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Canada: Nunavut Gains Self-Government

  • Carol Macivor

Ottawa, 1 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The map of Canada will change dramatically today. A new territory will be created in the eastern Arctic and it will be the first large-scale test of native self-government in Canada.

Nunavut, as it will be called, means "our land" in the Inuktitut language of the native Inuit people.

Nunavut's two-million square kilometers -- roughly 20 percent of Canada's landmass -- is being carved out of the Northwest Territories. It will stretch from Hudson Bay to the tip of Ellesmere Island, Canada's most northern point.

The new territory is a political accord as well as part of a land claims settlement with the Inuit. In 1993, the Canadian government signed a land claims agreement with the Inuit that included the creation of a third northern territory, the payment of nearly $1 billion to the Inuit over a 14-year period and exclusive control -- including mineral rights -- on 350,000 square kilometers.

The statistics on Nunavut are impressive. It covers a land area that is, roughly, four times the size of France or more than three times the size of Ukraine. And, yet, the population stands at only 27,000 -- 85 percent of which are Inuit -- scattered in 24 small communities across the harsh Arctic terrain.

The new territory has only 20 kilometers of paved road -- all of it in the capital, Iqaluit. The average temperature in July is 11 degrees Celsius, while the average in January is minus 30. Because it is so far north, winter means nearly perpetual twilight and darkness while summer is twilight and light nearly 24 hours a day.

Nunavut is born with a number of other extremes. It has the highest unemployment rate in Canada -- more than one-third of the people who live there are without work. In part, that explains the high suicide rates and high rates of substance abuse. It has the lowest literacy rates in the country -- 42 percent of the population over the age of 15 have not completed grade nine.

The population of Nunavut is the fastest-growing and youngest in Canada with nearly half under the age of 20. In addition to having the highest cost of living, Nunavut also has the most welfare recipients per capita in the country.

On the road to its new territorial status, an entire public infrastructure needs to be created. As a first step, the area's voters went to the polls in mid-February to elect 19 people to the new legislative assembly. The elected representatives then selected a premier -- the first jurisdiction in Canada to directly elect a leader. They chose a 34-year-old Inuit lawyer, Paul Okalik.

The top bureaucrat in Nunavut will be white -- as will most of the other senior territorial officials. There is intensive training of young Inuit underway in public administration. The goal is to have 85 percent Inuit bureaucrats by 2008. The new government will be decentralized in 10 of the largest communities in an effort to spread the wealth because government is the primary industry.

Nunavut will rely on the federal government for 95 percent of its annual budget. For this start-up year, that will total about $450 million. This will cover the cost of running 10 departments, a new Supreme Court and Court of Appeal, plus a number of agencies.

Two-thirds of the budget will go to health, social services, community government, housing, transportation and education. There will be two working languages in the territorial government - Inuktitut and English (which is spoken almost exclusively in the capital). The new administration will also have to deal with a kind of shadow government - Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. or NTI, as it is called. It is part investment consortium and part political organization. It was set up as part of the 1993 land claims agreement to control the money being paid to the Inuit by the federal government.

It also oversees 350,000 square kilometers over which the Inuit have exclusive control. The executive board of NTI is elected by the Inuit. In addition to operating like a holding company -- controlling dozens of subsidiaries and agencies -- NTI operates a wide range of quasi-social programs including pension supplements for elderly Inuit, extensive training programs and subsidies to underwrite the high cost of buying boats and snowmobiles, the main forms of transportation.

Premier Okalik has said his priorities will be housing, economic development, tourism and art. Much of the housing stock is substandard and Okalik wants to increase subsidies to residents to help improve the situation. He also wants to pursue the development of mining. Adventure tourism is a growing area but the high cost of airfares is somewhat of a discouragement. A return trip ticket, Ottawa-Iqaluit, costs more than $1,800. Okalik also wants to develop new markets and new products for the territory's 2,000 native artists.

Major festivities are being planned across the country to mark the birth of Nunavut. Prime Minister Chretien, who was once a cabinet minister responsible for Indian and Northern Affairs, will be on hand for the formal ceremonies in Iqaluit, as will a number of other cabinet ministers.