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The youthful face of Nunavut expresses hope, despair

Schoolchildren help hunters returning from a seal hunt at Cape Dorset, Nunavut.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Canada's north is incredibly young.

That's both its promise and its problem.

More than a third of Nunavut is under 15 years of age. That's twice as high as the rest of Canada, and not far off the population structure of countries such as Libya, Egypt and Tunisia that have recently been rocked by the revolutionary young.

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Gilles Rhéaume, vice-president public policy at the Conference Board of Canada, said such a youthful population could hold tremendous potential for the North. It offers a plentiful source of workers for the burgeoning mining industry, oil exploration and pipeline construction in the region. Those lucky enough to find work in those sectors have helped parts of the north, including Nunavut, enjoy some of the fastest per capita GDP growth in the country over the past decade.

But while the hope is that such growth will accelerate, there are many reasons why it may not.

Walk into many Northern communities and you'll find half the population is under 25, with a huge proportion neither working nor in school.

The high-school completion rate for Inuit in Nunavut is around 25 per cent. For aboriginal Canadians living on reserve, who make up much of the northern population of the provinces, it's about 40 per cent. That spells trouble for employers, for families and for the long-term health of the population.

Natan Obed, director of the department of social and cultural development at Nunavut Tunngavik, said education is a huge challenge. Even those who finish high school in the territory struggle to make a direct transition to postsecondary institutions in the south because of the gulf between northern and southern school systems.

But education is just one issue among many. "Because we have such a young population, you see the statistics with the violent crimes rates or the suicides. There's a real challenge for youth to grow up in a positive, healthy environment," Mr. Obed said.

In Nunavut, the homicide rate among young people is 10 times higher than in the rest of Canada. Rates of violent crime, from domestic abuse to sexual assault and robbery are also disproportionately high. While crime rates in the south have declined, they've jumped in Nunavut. That has a lot to do with demographics.

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Mr. Obed said the statistics paint a bleak picture, but he doesn't pin the blame solely on the size of the youth population. He says it has more to do with generations of historical trauma that have contributed to dysfunctional families and poor mental health.

Why is the North so young? One reason is that people are less likely to live into their 80s. The Conference Board's Centre for the North found that in Nunavut 56 per cent of adults smoke every day. Rates of accidental death are much higher than in the South. Life expectancy for the Inuit is estimated at about 10 to 15 years shorter than other Canadians.

At the other end of the spectrum, fertility rates in Nunavut, at about three children per woman, are almost double those in the rest of the country. Women often have children at comparatively young ages, Mr. Obed said. Yet birth control remains a sensitive subject.

"Fertility or family planning in the southern sense is something that still is not in keeping with a lot of traditional Inuit values and teaching about children," Mr. Obed said. "There aren't the stigmas attached to early motherhood, teen pregnancy, that there are in the South. It's a very different attitude. That's not to say it's fine. … But that discussion hasn't taken hold at any senior policy or political level."

Rod Beaujot, a demographer at the University of Western Ontario, said the big question is whether the North will be able to integrate these young people successfully. In the past, many of the brightest young people have moved south and not returned, while many of the jobs have been taken by southerners moving north.

"Will they be brought into society and work and feel they have a place or will they feel alienated? They may feel they need to change everything in order to achieve anything," Prof. Beaujot said.

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At Manitoba's University College of the North, which has two main campuses in Thompson and The Pas, interim president Konrad Jonasson is working to create a postsecondary institution that can help northerners train for more highly skilled work.

"What we're trying to do is steer [young people]to more positive lifestyle choices through education," Mr. Jonasson said.

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