One year later, new territory facing same old problems

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The Independent US

No one expected miracles a year ago when a fifth of Canada became the Inuit homeland called Nunavut.

Despite the joy and hopes expressed at the April 1, 1999, ceremony that created the territory named "our land" in the Inuit language, all involved knew significant change would take generations.

As the Arctic region as large as Western Europe with a population of 25,000 observes its first anniversary Saturday, problems including widespread poverty, high unemployment, crime, substance abuse and a high suicide rate remain.

Despite such obvious hardships facing his people, Premier Paul Okalik says he believes small steps toward growth and development have occurred.

"I saw my first group of Japanese tourists in Rankin Inlet this year," said Okalik, head of the 19-seat legislature, the first in Canada or the United States to be dominated by aboriginals. "That's a good sign."

Citing the need to exploit Nunavut's abundant natural resources through mineral exploration, tourism and other industries, Okalik listed efforts intended to start weaning Nunavut off federal money that will cover more than 90 percent of the dlrs 438 million budget for 2000-2001.

Nunavut lobbyists argue in the United States for fewer restrictions on seal exports and in Ottawa for a greater share of the turbot off its coasts. An exploratory crab fishery up the coast of Baffin Island and a commercial caribou harvest in Rankin Inlet have started. The government managed a dlrs 23 million surplus from its first-year budget of dlrs 425 million.

"We're being conservative with our spending and cutting costs wherever we can," Okalik said. "We're spreading benefits wherever we can."

But Okalik, a 35-year-old lawyer, knows good intentions mean little to people facing 22 percent unemployment, a housing shortage that forces overcrowding and social ills exacerbated by the harsh Arctic climate.

He called for the federal government to offer Nunavut the same programs and benefits provided other territories and provinces, such as control over its natural resources and housing money for Inuit.

Most of Nunavut's people are Inuit, descendants of nomads who crossed into the Canadian arctic from Alaska about 1,000 years ago.

Their traditional lifestyle, centered on hunting, endured largely intact until the 1950s and '60s, when Canadian authorities forced them to settle in permanent communities. Many Inuit children were pressured to attend church-run boarding schools away from their families and were force-fed the culture of the "qablunaaq" - white man.

About a third of the population is on welfare, with the per capita income at dlrs 7,500 in a region with high living costs due to the remote environment in what used to be the eastern 60 percent of the Northwest Territories.

The big economic hope is mining what are believed to be good deposits of gold and diamonds, and reaching large gas reserves in the High Arctic islands.

But over half the territory lacks basic maps needed for industry exploration, said Dave Scott, chief geologist in the Canada-Nunavut Geoscience Office.

He estimated exploration and research to produce proper maps would take 10 years at a cost of dlrs 100 million. In addition, the high costs of working in the north require larger profit margins, he said.

Such conditions make it impossible for Nunavut to shuck its reliance on federal money any time soon, said Jerry Ell, president of Qiqiktaaluq Corp., one of the three so-called "birthright corporations" intended to be Nunavut's economic engine.

He said creative ideas that avoid the higher operating costs were needed, such as a possible plan to harvest icebergs and sell them in crushed form or as bottled, pure northern water.

"It sounds funny," he said, but it could bring in a few million dollars.