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Nunavut prepares for ‘tsunami’ of youth, increases funding for education

A photograph of the Nunavut legislature chambers in Iqaluit in the Nunavut Territory of Canada on Wednesday, April 1, 2009. The territory says almost one-third of the population are under the age of 15, twice the percentage as the Canadian average.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Nunavut's government has tabled a stand-pat budget with the territory's fourth small surplus in a row.

But the most arresting number in Finance Minister Keith Peterson's speech Wednesday didn't have a dollar sign in front of it.

"Today, almost one-third of Nunavummiut are under the age of 15," Mr. Peterson told the legislature. That's about twice the percentage as the Canadian average and explains why education was the big winner in the budget with a 10-per-cent increase.

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"We must help today's workers to improve their job prospects and help our children to prepare for their future careers," Mr. Peterson said.

In an interview after the speech, Mr. Peterson compared the number of young people in the territory to a "tsunami."

"It's going to put a huge stress on our education system."

Nunavut is forecasting a slender $23-million surplus on overall spending of nearly $1.7-billion in 2015-16 – about 9 per cent higher than the previous year. Revenues are also forecast to be up, mostly because of increased federal transfers.

But Mr. Peterson pointed out the territory is raising more of its own funds. Last year, about 90 per cent of the territory's revenues came from Ottawa. This year, that figure is down to 84 per cent due partly to higher tax revenues.

Extra money is to be spent on teachers and school operations. Nunavut Arctic College is getting a 5-per-cent boost and the budget for early childhood education is going up nearly 15 per cent.

With the country's highest birth rate, Nunavut communities need new schools. The territory is also trying to build a mining training facility.

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"We've got to prepare people in the elementary and high schools and help the adults get into adult education so that they can get into the jobs that are available."

Even the perennial Nunavut housing problem factors into education. With a shortage of 3,000 units, too many students are trying to study in overcrowded, dilapidated homes in which drinking and abuse are far too common, Mr. Peterson said.

About half of Inuit students drop out before finishing high school.

Wednesday's budget also provides a 6-per-cent increase for health care and, within that department, mental health and addictions spending is to increase by more than a third.

Nunavut faces serious challenges on both fronts. Its suicide rate is 13 times the national average. Alcohol and drugs are often blamed for violent crimes eight times higher than in southern Canada.

"All communities will benefit from improved psychiatric nursing services, counselling and programming."

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Does Nunavut have the money to fix its problems?

"No," Mr. Peterson said. "The funding we get is not enough to meet our basic expenditure needs."

He currently has $500-million worth of proposals before federal counterpart Joe Oliver for housing and to replace 17 community power plants near the end of their usefulness. The territory also wants to expand its borrowing cap to $750-million from $400-million to fund projects such as the expanded and refurbished Iqaluit airport.

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