The Inuit prepare to embrace self-government with hope, fear and fierce determination

JOHN GEDDES February 15 1999


The Inuit prepare to embrace self-government with hope, fear and fierce determination

JOHN GEDDES February 15 1999



The Inuit prepare to embrace self-government with hope, fear and fierce determination


Natsiq Kango speaks quietly, but her voice takes on an icy authority when she tells about the day her father’s dogs were shot. It was back in 1961 when Kango, who is now running for a seat in the first legislative assembly of the new territory of Nunavut, was a little girl. Her family, along with other Inuit hunting clans scattered around the southeastern tip of Baffin Island, had recently been persuaded by federal authorities to settle at Frobisher Bay.

One day, an RCMP truck arrived at the beach not far from their new home, and a Mountie stepped out and shot 25 huskies. “He didn’t allow dogs loose and he wanted the families to stay put for their kids to go to school,” Kango,

43, recalls bitterly. The slaughter denied her father, Simonie Alainga, the option of taking his family by dogsled back to their traditional winter hunting camp.

Many Inuit never really recovered from the wrenching transition they endured from the 1940s to the 1960s. In the far-flung communities where they were encouraged—sometimes compelled— by Ottawa to settle, a legacy of suicide, addiction, crime and unemployment awaits the first government of Nunavut when the new territory is officially born on April 1. But Kango’s father was among the leaders of the last generation who made sure not all was lost. She recounts with pride how, by the mid-1960s, he was helping organize competitions to save the traditional Inuit games, along with other efforts to preserve a culture under siege. When he died in 1994 with seven other walrus hunters whose boat capsized in frigid waters, Alainga was mourned as one of the most revered Inuit leaders. Now, his daughter is campaigning to succeed him as a different kind of leader—one of three MLAs who will represent Nunavut’s new capital, Iqaluit, as the town of Frobisher Bay was renamed in 1987.

Family reputations and community ties will figure large in the Feb.

15 vote: there are no political parties and little real policy debate. Just 12,210 people, from a total population of only about 25,000, are on the official voters’ lists in the territory’s 19 ridings. Yet outside attention is being lavished on the election and the creation of Nunavut. What the new territory lacks in population, it makes up for in spectacular geography and the enduring romance of the North. When it splits from the Northwest Territories, Nunavut will encompass 20 per cent of Canada’s land mass, making it bigger than Quebec, the largest province. It will extend from the vast Barren Lands west of Hudson Bay up to Ellesmere Island’s mountainous Cape Columbia, Canada’s most northerly point of land.

But Nunavut is worth watching for more than its sheer immensity and epic scenery. About 85 per cent of the people who call it home are Inuit. While the qallunaat, as white people are called in the Inuit language of Inuktitut, have full political rights in the new jurisdiction, the overwhelming Inuit majority makes Nunavut Canada’s first large-scale test of native self-government. Conditions for the experiment are far from ideal. The social problems that plague the Eastern Arctic will make it a complex and costly jurisdiction to govern. The economy is weak, and its prospects uncertain. The MLAs elected next week, and the premier they will in turn elect from among their number, will have their work cut out for them.

Nobody knows Nunavut’s dark side more intimately than the volunteers who answer telephone calls, from across the region, at a suicide hotline run out of Iqaluit. (The exact location is kept secret to prevent, say, an abusive husband from confronting the anonymous voice that advised his depressed wife to seek help.) Sheila Levy, a veteran teacher and guidance counsellor in the region, helped found the service after four of her former Inuit students killed themselves in 1990. “Suicide touches everyone here,” Levy says. “When you talk to kids at the schools, they all have friends or relatives who have died this way.” Nunavut’s suicide rate is more than six times the Canadian rate, and more than triple the rate in the western part of the Northwest Territories.

On a recent night, Pitsi Koochiakjuke, 34, was on duty at the hotline’s cramped office. During a long stretch when the phone was mercifully quiet, he spoke frankly about sad childhood memories of his relatives’ hard drinking—an all-too-common pattern he vowed at an early age not to repeat. Koochiakjuke works as a security guard, but says that going hunting for caribou and seal on his days off to help feed his family is what grounds his life. Many other Inuit have not found the same equilibrium: the rate of heavy drinking in Nunavut is three times the Canadian average. The lowest form of substance abuse—solvent sniffing—is 26 times more prevalent than in Canada as a whole. Late last year, kids who were sniffing gasoline set fire to a row of seven townhouses under construction in Iqaluit for employees of the new territorial government.

A big factor in Nunavut’s plague of drug and alcohol abuse is lack of work. Unemployment among Inuit, including both those searching in vain for work and those who have given up looking, is estimated at

37 per cent. By contrast, unemployment among the white minority runs at just four per cent. But any suggestion that the hardy people of the Eastern Arctic tend to be idle rankles Inuit leaders. “There have been newspaper articles looking at unemployment statistics that talk about how crappy life must be up here,” complains Sandra Inutiq, 24, president of the National Inuit Youth Council. “But the thing is, even though people are unemployed, there are other means of providing for your family than the wage economy. People go hunting and fishing.”

Inutiq is voicing more than nostalgic sentiments. For many Inuit, like Pitsi Koochiakjuke, harvesting wildlife remains vitally important—both for maintaining tradition and supplementing groceries. While there are no reliable figures on how much hunting and fishing contributes, arecentstudy by Nunavut bureaucrat Jack Hicks and University of Toronto politics professor Graham White concluded that “particularly in the smaller communities, a significant proportion of food comes directly from the land.” Surprising, perhaps, at the dawn of the 21st century—but less so when one takes into account that virtually all Inuit older than about 40 were born in hunting camps.

mportant though it remains, life on the land is now mainly a weekend and holiday pursuit for most Inuit. Kango, for example, spent her early years in hunting camps, but she and her husband make a comfortable living these days as entrepreneurs: they run

businesses ranging from an auto parts dealership to a hotel. Caribou antlers may hang over the garage door, but their Tudor-style twostorey house would fit neatly into any southern suburb. Southern exposure is even greater for Inuit kids growing up today. As Kango talked movingly at her dining-room table about her father’s way of life, her youngest son, eight-year-old Elishua, was in the family room giggling at an after-school rerun of The Simpsons.

And even though around the house his parents speak a mixture of Inuktitut and English, Elishua prefers the language of TV. Public school education in Inuktitut is available, but his parents opted for English schooling since they assumed Elishua would learn enough Inuktitut at home. Now, Kango is not sure that was the right choice. “When he went to kindergarten, it took him about eight months to begin to pick up English,” she says ruefully. “As soon as he did, he began losing his Inuktitut.”

Still, Inuktitut remains one of the healthiest aboriginal languages in Canada—and one of the bulwarks of Inuit culture. English is heard more often in Iqaluit, which, with a population of more than 4,200, is Nunavut’s biggest town, but Inuktitut dominates in the territory’s 24 smaller communities. It will be, along with English, a working language in the new territorial government. Most of the MLAs will be Inuit, and even some qallunaat politicians, such as Ed Picco, Kango’s rival for the Iqaluit East seat, make an effort. “I speak Inuktitut the way Prime Minister Chrétien speaks English,” jokes Picco, a transplanted Newfoundlander who is firmly rooted in Iqaluit and whose wife is Inuk—the singular of Inuit.

The role Inuit will play in the Nunavut bureaucracy is a sensitive subject. The top mandarin, Joe Kunuk, deputy minister of the exec-

utive and secretary to the cabinet, is Inuk. But most of the other deputy-minister-level officials are white—many of them longstanding Eastern Arctic residents who are transferring from senior positions in the old Northwest Territories bureaucracy. Officials say a push to quickly train more promising young Inuit to fill government posts has been only partly successfiil. It remains to be seen if the government can meet its goal of having Inuit fill half of the jobs in Nunavut’s public service at the outset. Even tougher may be achieving the aim of steadily increasing Inuit employment to 85 per cent of an expected 600 government positions by 2008.

Along with those employment targets, a controversial blueprint for decentralized government aims to keep the new regime close to the Inuit. Branches of the Nunavut government are slated to be spread among the territory’s 10 largest communities—a policy often described as “not recreating Yellowknife” in Iqaluit. But will the plan work? Many former Northwest Territories officials preparing to shift to the Nunavut public service are grumbling that they do not want to move from their current offices in Iqaluit. And there are issues beyond where the government employees prefer to live.

For example, the jobs of 44 social-services bureaucrats now based in Iqaluit are supposed to be relocated to the little hamlet of Pangnirtung, but the regional hospital those same officials are responsible for administering is in Iqaluit, nearly 300 km away. Critics of the scheme regard the architects of Nunavut as “optimistic to the point of naiveté about how cumbersome and expensive it will be to operate a decentralized government across a fifth of the land mass of Canada,” according to Hicks and White.

The contentious decentralization plan was largely designed to spread the wealth. Government money, after all, is extraordinarily important to the economy of Nunavut. The new territory’s labour force is hitched overwhelmingly to the engine of public spending: it accounts for more than half of Nunavut’s employment, and what little private sector work there is—notably in construction—often depends directly on government projects. In addition to a separate land-claim settlement, the federal government is budgeting to send Nunavut $600 million a year—fully 90 per cent of the new territory’s revenues.

Some Nunavut politicians are already arguing Ottawa will have to be persuaded to come up with more money. Jack Anawak, a former Liberal MP who oversaw much of the organization of Nunavut as the former federally appointed interim commissioner, points to a severe shortage of subsidized housing as one pressing problem for which Nunavut will have no choice but to plead for more federal money. “I think I have the necessary contacts to negotiate with Ottawa on this issue,” says Anawak, who is running for a legislative seat in his home community, Rankin Inlet, and is viewed as a strong contender to be elected Nunavut’s first premier in a vote among MLAs.

Prospects for reducing Nunavut’s reliance on federal transfers in the long term are uncertain at best Mining may offer the best hope for a quick infusion of outside investment to broaden the tax base. Three mines now produce lead, zinc, gold and silver in the territory. Officials setting up the new government say they are gearing up to promote the region heavily to mining exploration firms. Then there are the indus-

tries that largely define the North in the popular imagination: adventure tourism and Inuit art

The creation of prints and soapstone carvings brings steady income to hundreds of artists and artisans. But the market for Inuit art has been uneven in recent years. Beth Beattie, co-ordinator of the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association, says an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 Inuit working at least part time in arts and crafts need a more direct pipeline to buyers. The association, formed last summer, aims to use new technology, including the Internet, to give those artists nearly instant access to distant markets. “Because of the remoteness of their communities, they need somebody to go to who can digitize an image of their sculpture and transmit it to a gallery in the south,” Beattie says. As well, efforts are under way to diversify the range of products, notably through Nunavut Arctic College’s program to teach Inuit artisans other crafts such as jewelry-making. The commercial potential is tantalizing. Last summer, at one of several large-scale shows of Inuit jewelry in Lunenburg, N.S., an exquisite silver box made by the renowned Okpik Pitseolak of Iqaluit was snapped up for $5,000 minutes after the doors opened.

Tourism also holds promise. The federal government is committed to creating three new national parks in the territory. The big barrier is the high cost of air travel. A full-fare, round-trip ticket from Ottawa to Iqaluit was going for $2,133 last week. Considering the cost of flying in, tourism operators tend to tailor their packages for either well-off hunters and fishermen, or adventure tourists willing to shell out thousands for a unique experience. North Winds Arctic Adventures in Iqaluit is offering a seven-day dogsledding trip later this month for $2,400, or a 14-day backpacking trip in Auyuittuq National Park in April for $3,150—flights to Iqaluit not included. Matty McNair, who runs North Winds with her husband, Paul Landry, sums up Nunavut’s tourism development problem this way: “The government can print up glossy brochures, but the fact is, you can go to friggin’ Paris for less money.”

The Nunavut government will not bear the burden of economic development alone—or have a monopoly on political and economic clout. The1993 land-claims agreement under which Ottawa promised to create Nunavut led to the establishment of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.—a hybrid entity that is part investment consortium, part political organization. The NTI’s executive is elected by Nunavut’s Inuit, giving it as much political legitimacy as the territorial government itself. And it is the NTI, not the new territorial government, that controls the $1.1 billion that is being paid to the Nunavut’s Inuit by Ottawa over 14 years under that 1993 deal.

In many ways, the NTI operates like a holding company, controlling dozens of subsidiaries and agencies, from a large construction company to a fund that awards up to $3,000 to Inuit starting up small businesses. As well, NTI oversees the 350,000 square kilometres of land that the Inuit now own under the land-claims pact, including potentially lucrative mineral rights for 35,257 square kilometres. But the corporation does not restrict itself to business-related activities. It also runs what amount to quasi-governmental social programs: a pension supplement for Inuit seniors; a subsidy scheme to defray the high cost of boats and snowmobiles for

Inuit hunters; and a raft of training initiatives.

All that scope seems to be concentrated on the deeply furrowed brow of NTI president Jose Kusugak—the man many view as Nunavut’s most powerful leader. Kusugak, 48, was one of the handful of Inuit activists who began pressing in the 1970s for a land claim and dreaming of an Inuit-run territory in the Eastern Arctic. But he casts a skeptical eye on the prospects for his people to advance in any government. He says ambitious Inuit were often frustrated in their attempts to rise through the old Northwest Territories bureaucracy. “Sometimes, there is an assumption that Inuit cannot do the job,” Kusugak said in a recent interview in his spacious corner office in the NTI’s Iqaluit headquarters.

Kusugak predicts there will be little tension between the NTI and the new government. But that could depend on the outcome of the Feb. 15 vote. Although he is not a candidate himself, Kusugak is widely regarded as a not-so-friendly rival to Anawak. In fact, his brother, Lome Kusugak, is running against Anawak in the hotly contested Rankin Inlet North riding. In all, 71 candidates are campaigning for the 19 seats, including many new faces. Elected office holds a powerful allure for ambitious young Inuit. “In a place with not many private-sector jobs, and a history of not much opportunity for Inuit in the bureaucracy, politics is a major way to get upwardly mobile,” observed one veteran government official in Iqaluit.

For all the problems Nunavut faces, spirits are running high in the run-up to the celebrations planned to mark the dawn of the new territory. Six Inuit artists are working on a secret design for the ceremonial mace of the new legislature. A new government building—a sloping structure rising to a domed assembly chamber—is under construction. Dozens of houses are being built for the employees of the new government. Stores are expanding and the CIBC has announced it will open a branch on the same block where the Royal Bank of Canada and the Bank of Montreal are already doing brisk business.

More poignant, though, are some of the private preparations. Natsiq Kango takes time out from campaigning these days to work on sewing a new amauti, the traditional woman’s coat with a pouch on the back for carrying babies. For the front, she has created an elaborate beadwork motif of white polar bears against a blue background. When she holds the garment up to show how it will look when she wears it on April 1, hard memories seem far from her thoughts. The problems of a bruised society may dominate the new territory’s politics for decades to come, but Nunavut is coming into being as a triumph of hope over history. □