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Canada: Analysis from Washington: Changing the Map of the North

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 5 April 1999 (RFE/RL) - A Canadian decision to give broad new autonomy to the indigenous population of its far north appears likely to spark new demands by other circumpolar communities for greater control over their own lives.

Last Thursday, the Canadian government officially marked the establishment of the Nunavut territory encompassing approximately 60 percent of the territory of what had been Canada's Northwest Territories.

The new territory has its own legislature dominated by representatives of the Inuit community who make up more than 80 percent of the region's 27,000 people.

And for the first time since their incorporation into Canada more than a century ago, the Inuit will have a significant role in running their own affairs, even though the extremely poor region will continue to receive heavy and even expanded financial subsidies from the federal authorities in Ottawa.

While this event has received relatively little attention from outsiders so far, local officials are profoundly aware of just how dramatic a step the creation of Nunavut represents.

Speaking at the celebrations marking the creating of this new territory, Inuit Premier Paul Okalik said that "We the people of Nunavut have gained control of our destiny and will once again determine our path."

More than that, the 34-year-old lawyer continued, "we have successfully changed the map of Canada and in so doing we have scored a victory for democracy that is being heard across the world."

Not surprisingly, both local officials and federal representatives focused on the consequences of this step for the Inuit in Canada. The latter stressed the ways in which this step showed Ottawa's willingness to address the problems of its indigenous populations.

But the former, many of whom had fought long years for this grant of autonomy, emphasized how the creation of the Nunavut Territory would allow them and their fellow Inuit to get out from under domination by outsiders.

Local people and most academic experts suggest that the hard times the Inuit have experienced in recent years -- massive unemployment, alcoholism, crime, and other social ills -- arose as a result of Ottawa's attempt to transform the Inuit's traditional way of life.

Canadian officials had forced the Inuit to give up their nomadic way of life, Inuit leaders have complained. Still worse, from the Inuit perspective, these officials often forced Inuit children to move into special boarding schools where they were prohibited from speaking their native language.

With their new autonomy, Inuit leaders hope this will change. The territory's new culture minister, Peter Ernek, said that he hoped his government would be able to revive Inuit traditions now that the "Qablunaaq" -- the "whites" -- had been displaced from their unquestioned dominance.

That task will be far from easy given the extent to which many of the local cultural arrangements have been damaged or even destroyed. But both the effort and the Inuit achievement seem certain to play a major role in the thinking of other Arctic peoples in the United States, Greenland, Norway, and especially Russia.

For the past decade, Canada has played a leading role in the activities of the Circumpolar Conference, a loose grouping of countries with significant Arctic populations. And these groups have often looked to the Canadian approach as a model for what they would like and sometimes demand.

Now that Canada has taken the dramatic step of simultaneously granting autonomy and increasing assistance, these other Arctic groups, all of whom suffer from many of the same problems that the Inuit do, are likely to find the Canadian model especially attractive.

Despite their numerically small size, these groups may soon pose a new and unexpected challenge to the region's central governments and to an international community that up to now has given little thought to the peoples of the Arctic.