Crime has doubled in Nunavut since the territory was founded 12 years ago this week, raising a critical question: Is Nunavut a failure of Canadian nation building? And if so, what must be done for history's scars to heal?
Inside the dead man's house, Elisapee Qaumagiaq fell silent. She let the walls speak for her.
Someone had plunged his knuckles through the hallway drywall again and again and again, from the kitchen all the way down to the bedrooms. The blood had been washed away, but the tale of murder, outlined in felt-pen evidence markings, swirled beneath Ms. Qaumagiaq's snow boots.
She looked around for a few moments before saying the place was giving her "the creeps" and heading outside for a smoke in the minus-10-degree gale strafing the shores of Tellik Inlet. Ms. Qaumagiaq was with Cape Dorset's housing agency. She was responsible for getting the place back in shape, to help answer the never-ending shortage of shelter in the area. But, with so many scenes of death in recent months, the task was weighing on her.
"He was a good kid," she said of the young man who lived there until he was shot last September. "Just a little angry."
His death began a run of gun violence that terrorized Cape Dorset, the 1,300-person hamlet and famed sculpture and printmaking centre nuzzled against the Precambrian cliffs of tiny Dorset Island, just off the southwestern coast of Baffin Island. Around here, the events are simply referred to as "the Incidents," if they're mentioned at all.
On the night of Sept. 19, a Sunday, a Grade 11 student named Peter Kingwatsiak allegedly crept into his uncle's bedroom and tried to stab the older man in the head while he slept, then fled after his uncle awoke. According to police, the teen then grabbed a gun, walked into his stepbrother's home and opened fire on the slumbering young man. Mappaluk Adla, or Mupp as he was known among friends at the youth centre, crawled for help, but never made it past the front door. He was eight days short of his 23rd birthday. The next day, schools were locked down until police picked up his accused killer around lunchtime.
Three weeks later, on Oct. 10, a 19-year-old man named Elee Geetah allegedly shot dead his brother, Jamesie Simigak, in a dispute over an iPod. He then barricaded himself inside a house and came out only after the RCMP flew in an emergency-response team from Iqaluit.
Finally, three days later, two Grade 9 boys sprayed the town with gunfire and traded shots with the police. One bullet flew through a constable's front window and embedded in his bathtub. His wife and two daughters were away at the time, but afterward the entire family left Cape Dorset, never to return.
The police and local media talked of a town unravelling, of a place where social norms had collapsed. What no one said aloud was that the unhinged town was symptomatic of an unhinged territory. While Canadians were aware there were social problems in the North, the outbreak of mayhem in Cape Dorset last fall drew broad attention for the first time to their violent extremes – the toll Nunavut pays in cold blood.
The rate of violent crime per capita here is seven times what it is in the rest of Canada. The homicide rate is around 1,000 per cent of the Canadian average. And the number of crimes reported to the police have more than doubled in the dozen years since the territory was formed. If it were an independent country, Nunavut's crime statistics would place it in the realm of South Africa or Mexico.
Even more than Nunavummiut harming each other, they are hurting themselves: Inuit males aged 15 to 24 have a suicide rate 40 times that of their peers in the rest of Canada, and children are abused at a rate 10 times the national average, even as 50 per cent of social-worker positions stand vacant.
Beyond physical violence, on the 12th anniversary of its founding, Nunavut is struggling on all levels just to meet the basic needs of its 33,000 inhabitants. Seven in 10 preschoolers grow up in houses without adequate food. Within Confederation, Nunavut ranks last in virtually every measure – education, general health, substance abuse, employment, income and housing.
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."
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.
It was then, in the words of Mary Simon, president of the advocacy organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, that "the colonization process evolved to the point where our people expected things to be given to them." Expectations grew and grew, on federal assurances that life would be better when this nomadic hunting people instead settled in one place.
While the shift increased Inuit life expectancy from 35 in the early 1940s to 66 in the late 1980s, the transitional period sapped all manner of Inuit self-reliance, replacing it with shoddy government homes, abusive residential schools and social-assistance cheques. Generations since have been raised to sentimentalize the past and expect little of the future, a recipe for the cultural disorientation and undirected anger that breed violence.
For Ottawa, the relocation tidied up the North, sweeping a scattered population into pockets suitable for social assistance, health care and all the other stuff of Canadian governance. It also helped to satisfy four distinct quandaries: a series of court decisions beginning in the 1950s that ruled Canada was responsible for the welfare of its aboriginal peoples; a long-standing policy of assimilating aboriginal people into mainstream culture; a burgeoning desire to open the North to mining; and the need to solidify Canada's international claims to Arctic sovereignty.
Throughout the push into settlements, however, the federal government systematically excluded Inuit from decision-making roles. Their fates would be sealed in faraway offices, without consent or consultation.
Finally, Inuit Tapirisat of Canada was formed in 1971 to lobby for Inuit rights. By 1976, it had submitted a land-claims proposal to the federal government demanding a vast tract of land and mineral rights under Inuit title, along with the creation of a new Inuit-dominated political entity called Nunavut.
After 17 years of grinding negotiations, prime minister Brian Mulroney signed those tenets into law with the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and the Nunavut Act. A few years later, Mr. Chrétien's signature made the territory official.
About a year after its formation, Jim Bell, the conscientious editor-in-chief of the Nunatsiaq News (who is not an Inuk), wrote that Nunavut was a "made-for-failure territory" – overburdened with bureaucracy, paralyzed by an inadequate budget, destined to be a political basket case into the foreseeable future. More than a decade later, "I can't be anything but pessimistic," Mr. Bell said recently.
"Part of the promise of Nunavut was that, once in control, the majority Inuit government would offer better government – that has not happened. ... The only thing Nunavut has been successful at doing is creating a space where Inuit identity can be expressed. But it is not meeting the basic needs of the population right now."
That failure was evident at the home of Peter Ningeosiak, a neighbour of Mapalluk Adla in Cape Dorset. A bloody seal lay outside his bungalow, its whiskers dangling with icicles. Inside, the 73-year-old man sat at his kitchen table, leaning his right ear toward a radio blasting the CBC hourly news and looping his thumbs around a twine belt holding up ragged trousers.
Mr. Ningeosiak was born in a remote hunting camp at a time when Inuit still relied on dogs for transportation and snow for shelter, and firmed up those hands over decades of hauling seal and slicing beluga muktuk.
Today, his beaten-down government home houses nine to 11 relatives.
In 2006, University of British Columbia social work professor Frank Tester surveyed 91 homes in Cape Dorset to glean the human toll of housing shortages and overcrowding. Some issues cited were obvious, such as cleanliness, privacy and sleep. Others were not. One in four brought up anger. About one in five said depression and violence. Dr. Tester noted that at times one woman a week was being removed to a shelter in Iqaluit.
At Mr. Ningeosiak's house, his adult children sleep on two couches in the front room. His grandchildren sleep on the floor. When they wake up, they watch television and fight.
"They argue and they shout, smash glass," Mr. Ningeosiak said. "The children get scared when there is violence. When we were out on the land, this didn't happen."
Iqaluit is Nunavut's boom town, its big smoke, its metropolis. The airport hums all night. Big banks, absent from most other hamlets, line the main drag. In a new and welcome development, Iqalummiut can even buy double-doubles.
And yet, here in Nunavut's bridge to modern Canada, one in five houses is overcrowded and one in 10 families use their living room as a bedroom. Hundreds of homes need major repairs.
The government of Nunavut is working on it: The town is filled with welding sparks, hard hats and the growing steel skeletons of sturdy apartment blocks. But Iqaluit's residential boom is outpacing the construction boom – its population has nearly doubled, to 7,250, since it officially became the capital in 1999 and professionals from all over the country started coming to seek high-paying government jobs.
That invasion ramped up the already-existing tension between Inuit and newcomers. Despite a mandate to fill 85 per cent of government jobs by 2020 with Inuit, the rate has languished around 50 per cent for a decade, because Nunavut's education system cannot produce enough qualified candidates.
Ms. Redfern, the new mayor, is perhaps the most prominent critic of this broken system. "We live in a chilly banana republic," she said last year, a few weeks before she would become mayor.
At the time, she was bemoaning her chances of ever holding public office in her home territory. Born in the North to an Inuit mother and a father who had immigrated from England, she went through grade school in Ottawa before going on to law school and becoming the first Inuk to clerk for the Supreme Court of Canada. She doesn't speak Inuktitut fluently, and her southern education is treated suspiciously up here.
"I think it's the same in a lot of small places," she said. "It's an insular culture here and when you go away, you're not always trusted immediately upon your return."
This discourages some youth from seeking education away, even as dropout rates at home sit at 75 per cent. Those who do graduate receive an education that falls well short of standards in the South. Thanks to an unofficial policy of "social promotion" that grants students passing grades regardless of academic performance, graduates can possess both a high-school diploma and functional illiteracy. Last autumn, one non-Inuit family in Cape Dorset was planning a move to Ontario because the hamlet's high school didn't offer a single university-recognized course.
And yet education is what Nunavut arguably needs the most. Half of the territory's population is under 25, with a birth rate that leads the nation – a demographic crush of ignorance and incompetence that could hamstring the territory for decades.
Nunavut's political culture is overtly populist but deeply conservative. There is a strong resistance to change, and reverence for all things traditional. Encouraging young men to hunt is a popular remedy to virtually every social problem, though one might question the encouragement of gun use in such a violent climate. The majority's views on women's roles, abortion and gay marriage hark back to an era before the suffrage movement. Elders are the ultimate authority, their wisdom unquestionable as an oracle's.
Such a culture can become incapable of identifying its core problems, let alone addressing them. For example, the territory introduced a suicide-prevention plan only last year, even though the crisis was well documented at the very outset of Nunavut. Two people involved with the process said it was impossible to convince Inuit leadership that Southern solutions such as increased mental-health services and providing training in suicide intervention were viable solutions to a uniquely northern problem.
Even Nunavut Health Minister Tagak Curley, one of the original Inuit activists, told The Globe and Mail, "Suicide isn't such a big problem any more" – a statement in plain contradiction of the facts.
One of Mr. Curley's colleagues, Justice Minister Keith Peterson, is far more forthcoming. He sees all the suicide death notices (more than 320 since 1999), speaks with the shattered families and talks openly about the plight of Nunavut's youth.
"I'm not going to sit here and tell you why they're doing it, or how to solve it," Mr. Peterson said. "We don't know."
Nor does he have the money to find out. Roughly 90 per cent of the territorial budget comes directly from Ottawa, which works out to about $32,000 for every Nunavummiuq. Earlier this year, Mr. Peterson, who is also Nunavut's Finance Minister, was scrambling to fill a $110-million shortfall in the Housing Department caused by the inability to keep pace with population growth – a shortfall that worked out to roughly 10 per cent of the territory's total budget.
To make matters worse, the Nunavut Act bars its government from holding debt greater than $200-million. Already owing $140-million, the territory has little room to borrow or sell bonds to erase the shortfall, especially with an ever-growing list of badly needed infrastructure projects it can't afford.
That means cuts. Big ones. "We're stretched. … It's taken some real stick-handling on my part to straighten this thing out." Mr. Peterson said. "Good thing I'm a hockey player."
But the rink is tilted against him. In a series of investigations, federal Auditor-General Sheila Fraser has revealed the extent of Nunavut's bureaucratic dysfunction: In one recent audit, her office found that its public service limps along with 23 per cent of its positions unfilled, and a hiring process so sluggish it undermines the most basic functions of government.
"It's clear we have a crisis in leadership here," Ms. Redfern said, bumping along Iqaluit's icy roads in her Ford pickup one afternoon. "People here have to realize Nunavut is a tool. It will give us a leg up only if we use it properly – if we decide to embrace self-improvement, education, good governance. So far, we haven't."
By day, Iqaluit can seem downright sleepy. Locals sit for hours in warm hotel lobbies to pass the time. The half-dozen restaurants here keep such irregular hours that it's a gamble to try to find breakfast on a weekend morning.
"From the statistics, one would get the sense that you walk around our communities and you get shot at," said RCMP Chief Superintendent Steve McVarnock, head of Nunavut V Division in Iqaluit. "It's not like that. We don't have the big-city crime issues. Our stuff is self-destruction."
And on a weekend night, those implosions are on full display.
That's what makes the detachment a perfect place to break in fresh-faced Mounties such as Constable Shane Pottie, a 23-year-old Nova Scotian nearly two years out of training, who patrolled the capital city on a recent Friday night.
"It's a great experience," he said of northern policing, navigating his GMC pickup down a hill overlooking the small bowl where most of Iqaluit's inhabitants live. "I'll kick in more doors in a year than a lot of guys do in a career."
His shift began at 9 p.m. For an hour, he crisscrossed town waiting for a call, slowing down on each five-minute pass to idle around a knot of kids playing road hockey late into the night.
"That's just the way it is up here for kids," he said. "Safer to be on the street than at home."
But after that, the whole city seemed to erupt. Over the next few hours, Constable Pottie would kick in two doors, wrestle several drunkards to the ground, track footprints at a break-in scene outside a school, help process 15 prisoners, continually dodge the widening river of urine forming on the floor of the detachment's lock-up and save an infant from falling out of her mother's amauti (a Inuit parka with an extra-large hood designed to carry a baby).
At 2 a.m. came an innocuous-sounding call. "Detox male standing in the road punching cars," a dispatcher monotoned over the truck radio.
"Alpha-7, 17," Constable Pottie responded. He was on his way, deking around the hockey boys again, their little bodies now steaming in the minus-10-degree night. Then the dispatcher crackled again: "Detox male now has a knife and is threatening people." The policeman gunned the truck. City scenery blurred past: unsteady drunks milling around the four main bars, the dim orange lights of an entire grid run on diesel generators, dinged-up cabs delivering intoxicated people or their intoxicants.
Constable Pottie fishtailed around a corner and headed down an alley until his brake lights burst red against the snow. Thirty metres ahead, barely visible at the edge of his high beams, someone in socked feet leaned unsteadily against a house. Constable Pottie drove close, jumped out and drew the nine-millimetre gun from his holster.
Another squad truck charged in from the opposite direction. Two Mounties jumped out, nine-millimetres up. The young man was cornered.
"Get down on the ground!" one of the other officers yelled. "Drop the knife and get down now."
The guy's eyes darted about until three blurry gun barrels came into focus. He couldn't have been more than 15.
He glanced down at his two-inch blade and then at his socks. For a moment, he seemed to think he would test his knife-at-a-gunfight odds, and lunged forward.
The three Mounties raised their guns. In the midst of his lunge, the kid lost his footing, stumbled and, finally, fell, belly against snow. One young Mountie leaned his knee against the man's back. There were convulsions, then vomit – the rage all gone.
The officers took turns comforting him, patting the back of a teenager who had threatened them with a knife moments earlier.
Ambulance lights reflected off the dark white hills surrounding Iqaluit. Constable Pottie's shift had several hours to go.
If Nunavut has any shot at beating back its demons, it needs to dry out first. On average, Nunavummiut spend $940 each a year on alcohol, more than almost anywhere else in the country, according to Statistics Canada. That doesn't include black-market purchases, which easily run as high as $100 for a 375-millilitre mickey of vodka. Such sums cripple household budgets as much as the booze cripples household health – a whole society in a state of cirrhosis.
"I'd say nine out of 10 – heck, even 10 out of 10 – things we deal with stem directly from alcohol," Constable Pottie said. "We cut down the booze, we cut down the crime."
And this is despite the country's most draconian alcohol regulations. Since 1976, Nunavut's hamlets have had a choice of three types of booze control: open, restricted or dry – with respective efficacy rates of limited, not much and nil.
Just as American Prohibition was a paradise for the likes of Al Capone, Nunavut's scattershot liquor laws have been a windfall for smugglers and bootleggers whose influence has continuously undermined the territory's efforts at social stability.
Iqaluit is among five "open" communities. Even there, residents can't legally buy liquor in stores. They must order it, for personal use, or drink inside select establishments. Seven Nunavut hamlets are currently "dry" and the remaining 13 are "restricted."
One of those 13 is Cape Dorset, where one Tuesday evening, a skinny young woman, 19, sat fidgeting in a chair, waiting to appear before the town's Alcohol Education Committee to apply for her first alcohol permit.
"I want to start off slow, ask for a 60-ouncer at first," she said. "Then I'll work my way up."
This panel of prominent locals scrutinizes individual alcohol orders, deciding to reject, accept or reduce each request based on its assessment of a person's ability to hold his or her liquor. In light of the Incidents, the five-person committee was considering new monthly alcohol limits: 72 cans of beer, five 750-millilitre bottles of hard liquor, 30 bottles of wine. They did not seem to discuss what a doctor might think of someone chugging 30 bottles of wine a month.
"We want to be helpful without restricting people," said Chris Pudlat, one of the committee members.
Yet the biggest problem with alcohol in Nunavut is not how much people drink, but how much they drink all at once. Darryl Wood, an assistant professor at Washington State University and the only criminologist who has studied alcohol policies in Nunavut, characterizes it as "low frequency, high quantity" – consumption habits that stretch binge drinking to dizzying new levels. It is common for people to guzzle a mickey of vodka straight, barely stopping to breathe. Inebriation sets in immediately and forcefully.
"I once saw a little girl slugging back a bottle," said Constable Alex Benoit, one of the Cape Dorset policemen involved in the Incidents. "When we stopped her and asked her what she was doing, she said she was trying to pass out. That was the goal. Not to have fun or enjoy herself. It was to black out. Alcohol is used differently here."
Last April, Mr. Peterson struck a task force dedicated to solving Nunavut's alcohol problem, which is entertaining the counterintuitive idea of opening beer-and-wine stores to combat liquor consumption.
Many people argue that the open sale of lower-proof alcohol would break the vodka-bootlegging trade and reduce the extremes of intoxication.
But few issues in Nunavut are as politically combustible as liquor legislation.
Thirty-five years ago, residents of Iqaluit (then called Frobisher Bay) could buy booze at a regular liquor store. But when a drunk driver struck and killed a child, a full-fledged temperance movement developed, soon amassing such fervent support that the territorial commissioner ceded to popular demand and shuttered the Iqaluit liquor store.
"Since then, few local politicians have dared propose that the Iqaluit liquor store be reopened for retail sales," Mr. Bell wrote in a recent Nunatsiaq News story on the issue. "It's still a radioactive issue, capable of incinerating all who go near it."
After a little while, the Cape Dorset Committee called in the young woman.
"So you want a 60-ouncer?" Mr. Pudlat asked.
"How old are you?"
"What will you do with it?"
"Just mix a few drinks. No parties."
The committee conferred for all of 10 seconds.
"Yes, one 60-ouncer is fine," Mr. Pudlat ruled.
The teen smiled. But if she had been turned down, she would have had other options.
"Black market," she said. "That's where I get it now."
The generation gap, overcrowding, poor education, alcohol and cycles of violence – the casualties of all these faults languish in a squat, metal-sided building that the Deputy Director of Corrections likes to refer to as "the sardine can."
The Baffin Correctional Centre lies roughly 30 seconds from downtown Iqaluit. On a recent weekend shift, security doors hung crookedly from bent hinges, sinks didn't work and doors had been ripped from toilet stalls.
Inmates sipped fruit punch from melamine mugs, played checkers and stared longingly at bedside magazine cut-outs of Taylor Swift, Scarlett Johansson and federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq – or "Queen Leona" as one male inmate referred to her.
In the basketball gym, narrow cots crowded the court from baseline to baseline. J.P. Deroy, the deputy director, said there were a few days last year when the gym was free of beds, but usually it's teeming with around 100 inmates, almost 100 per cent above the jail's capacity.
"How are you supposed to run rehab programs in a place like this? Most of the year, it's too cold outside and it's too crowded inside," Mr. Deroy said, pacing the jail's halls.
One inmate in solitary leaped from his bed and waved through a small window when he saw Mr. Deroy walk by. A guard opened the door. "You need something?"
"Nope," said the prisoner, a broad-shouldered Inuk in his early 20s with buzzed hair. "Just wondering what you guys was up to." He and the guards lapsed into neighbourly banter.
Asked his name, he turned his back and pointed a thumb at a tattoo stretching between his soldier blades: "INUKSTA." He then drew attention to several places where he had scratched the moniker on the cell wall.
"I spend a lot of time here," he said. "Gotta find something to do with my time."
Inuksta grew up in poverty with his Inuktitut-speaking grandparents. His struggles with English led to fights, first with other students and then with teachers.
He has been in and out of juvenile-detention facilities and the Baffin Correctional Centre ever since, on a string of charges.
"We know you very, very well, don't we?" Mr. Deroy said. "Are you still causing the guards problems?"
Inuksta just smiled, looked bashfully at his prison-issue sandals. "Maybe a little, yeah."
Criminologists debate endlessly about the root causes of crime waves, but one thing is generally agreed: The larger the proportion of youth in a given population, especially undereducated ones, the worse the crime problem.
"While the rest of the country is getting older, Nunavut is getting younger," said V Division's Chief Supt. McVarnock. "You mix a young population with alcohol and limited options, you're going to have problems."
Rising crime has put stress on the courts as well. The average number of prisoners waiting for court dates has increased to 63 in 2010 from 18 in 1999.
In its proposed budget before the federal election call, Ottawa had pledged $4.2-million over two years to hire judges and prosecutors for Nunavut, responding to a terse letter from Nunavut Chief Justice Robert Kilpatrick that cited the territory's youthful demographics.
For the time being, Inuksta seemed resigned to calling prison a permanent second home.
"I get out, and I try, but I always end up here," he said, smiling at the guards. "Wouldn't be surprised if that keeps happening, I guess."
As his visitors moved on, he shuffled his sandals back into solitary, and closed his door behind him.
Throughout Nunavut, Inuit leaders appeal to tradition as a response to violence and despair. Outsiders are bewildered by the claim that to progress, society must regress. But in smaller, more remote places such as Repulse Bay, you can at least partly see their point.
Repulse Bay is an 800-person hamlet two flights northeast of Iqaluit. Located directly on the Arctic Circle, about 2,000 kilometres due north of Thunder Bay, it ranks near the basement of territorial socio-economic indicators. The median income is below $20,000; unemployment sits around 40 per cent. As of 2006, only five of the 175 young people here between 15 and 24 had a high-school diploma.
But, despite the lack of an economy, schooling and any real government presence, the Repulse Bay crime rate is far closer to the national average. RCMP records show just 156 Criminal Code violations last year and 150 in each of the previous two years, probably giving it the lowest crime rate in Nunavut.
"If you talk to people who visit a lot of remote communities across Nunavut, they'll tell you people in Repulse just seem happier than people elsewhere," said a visiting physician, dining on dry meat loaf and cherry pie one evening at the local hotel. "It's hard to describe."
Steve Mapsalak, a former MLA and renowned hunting guide who is now the town's Senior Administrative Officer, said his town may not be perfect, but its relative peace stems from a way of life grounded in fishing and hunting.
"We don't hunt as a hobby here," Mr. Mapsalak said. "It's our way of life, our currency, our welfare system, our culture. We spread our meat to the old and the poor. A good hunter raises the entire community."
Still, old ways cannot erase the recent history. The ghosts of residential schools and the harsh transition to settlement life linger here as everywhere else. But Repulse Bay is working its way past them, with a little help from Jesus Christ and Sigmund Freud.
Also in the hotel dining hall was a grey-haired clinical psychologist named Bruce Handley. As the Newfoundland construction workers around the table gobbled down their last crumbs of pie, Dr. Handley tried to recruit bodies for a community-healing service at the town hall later that night.
"I promise it will be a very interesting service," he said. "They get up front and confess their sins and sing and cry. When they really feel the spirit, I've actually seen them vomit that evil all over the floor."
Around 7 p.m., he took a seat among 150 chairs filled with stern hunters, acned teens, even babies. This was the culmination of a three-day visit by a men's healing group from nearby Coral Harbour. Dr. Handley, who spent decades working largely in prairie prisons, would mediate. The approach was not exactly clinically orthodox: The Coral Harbour group, complete with four-piece rock band, was running a Pentecostal prayer service.
"Others in my profession might dismiss it," he said. "But after 40 years doing this, I've found that putting therapy in spiritual terms makes it much easier to understand. They are a very spiritual people, and always have been. We shouldn't be fighting that."
A man named Willie Eetuk had started the Coral Harbour group nearly four years ago, when he realized he had to speak about his addictions to conquer them but could find nobody, government-
sponsored or otherwise, to help. He put a call out on the bush radio. The first meeting attracted 15 and soon grew to 50.
Noel Kaludjuak was one of the first. "I was an alcoholic," he said. "I drank because of my past. My parents were born on the land. In the 1960s, the government moved us to communities. But my father stayed out hunting. I grew up fatherless. Many of us did.
"We didn't learn how to lead a household, to be a man, so we abused drugs. When my father returned, he beat my mom. I did the same thing. I disassociated from the world."
The band launched into a tune. As the kick-drum rattled the blue and yellow walls, a woman in the front row rose, dancing with her hands reaching to the heavens. A dozen more mimicked her. The Coral Harbour men did a laying-on of hands with a family of five who had walked to the front of the room, telling them that Jesus knew their sins and loved them still. A woman gyrated, her legs failed and the Coral Harbour men caught her. A man with a broken back said he felt cured.
When the band finished, a succession of men took the microphone. "I have hurt my family," John Tinashlu said tearily. "I have raised my voice and my fists. I said this in prayer now I say it to you. I have not been a good father. I drank. I cannot hide it any more. I love you, son. I hurt you. I love you. I used to blame others. No more."
It was bedlam, rapture, therapy – a homegrown truth-and-reconciliation hearing. After the four-hour service, all 200 people streamed out wiping their red eyes and revved home on snowmobiles. The next day, some sought out Dr. Handley for one-on-one sessions.
While self-help and evangelism are surely no cure-all for Nunavut's shortcomings, they do offer one way to give voice to personal demons – a non-violent means of release.
"We don't pretend that we can fix the pain of all Nunavut," said Mr. Kaludjuak, the Coral Harbour church leader. "We have many problems here. But you can't make a healthy place without healthy minds."
There was another kind of hope to be found in Repulse Bay, in the form of a little green logo stitched to tuques and gloves all over town.
A few days earlier, staff from the French nuclear-power giant Areva had held a community meeting to tell the locals about the benefits of a uranium development the company is pitching 500 kilometres southwest, in Baker Lake. The town was buzzing with talk of potential job opportunities.
The Areva bid is one of several developments that have raised hopes throughout the Eastern Arctic that a prosperous age is coming.
In Baker Lake and two nearby towns tucked along the eastern shore of Hudson Bay, Rankin Inlet and Arviat, optimism around mining is accompanied by anticipation of a highway development that would extend upward from Northern Manitoba, creating the first land link between Nunavut and the provinces.
Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger signed an agreement with Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak to study the highway's construction late last year, a project expected to cost about $1.2-billion.
"We get that road in here, and you'll see this part of Nunavut change in a hurry for the better," said John Hickes, the mayor of Rankin Inlet, who has been so single-minded in his pursuit of the highway that some refer to him as John Road.
"There's a lot of stories in Nunavut, but this is the good news story here in the region around Rankin. You keep your eyes on us. We're not standing still."
Optimism comes in other forms as well. Premier Aariak has declared it her personal mission to overhaul the education system.
She also wants to strike a devolution deal with the federal government: Under its current territorial jurisdiction, Nunavut has little control over resources sitting under Crown land. Ms. Aariak wants to change that and have Nunavut collect resource revenues that might otherwise go to Ottawa.
But there's a catch: Her pitch relies on convincing federal negotiators that her government is on a strong organizational footing. For Nunavut, that's a tough sell.
Her education plan is more promising, a new act that would stress bilingualism, Inuit culture, community control and improved academic standards. But such vague ambitions still fall far short of those, for example, in Greenland.
That largely Inuit nation has a long head start on Nunavut in grappling with the social and economic ravages that come with a polar climate and isolated population.
In Greenland, the government maintains a hard goal of ensuring that two-thirds of its population has a trade or academic education by 2020.
The island nation offers other lessons as well. Greenland was granted home rule from Denmark in 1979 and increased local powers in 2009. Today, with a 6.8-per-cent unemployment rate, it hauls in 60 per cent of its revenues from domestic sources, relying on Denmark for the remaining 40 per cent – the equivalent of $11,000 per Greenlander.
Nunavut, by contrast, posts a 20-per-cent unemployment rate and generates 7 per cent of its revenue internally. The rest – $1.1-billion or roughly $33,000 per capita – comes from Ottawa.
Mr. Peterson's alcohol task force is looking to the steps Greenland took in the mid-1990s to address rampant alcoholism there. It liberalized liquor sales, took addiction care more seriously and, in a symbolic gesture, banned drinking in government offices.
While the island still has its share of alcohol problems, per-capita liquor consumption has dropped significantly.
"I don't know a single sane Greenlander who would go back to the policies of the past where you drive people to obsess about alcohol," said Jack Hicks, a social researcher who has worked closely with governments in both Nunavut and Greenland.
Mr. Hicks is one of the Arctic's foremost experts on suicide. "We have to get young people off of drinking cupfuls of vodka with no mix. If you acknowledge that people are going to drink instead of pretending you can stop them, you can do some good."
Finally, it must be acknowledged that for all its woes, Nunavut remains livable, at least for those lucky enough to be members of the territory's small but growing middle class.
"I sometimes ask myself if this is something of a failed state," said Mr. Bell, the journalist. "And I have to say no. When I go home and flick a switch, the power comes on. The garbage gets picked up. The hospital functions. The RCMP protects us.
"Compared to the other provinces and territories, we're doing very poorly. A failed jurisdiction maybe, but it's not Sierra Leone. It's not Somalia."
True. But so far, it's also not Greenland. Not even close.
The morning after the church service, the man with the broken back borrowed a snowmobile and sledged home to a ramshackle assemblage of landfill scraps about six kilometres from town. He has been on a waiting list for a real home 18 months and counting. He creaked upstairs to his bedroom filled with Montreal Canadiens memorabilia, cookie tins, Cuban cigar boxes, pulp paperbacks and video cassettes. An old brass thermometer read minus 15. It felt colder. He lit two Coleman stoves for heat and lay on his bed beneath a huge ceiling mirror.
"I can't stand to look at myself," he muttered, and sat back up.
Leo Nangmalik's life story is a kind of microcosm of the modern history of Canada's Eastern Arctic. As a boy, he attended Sir Joseph Bernier School in Chesterfield Inlet. He remembers the Catholic nuns stripping him down and washing him, focusing a special vigour on his genitals. There was a priest who did worse, he says. When he tried to tell his mother, she would hit him and call him a liar.
He would go on to spend years in prison. He has held a rifle to his head. "I could never pull the trigger," he said, adding that he didn't want his 13 kids growing up without a father, even though he hasn't been much of a father.
The hiss of the Coleman stoves masked Mr. Nangmalik's sobs. "Until now, until the Coral Harbour group arrived, whenever I told these things, I was called a liar," he wheezed. "I am here. This was done to me. I am not lying."
And then, as if the thought had just occurred to him: "I want to live," he said. "I want all of us to get past the hardships."
He said he had gone to the healing service because it was run by men like him, not qallunaat or even government workers. If Nunavut is to overcome its culture of low expectations, part of the answer must come that way, up from the bottom, as the church leader, Mr. Kaludjuak, had said that night.
"I can see now that the federal government was trying to help," Mr. Kaludjuak said. "They tried to get us in houses, to feed us, to have us live like them. … There were consequences they could not see. And now the men here sit around like children. It is up to us to change that, not government."
This is one of Nunavut's biggest problems: The region's history has left its people so distrustful of change from above that they may not accept interventions even from their own territorial government.
"In the past," Mr. Bell said, "change has been painful. So they've become reactionary in the literal sense of the word. It's rooted in the trauma of the past and a sentimentalized view of the past."
But things must change in Nunavut, and its leaders must tell the truth of how the system is failing – just as Mr. Nangmalik must tell his truth.
Outside his shack, darkness had won the battle of contrasts. A blue halo encircled the moon, just as it did on that hopeful night a dozen years ago. A clear night sky promised a bright day tomorrow.
"What I have told you," Mr. Nangmalik said, looking across the bay, "I have never been able to tell. I feel a peace right now. Maybe this is what we need, this talking."
Patrick White is a reporter for The Globe and Mail.
Editor's note: After this story was published, The Globe and Mail learned that Leo Nangmalik had only days earlier taken his own life. He was 50 years old.