12th provinces. The discovery of oil fields in the Beaufort Sea complicated the negotiations.
Last week, the Legislative Assembly of the NWT took up the boundary issue. Though the debate is expected to be lively, the Assembly is likely to approve.
Only 51,000 people live in the vast region that constitutes about one-third of Canada's total area. The NWT population includes some 16,000 Inuit (which means ``people'' in Inuktitut), more than 8,000 D'en'e (``people'' in the Athapaskan language) Indians, nearly 3,000 M'etis (mixed Indian and European), and the remainder whites or other races.
The proposed boundary largely reflects the traditional separation of the two aboriginal peoples, with the Inuit living on the Arctic Sea coasts and the barren grounds north of the tree line and the D'en'e living in the inland forests.
The idea of division was discussed as early as the 1960s. It became more concrete in April 1982, when the Assembly held a plebiscite on the question and 56 percent voted in favor. In the west, a majority opposed division, but the Inuit in the east solidly supported it.
Erik Watt, a journalist in Yellowknife, the NWT capital, says that many in the west still don't like the idea. Many whites work for the federal or territorial government and prefer the status quo. Mining companies dislike the prospect of having to deal with two governments. But there has been some change. The westerners' attitude today, he says, is generally: ``If the people of the eastern Arctic want it so badly, we will let them go.''
Such a change, if true, boosts the prospects for actually achieving division by the target date of Oct. 1, 1991.
Once the NWT Assembly approves division, various groups representing the D'en'e, the M'etis, and the Inuit, as well as regional councils must give their approval. Then the proposed boundary must be ratified by a majority of residents in an NWT-wide plebiscite. That vote could be called as early as April.
Since the 1982 vote, the federal government has said that it could accept division if certain major issues were resolved. Several remain to be settled:
The aboriginal peoples must agree on at least the boundary of land claims with the federal government. Their claims now overlap, with a sizable area at stake.
The two forums must agree between themselves and with Ottawa on a constitution for each region. This involves agreeing on a division of powers with Ottawa, including roles in such crucial jurisdictions as education, land management, and community and regional government.
In the west, the D'en'e and M'etis want to entrench in the constitution certain rights relating to language, culture, and politics that may not be included in land settlements to be reached with Ottawa. Whites are a slight majority in that region.
Yellowknife would be the capital of the western area. But participants in the Nunavut Constitutional Forum have not yet agreed on a capital - or capitals. The Inuit, with many communities widely separated, are thinking of a decentralized form of government.
Some accord must be reached with Ottawa on the control of natural resources and the sharing of their revenues. Important oil finds have been made in the Mackenzie River delta and Beaufort Sea. A rise in the price of oil could make it economical to bring that oil south several hundred miles to the head of an existing pipeline at Norman Wells, NWT. Some geologists believe large deposits of natural gas will be found in the eastern area.
There has been some discussion of the two regions sharing in any revenues from those new discoveries or other natural resources. But Mr. Jull says it is ``pie in the sky'' for the 50,000 people of the NWT to believe they will get all the natural resource revenues from one-third of Canada. However, a sharing of revenues by Ottawa may facilitate agreements on northern development.
Since the federal government pays around 70 percent of the cost of the Yellowknife government, it will want to make sure the division of the NWT does not mean a major escalation in costs. ``Everybody has to come to grips with that,'' notes an official here.
The government sector is large in the north. One reason is that Ottawa attempts to provide the residents of that huge area with a standard of living comparable to that of southern Canada.