The Wilson Quarterly

The massive territory of Nunavut lies in the northernmost reaches of Canada. Occupying one-fifth of the country’s land area, it is home to just 31,000 Nunavum­miut, who live in 25 communities scattered across the tundra. And it’s in those small towns that Canada is trying to figure out how to bring down ­sky-­high levels of suicide (11 times the national rate), poverty, and illiteracy. About 85 percent of the popu­lation is ­Inuit.

In April 1999 Nuna­vut became a Canadian territory after a ­decades-­long campaign by Inuit leaders to break off from the Northwest Terri­tories. (Unlike Canada’s 10 provinces, the territories are creatures of the federal government.) The hope was to create a government shaped by Inuit values. Early on, Inuit elders encouraged the adoption of Inuit Qaujima­jatu­qangit (IQ)—literally, “that which has been long known by Inuit”—as the organizing principle of the new government. But, as University of Toronto political scientist Graham White writes, “Allowing ­flex­time for [govern­ment] em­ployees to go hunting, clam dig­ging, or berry picking at opportune times, involving elders in policy development, and incorporating cultural ceremonies into bureaucratic activities . . . do not fundamentally alter the nature of government.”

Half of all jobs in Nunavut are in the public sector, and efforts to hire Inuit to work in the terri­torial government have been an important part of spreading employment beyond the Qallu­naat ­(non-­Inuit) minority. By the end of 2007 some progress had been made, with half of all gov­ern­ment jobs held by Inuit, up from 42 percent in 2003. At­tempts to use ­Inuktitut—­the language spoken by about 80 per­cent of the ­Inuit—­in government have been frustrated by low literacy levels. Only 25 percent of students graduate from high school, and those who do receive very limited Inuit-language instruc­tion, due to a shortage of ­Inuit-­speaking teachers.

Government could do more to incorporate Inuit culture, notes Frank Tester, a professor of social work at the University of British Columbia. Consider the problem of homeless­ness. For pretty obvious reasons, being homeless in Nunavut does not mean sleeping on the street but rather “couch surfing,” which creates severe overcrowding. Ottawa has attempted to address the housing shortage through programs designed to ­jump-­start a private market. But relying on a system of ­Western-­style market economics makes little sense in a society that strongly emphasizes relation­ships among extended family. It would make more sense for government to create new housing cooper­atives designed for large ex­tended ­families.

In the future, Canada stands to make a lot of money in the north from natural resources and shipping routes that will become newly accessible as Arctic ice melts. The stakes are high for Nunavut’s fledgling government, and as more money flows out of Canada’s north, they’re only going to get ­higher.

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The Source: "Nunavut at 10" multiple articles edited by Ailsa Henderson in Journal of Canadian Studies, Spring 2009.

Photo courtesy of The U.S. Embassy of Canada

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