A new nation is born in the frozen north

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THINK YOU know your North American geography? This morning, you may have some catching up to do. At midnight last night, a new territory was born in Canada's northernmost reaches. It is called Nunavut and it is very large - about the size of Western Europe or ten times bigger than Britain.

But there are only 27,000 souls in this vast land of rocky outcrops and frozen tundra that stretches from Baffin Island in the Atlantic to MelvilleIsland in the Beaufort Sea. Its 28 settlements, including the capital, Iqaluit, overlooking Frobisher Bay, all have to be reached by air - beyond them there are only 12 miles of road.

Nunavut, however, is significant for reasons other than size. Its creation is a bold experiment in returning both a measure of autonomy and of dignity to an aboriginal race that for generations has seen little of either. Four out of five of its residents are Inuit, formerly known as Eskimos. While still inside the Canadian federal system, the territory, from today, will have a parliament and its own government. Hence its name. In the Inuit language, Inuktitut, Nunavut means "Our Land".

It is change, moreover, that is kindling excitement in the hearts of aboriginal peoples around the world, from the Maori of New Zealand to the Mohawk of New York. All will be watching closely to see how the Inuit manage their new freedoms in circumstances that will be far from forgiving. Nunavut is not just cold, its Inuit population struggles with some of the harshest socio-economic problems in Canada.

Already, it is a transition that arouses admiring astonishment. The creation of Nunavut comes after 15 years of talks and not one act of violence. Quebec's struggles with Anglophone Canada have lasted longer, yielding little fruit and much aggravation.

The last time Canada saw such a redrawing of its boundaries was on this day 50 years ago, when Newfoundland elected to become the 10th Canadian province.

Carved out from the eastern half of the already-existing Northwest Territories, Nunavut is essentially a gesture of compensation to the Inuit for the years of interference from the white man. For centuries, the Inuit, who migrated east from Alaska about 1,000 years ago, were able to continue their completely nomadic life, hunting and living in tents and igloos. From the Fifties, however, the Canadian government forced the Inuit into permanent settlements and obliged their children to attend Christian schools. Many were taken away from their families.

What is left is a race brought low by social problems handed across from the invaders. Alcohol and drug abuse are rampant, the suicide rate is six times Canada's national average and unemployment is about 30 per cent. Moreover, scope for economic improvement is narrow. Options include eco-tourism and possible deals for seal-fur export.

The principal concern of the Inuit in demanding their own territory was the restoration of their culture before it was obliterated entirely.

Inuktitut, for example, will again be taught to children in the territory's school. The only challenge will be finding enough people to teach it.

Celebrations were expected to last all day in Iqaluit, with traditional throat singing and Caribou roasts. The city, where few roads have names and recent warm weather has turned pavements to mud, has for the past few days been coping with an invasion of media from around the world. The town has no traffic lights, but boasts two tanning salons, a sports club and a weekly newspaper.

Inuit leaders, however, are wary of raising expectations too high. "You're trying to catch a bear for the first time and you wonder, `How am I going to do this?'" said Peter Ernerk, who will be a deputy minister in the new government.

Mr Ernerk worries that the Inuit are going through changes at a pace that is hard to handle. "We've come from the igloo to the high-rise in a very short time."