After more than 30 years of struggle, the Inuit people of Canada are given more autonomy and the right to self-determination

Published: Wednesday 30 June 1999


-- the tenth territory of Canada was born on April 1, 1999, with the creation of Nunavut, which means 'our land' in the language of its inhabitants, the Inuit. The 30,000 Inuit people of Canada have been given the right to self-governance along with economic rights over Nunavut, which comprises 60 per cent of Canada's North Western Territories ( nwt ) and 1.9 million sq km of the coldest and driest landscape in Canada.

In Canada's largest settlement claim in terms of financial compensation and land, the Nunavut treaty gives to the Inuit Canadian $1.1 billion ( us $.748 billion) to be paid by the year 2007 and 1.9 million sq km of land and water including mineral rights to around 35,257 sq km within the Inuit owned land.

The Inuit are also to get a share of federal government royalties from oil, gas and mineral development on Crown islands. In his official statement, the Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien said: "We honour the past by building upon the ancient traditions of the Inuit to forge a public government which represents all residents of the territory equally and fairly." The creation of Nunavut marks a total turn-around in Canada's official position towards the aboriginal people within its borders.
The road to freedom The Inuit demand for a separate territory began in the early 1970s as a dispute for aboriginal claims over land use. But within a few years the demand for self-government also gained ground. A proposal for the creation of a new territory was presented in 1976 by the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada after studying the land use and occupancy patterns all over the nwt .

After several years of fierce resistance from the federal and nwt governments, the concept of the creation of Nunavut was accepted in 1982. Over the next ten years the three parties were engaged in intense negotiations despite changes in policies, procedures and governments. In September 1992, the parties reached an agreement which called for the creation of Nunavut. On November 3-5, 1992, a plebiscite was conducted where 84.7 per cent of the Inuit endorsed the creation of Nunavut. This was despite the fact that they would have to forgo aboriginal rights and title to all land and water settlements in the Nunavut Settlement Area, except for the 355,842 km of Inuit owned land.

A beginning was made in February this year when the Inuit elected Paul Okalik, 34, as their first premier in a 19-seat Parliament, which included 15 seats for the Inuit. The responsibilities of the newly-formed government include education, justice, housing, and local administration.

Of the preliminary Canadian $600 million ( us $.408 billion) budget of Nunavut, nearly 90 per cent is to come from the transfer that results from sharing existing funds of the nwt with Nunavut. Initially, Nunavut will have to depend, to a large extent, on federal funding at a time when the Canadian government has decided to reduce the funds it doles out to its territories. "It will be very difficult for Nunavut to stand on its own feet if the federal government sticks to its decision of reducing the volume of federal funding to its territories," says Abdul Nafey, an expert on Canada at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, ( jnu ), New Delhi.

The newly-formed territory comprises only 28 settlements built on piles driven deep into the permafrost. The smallest, Bathurst Inlet, has 18 residents while the largest, Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, boasts of 4,500 residents. Interestingly, young people, under 20 years of age, form almost 50 per cent of the population which is an indication that the Inuit is not a dying race.
The transition of Inuit The Inuit have an incredible ability to adapt to changing situations and still maintain their unique cultural identity. Yet, the shift from the traditional occupation of hunting and fishing to a wage economy has led to a great deal of change in their lifestyle. It has also created a high rate of unemployment. Earlier, the Inuit were employed as casual labourers. But the modern unemployment rate is very high, varying between 22 per cent and 60 per cent from community to community.

Moreover, the lack of modern infrastructure has made life difficult for them. The non-existence of roads connecting settlements or communities to each other and use of air-craft as the only means of travelling and transportation makes mobility exorbitant. The cost of living is two to three times higher than in the southern parts of Canada.

But these problems, which arise in Nunavut due to its geography and climate, are balanced by its economic potential in different sectors like mining, tourism and construction. Hunting, trapping and fishing also continue to play a vital role in the Nunavut economy. The staple diet of most Inuit communities, even today, constitutes caribou, seal and other land and marine animals. Tourism is another industry which, if exploited properly, can put the Nunavut economy on the right track. The unspoiled beauty of the arctic and the Inuit culture and art have the capacity to attract tourists from all over the world.

The vast untapped mineral resources of Nunavut also hold great potential for the creation of jobs and economic prosperity of the Inuit. Nunavut already has two lead and zinc mines operating in the high arctic region. Besides there are other known mineral deposits including copper, gold, silver, diamonds and uranium. By gaining collective rights over the mineral resources and mining in their land the Inuit stand assured of future prosperity. Some experts have, however, expressed caution. Christopher Sam Raj, head of Canadian studies in the School of International Studies, jnu, says: "There is every chance that big mining corporations from all over the world will rush to Nunavut to try and gain access to the mines. It will depend upon the Inuit leadership to negotiate as best as they can so that none can exploit their economy and their unique biodiversity."

Another issue that warrants attention is that members of the Inuit tribe are spread over the Arctic regions of Russia, Alaska, Greenland and Canada. They might eventually want to integrate, says Nafey. Though there is not much debate today, the Canadian government may be faced with these questions sooner than they expect.

Nunavut as a self-governing territory is still in its infancy. But it is a political reality that the Inuit have dreamt of for long. With their strong ties with the land, vast mineral resources, diverse wildlife and the determination to succeed the Inuit, are all set to make the idea of Nunavut a success.

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