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World: Analysis From Washington -- The Limits Of Autonomy

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 7 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The experience of Canada's Nunavut Territory, a political entity created a year ago for that country's Inuit population, highlights the ways in which territorial autonomy can help defend the interests of micronationalities around the world.

But at the same time, the Nunavut case also calls attention to the limitations of this method of protecting minority rights and to the dilemmas both micronationalities and dominant communities face as they try to protect rights of indigenous peoples without at the same time ghettoizing them.

On April 1, 1999, the Canadian government responded to longstanding Inuit demands and created the Nunavut Territory in Canada's extreme north, whose 27,000 people live dispersed across a region of nearly two million square kilometers. That land is now self-governing even though it continues to receive massive subsidies from the federal budget.

Under Canadian rule, the Inuit had suffered in a variety of ways. By forcing the Inuit to abandon their traditional nomadic hunting lifestyle and putting many Inuit children in boarding schools far from their homes, the Canadian authorities largely destroyed the traditional social fabric of the Inuit.

And not surprisingly, these developments in turn led to massive unemployment, widespread alcoholism, and frequent suicides among the Inuit. As one Inuit put it, "We have lost our customs, language, and spirituality" under Canadian rule. And because of that, many Inuit viewed the establishment of the Nunavut Territory as the only way to save their culture.

Nunavut activist Deborah Tagornak summed up these attitudes this week when she said that "the creation of Nunavut last year was like the Berlin Wall coming down. We have been talking about this for 20 years," adding that "it's like a breath of fresh air -- we will be able to make other people understand who we are."

But on this first anniversary of the establishment of the Nunavut Territory, most Inuit have become more cautious, acknowledging that autonomy has brought them some benefits but also noting that by itself autonomy cannot solve many of their most pressing problems.

By all accounts, the creation of Nunavut has made three major contributions to the protection of the Inuit.

First, it has established official structures through which the community can address its problems. Before Nunavut was set up, the Inuit had only informal arrangements, and the new formality has helped to structure debate and action.

Second, Nunavut has institutionalized the competition between the Inuit and the dominant Anglo-Canadians, thus limiting the appeals of extremists on both sides and creating the conditions under which the two can negotiate.

And third -- and this is perhaps the most important consequence of the creation of Nunavut -- it has encouraged the community to take responsibility for its own affairs. In the past, many Inuit assumed that others would determine their lives; now, they now that they have a recognized role to play as well.

At the same time, however, the Inuit have learned over the past year that territorial autonomy by itself cannot solve their most pressing problems. By itself, the creation of Nunavut has not put a break on the imperatives of broader economic trends and national policies.

Instead, it has forced many Inuit leaders to participate in them. Nunavut Commissioner Peter Irniq noted this week that "Nunavut is open for business," and other officials there pointed proudly to the rise in tourism and economic development, even as they conceded that such developments will profoundly affect their community.

The creation of Nunavut has not resolved the inherent tensions between modernization and cultural preservation, between the opportunities that modernity presents and the threats it poses to all traditional peoples.

One of the greatest concerns of many Inuit is the divide between parents and children, the gulf between a generation still tied to a traditional way of life and another interested in taking advantage of all the mainstream cultural influences introduced by radio, television, and other means.

And as a result, the creation of Nunavut has not guaranteed the survival of the Inuit people: It has only created the conditions under which the Inuit can better struggle for their own future.

As one sympathetic Canadian official noted, this week's celebrations are "only the first anniversary," an important step but only one "like a baby's first birthday."

Such a conclusion is likely to serve as both an encouragement and a warning both to other small nationalities seeking territorial autonomy and to all those concerned about the survival of the world's many micronationalities and cultures.