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A dog howls from the hillside overlooking Iqaluit. (Peter Power/Peter Power/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
A dog howls from the hillside overlooking Iqaluit. (Peter Power/Peter Power/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Globe Focus

The trials of Nunavut: Lament for an Arctic nation Add to ...

With this kind of havoc and hardship, it's hard not to conclude that Nunavut is a failing state – that the bold experiment in domestic nation-building Canada launched in 1999 has gone deeply wrong. Is it at risk of becoming our own Haiti of the Arctic Circle, or can something be done to reverse the damage?

When they are asked, however, many Nunavut politicians refuse to talk about the violence and dysfunction. This includes the most powerful local bureaucrat in Cape Dorset, its Senior Administrative Officer, Olayuk Akesuk. “Us Inuit have a different way of trying to forget,” he said. “We keep it to ourselves. You don't want to remind people, or it comes back. We don't want to remind anyone of what happened in the past.”

There are many explanations for this reticence – from a desire to deflect attention from the societal ills so often reported in the southern media, to a deep and historically understandable mistrust of qallunaat (white people), to a belief that the spirits of the dead walk among us and must be respected. Perhaps most important, Nunavut is an ethnic state, formed of Inuit, by Inuit, for Inuit. Any slight against the territory can be perceived as a slight against the people.

Unfortunately, the result is a culture of silence in which problems are denied, or reflexively answered with an appeal to the traditions of the elders. In a territory with a burgeoning youth population and staggering social problems, this tight lid can serve to heighten the pressure, and there is danger that it will explode. If Cape Dorset, a bustling artists' enclave that should be one of the North's great success stories, can't hold it together, what hope do the other 24 Nunavut towns have?

One of the few people who would speak openly was the new mayor of the territory's capital, Madeleine Redfern, and she put it bluntly: “What's increasingly clear is that we were not ready for Nunavut.”

Part II

From an airplane's perch, each of Nunavut's 25 communities seems like a speck of contrast against a uniform landscape. Together, they hold a population the size of Moose Jaw's, spread across the land mass of 14 Britains, five Germanys or one Mexico – all without a single road connecting them.

In 1999, that population and the Canadian government launched an experiment in forging this scattering of hamlets into a united whole. At midnight on April 1, with the minus-45-degree night air framing the moon in a blue halo of ice crystals, Ottawa sliced the Northwest Territories in two, creating Nunavut (“Our Land”) out of the eastern 60 per cent.

The new territory would be 80-per-cent Inuit and the new government would have a mandate to protect their culture and lifestyle, in part by legislating that the ethnic makeup of the bureaucracy mirror the makeup of the population.

Some right-wing pundits bristled at the creation of a federally funded territory along ethnic lines, even branding it a variety of apartheid, but there was no going back. Nunavut's political fate was sealed. Its human fate was less certain: The social problems were already pronounced, but the fledgling territorial governors (then convening in a high-school gym) proclaimed themselves uniquely qualified as locals to tackle them.

“What we affirm today, with the stroke of a pen, is the end of a very long road,” said prime minister Jean Chrétien, who travelled to Iqaluit for the celebration. He meant that the path to Nunavut began at least in 1976, when a handful of Inuit dared to submit a land claim to the federal government. In truth, its roots lay much deeper in the troubled history of contact between Inuit and the white arrivistes from Europe.

In Cape Dorset, qallunaat first came in significant numbers around 1903, first bringing religion, then trading posts, then law enforcement and bureaucracy. The Hudson's Bay Company set up in 1913, soon drawing hundreds of Inuit into the fur trade. But in 1949, when prices plummeted for white-fox furs, the most coveted pelts, so did Inuit fortunes.

By the 1950s, RCMP officers at the sparse Cape Dorset settlement saw mass starvation setting in. People were eating dog food to stay alive. The Mounties radioed for a massive food airlift, and urged Inuit in far-flung seasonal camps to move to Cape Dorset, close to food and health care.

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