Canada

NUNAVUT RISING

PETER GZOWSKI April 12 1999
Canada

NUNAVUT RISING

PETER GZOWSKI April 12 1999

NUNAVUT RISING

Canada

PETER GZOWSKI

Last week, residents of Canada’s eastern Arctic celebrated the birth of the new territory of Nunavut. Author and broadcaster Peter Gzowski was there, as a master of ceremonies at the official April 1 concert marking the declaration of the new territory. He prepared this report for Maclean’s— where he was managing editor from 1962 to 1964 and editor in 1969—on the emotions of last week and the challenges that lie ahead for Nunavut.

One of the several Inuktitut words for “thank you” is spelled, in roman orthography, “qujannamiik.” Last week, getting ready to act as one of the three masters of ceremonies of the concert, I was working hard at pronouncing it. “Be careful,” one young Inuit giggled over supper one night. “If you say the first couple of syllables wrong you may seem to be inviting the audience to do something lewd with you after the show.”

My own difficulties with Nunavut’s subtle and beautiful official language (it joins English and French, but as much as possible the government will work in Inuktitut) were only one of the minor cultural clashes that cropped up as the northerners prepared to celebrate. At one point, one of the southern producers of the show, talking with one of my two co-hosts, National Inuit Youth Council president Sandra Inutiq, made the mistake of referring to the amauti Sandra planned to wear, handmade by her mother for the occasion, as her “costume”—a bit like suggesting some-

History was made in the eastern Arctic with the birth of Canada's newest territory

Thursday—and beaming it around the world were overcome, and the event, like all the other festivities around Nunavut Day, went off, if not like clockwork, then in a tide of elation, excitement and tears of both sadness and joy Helen Maksagak, the diminutive new commissioner of Nunavut, who had wept at her swearing-in the night before as she remembered her husband, one of the pioneers of Inuit self-determination who had died of cancer last year, broke into smiles at the podium and joked about not quite being able to reach the microphone. The soft, dignified voice of Paul Okalik, the new, 34-year-old government leader—the only premier in Canada who is still paying off his student loan, he had said at dinner ear| lier in the week—shook with emotion as he spoke of his I “overwhelming pride.” Susan Aglukark, the North’s S best-known performing artist, whose grandmother had £ died on Tuesday and whose 47-year-old uncle had just

body’s hockey jacket had been made up for Halloween. My other partner, the brilliant young singer and composer Lucie Idlout, was bothered by the way the children’s choir was being ordered around—“like boot camp,” she said. Neither Sandra nor Lucie was comfortable with the way the original script appeared to single out certain performers over others, a concept Inuit culture doesn’t accept. There’s no Inuktitut word for “honourable,” either, which ^ made it tricky to introduce some of the dignitaries.

M In the end, though, all the misunderstandings, along | with the hundreds of logistical problems involved in stagI ing a television show in an empty airplane hangar just £ south of the Arctic Circle—the windchill was -47° C on

been rescued from a harrowing trip on the Keewatin tundra—a dramatic reminder, if one was needed, of the untrammeled power of the land and the elements that surrounded us—sang, as always, like an Arctic nightingale.

What a long journey it had been. More than 30 years of patient, dogged negotiations, bargaining sessions and plebiscites—not so hard for hunters who could stand motionless for hours over a seal hole, as Nunavut Implementation Commission head John Amagoalik, who is universally referred to as John A., the father of Nunavut, reminded me last week. Yet leaping so fast from a people of the land—even Sandra Inutiq, who would turn 25 on Sunday, had spent her childhood in a hunting and fishing camp on the remote Baffin coast— into the complex world of technology, resource development and sophisticated modern governance.

The challenges the new government face are legion: unemployment, lack of housing, epidemic substance abuse and suicide—as well as the fastest-rising birthrate on the continent. Training a representative civil service in the next few years in itself is a monumental task. But last Thursday was a historic step; the acknowledgment, at last, of a people’s right to hold domain over its own land, yet still within the framework of Canada. The new government may make mistakes. But at least they will be mistakes arising from their own ways and their own culture, and not those of colonialism. Even as bombs fell in faraway Europe, the people of the Canadian North gave the world a model of how to achieve the right of self-determination—a public government of all the people—without I violence, without rancour, and with 1 a display of democracy at its best. ? Qujannamiik, Nunavut. It was an * honour to be there. □