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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 ...

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.”

Part III

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.

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