In May 2012, an obscure Ottawa-based think-tank called the Centre for the Study of Living Standards released a report on human development in Canada that contained an alarming but unsurprising revelation.
If Nunavut were a country, it would, measured within a list of 187 countries, sit at number 38, well below all other Canadian provinces and territories. Worst of all, Nunavut’s life expectancy at birth is ranked on that list at 100.
This means a male person born today in Nunavut would stand among the most fortunate of his peers if he were to live long enough to celebrate his 70th birthday. But a Canadian born nearly anywhere else in the country can look forward to at least 80 years.
Behind these numbers, there lies widespread deprivation, in every sense of the term. That includes, of course, cash poverty, limited access to good jobs, affordable housing and affordable food.
This is demonstrated by the 49 per cent of the population who need welfare payments to get by. Or that 70 per cent of families are reported to be food insecure for at least part of the year.
But too many people of Nunavut area are also deprived of quality education, social services and health care, including mental health services of all kinds. The territory’s appalling suicide rate demonstrates this. So do recent findings that show those who die by suicide in Nunavut are far more likely than others to suffer from personality disorders, substance abuse and maltreatment in childhood.
So if there’s an answer to the question of how to improve the lives of people living in Canadian Arctic communities, it’s this: reduce the deprivation that blights their lives, in all its forms.
To that end, there’s a northern Canadian reality that many southern Canadians have yet to grasp: though its traumatic legacy persists within the hearts of northern people, the colonial period is all but over.
Nunavut’s overwhelming Inuit majority now controls health, education social services, adult training, corrections, and much more, through a legislative assembly and cabinet that exercises most of the powers held elsewhere by provincial governments. And the four Inuit associations, led by Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., can exert enormous influence over the actions of government and business, using the powers and rights set out for them within the constitutionally-protected Nunavut Land Claims Agreement.
At the same time, it’s still the federal government – sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly – that catches much of the blame for Nunavut’s dysfunctions. But its biggest role now is that of paymaster, not policy-maker.
In the 2014-15 fiscal year, Ottawa will transfer nearly $1.5-billion to the Government of Nunavut – $40,080 for each man, woman and child in the territory and $602-million more than the $854-million that Ottawa transferred in 2005-06.
This is the financial resource available to Nunavut’s decision-makers for reducing the deprivation that deforms so many lives in the territory. It’s those Nunavut decision makers – using, one hopes, good information and good judgment – who must change what needs to be changed.
Take education, for example. The Nunavut government now knows – thanks to a scathing report issued this past December by the Auditor General of Canada – that its efforts so far have led to unmitigated failure. Will Nunavut leaders transform the school system into a tool for lifting the population out of poverty and deprivation? It’s too early to say. But it’s Nunavummiut who will make the crucial decisions.
Another example is suicide. Nunavut’s suicide epidemic may be complex and multi-faceted. But it’s not an unfathomable mystery. We now know, or ought to know, who is at the greatest risk of dying by suicide.
And the territorial government now owns a suicide prevention action plan with firm commitments and deadlines. Big parts of it are aimed at correcting yet another form of deprivation: the shortage of quality mental health services. Will they get that work done? Again, it’s too early to say. But on that front, as on so many others, the region’s quality of life depends as never before on the quality of its own leadership.
Northern Canadians are not powerless victims. It is they who now wield the greatest influence over the decisions – good or bad – that will decide the region’s destiny.
Jim Bell is the editor of Nunatsiaq News, a regional newspaper serving Nunavut and the Nunavik territory of Quebec.
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