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Images of Canadianness

Leen D’Haenens

Part Three. Canada from a Native Perspective

Nunavut: A Challenge for the Inuit

Cornelius H.W. Remie

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1In this chapter some of the major transitions currently taking place in Canada’s Northwest Territories will be explored. In 1999 the eastern part of the NWT will become a separate territory named Nunavut, which in the Inuit language (inuktitut) means “Our Land”. The decision to create this territory was made in 1993 when representatives of the Inuit of the Central and Eastern Canadian Arctic and the federal government in Ottawa reached a final agreement on a landclaim after 17 years of negotiations.

2This landclaim, also called Nunavut, was first filed in the early seventies, a period that witnessed increased White encroachment upon the Canadian Arctic. What preceded the claim in the early postwar years were: the militarization of the area through the establishment of large defense systems, the construction of permanent settlements, and the introduction of welfare colonialism. When major megaprojects that would affect their habitats and lifestyles were being considered, the Inuit people reacted against the radical transitions they were forced into. In their reaction, the Inuit focused on claims to native lands and demanded self-government. Initially the Canadian government only wanted to discuss Inuit title to what it considered to be Crown lands. Only when the process of constitutional renewal got on its way, did the claim to self-government become a serious point of discussion, the creation of a new territory being the outcome.

3The 1999 establishment of the Nunavut Territory seems to fulfill a lot of Inuit dreams, but will it bring the future they hoped for, a future that will make them masters of their own destiny? Before I try to answer this question, I will first give a brief historical backgrounder on the development of Inuit-White relations. Then, I will focus on the post-war period which brought the Inuit sedentarization and welfare colonialism. Following a brief description of the landclaims and self-government movements, I will focus on the challenges that face the Inuit of Nunavut as the third millennium draws near.


  • 1 This historical backgrounder is an abbreviated version of Remie (1993).

4The Inuit have inhabited the Canadian arctic for over 4,000 years. As the last wave of migrants to cross the Bering Strait, they soon spread over the arctic regions of North America and reached Greenland as early as 2,000 BC. Adapting themselves to life in the arctic coastal regions, they developed a nomadic lifestyle characterized by a winter adaptation to the sea-ice and a summer adaptation to the land. Survival depended heavily upon a thorough knowledge of the arctic environment, sophisticated technology and elaborate patterns of collaboration, and mutual sharing. Hunting and fishing in small egalitarian family groups and bands, they lived a life that was adapted to the vagaries of nature.

5Following initial contacts with Vikings who traveled the coastal areas of Labrador and Newfoundland a thousand years ago, the Inuit were – from 1576 onwards – increasingly exposed to explorers who were searching for a Northwest Passage to Cathay. Contacts with explorers were short-lived and had relatively little direct impact, but these contacts opened the door to a new breed of visitors to the arctic: the whalers and the fur traders.

  • 2 Diamond Jenness (1968:10) characterizes the impact of whaling in the Western arctic as follows: “I (...)

6Whaling in the Eastern Canadian Arctic started early in the 19th century. Whaling centers were located in Pond Inlet, Cumberland Sound, Hudson Strait, and in the north-western part of Hudson Bay. In the latter region, the heyday of whaling was the period between 1860 and 1870. In these areas whaling initiated the transition to dependency and caused a sharp decline in population as a result of the introduction of contagious diseases (Boas, 1888: 425-6). In the Western Canadian Arctic commercial whaling started comparatively late, in 1889 only, and boomed around 1894/95. It lasted for only fifteen years, but its effects on the local population were even more devastating than in the Eastern arctic.2

7Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) fur traders penetrated the Canadian arctic early this century, when whalers were leaving for the southern hemisphere. Establishing its first trading post in 1911 in Chesterfield Inlet on the west coast of Hudson Bay, the HBC soon secured a monopoly in the trade and quickly established an impressive network of trading posts: during the heyday of fur trapping in arctic Canada – the 1925-1929 period-the HBC operated no less that 217 trading posts at 139 locations in the Northwest Territories (Usher, 1971: 28). As the HBC exploited the trapping capabilities of its Inuit customers, the latter became increasingly dependent upon the HBC for the supply of basic commodities. Lured into the consumption of western goods, Inuit trappers soon found themselves caught in a web of obligations from which there was no escape.

  • 3 The Oblate Fathers established their first mission post in Chesterfield Inlet in 1912, a year afte (...)
  • 4 Although Canada claimed sovereignty over its present northern lands as early as 1874, it did nothi (...)

8The trapping of fur animals fundamentally upset the native hunting economy and led to total dependence. This became dramatically clear in 1929 when the fur trade collapsed, destroying what was left of the Inuit economy and turning the Inuit into virtual wards of the Hudson’s Bay Company (Jenness, 1968: 25). Missionaries, who had come to the Canadian arctic in the wake of the fur traders3 stepped in and gave a helping hand. They were assisted by the constables of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who had come to the North in 1903.4 However, the magnitude of the problems they faced was of such scope that their efforts were insufficient. When the Second World War broke out, the Inuit were a destitute people, impoverished and subject to all kinds of privations.


9The Great Depression and the years of World War II were difficult years for the Canadian arctic. Pre-occupied with solving economic problems in the South, the Canadian government in Ottawa almost forgot its North. It only woke up to its responsibilities after World War II. When US-Soviet relations deteriorated and developed into a cold war, Canada moved north. Within the context of NATO it agreed to the building of a Distant Early Warning line (DEW-line), a chain of radar stations to protect the North-American continent from a surprise attack from the north. The construction of the DEW-line sites started in Canada in 1952. By 1957 most stations were completed and had become operational.

  • 5 For an analysis of welfare colonialism in the Canadian arctic, see Paine (1977).

10During the construction phase of the DEW-line the Canadian government became aware of the problems of its northernmost citizens. The Inuit were found living under appalling conditions, impoverished and highly dependent on Hudson’s Bay trading posts for their livelihood. Epidemics of polio and of tuberculosis had raged through the high Arctic in the late 1940s and early 1950s and had taken a heavy toll. The Canadian government reacted quickly and without hesitation. It developed a number of crash programs to improve living conditions in the North and to prepare the Inuit for their incorporation into the mainstream of Canadian life. A lot of time and energy and a seemingly inexhaustible amount of money were spent to achieve this goal. Ottawa’s intentions may have been good, but its policy resulted in sheer paternalism and tutelage. What Ottawa eventually established in the Arctic, then, was a regime of “welfare colonialism.”5

11To raise standards of living, to “civilize” the Inuit, and to better administer social services, the Canadian government built permanent coastal settlements – twenty-eight in ten years – and the Inuit were forced to come live in these government-created villages (Billson, 1990; Coates & Powell, 1989: 10). The price the Inuit had to pay for reaping the benefits of western “civilization” was extremely high as a few examples will illustrate:

  • The size of the new permanent settlements was such that too many hunters were concentrated in too limited an area. As a result, hunting spoils diminished which, in turn, led to increasing dependency on the welfare support provided by Ottawa’s civil servants.
  • To better administer the North, Canadian authorities initiated Project Surname which was to introduce family surnames in the arctic. The project was carried out in great haste and so many mistakes were made in issuing birth certificates that many Inuit got confused and felt they were losing their identity.6
  • The new settlements were considerably larger in size than the largest traditional social units the Inuit had been familiar with, i.e. the winter camp. Traditional forms of leadership and social control were not attuned to these conditions. As a consequence, social life became disrupted considerably.
  • Introduction of education alienated Inuit children from their parents. In the new schools they were taught subjects that did not relate at all to the everyday experience of northern life, let alone the traditional culture of the Inuit. The transmission of traditional survival knowledge was discontinued. As a consequence, the younger Inuit generation was no longer able to live off the land and it became dependent on wage-employment or its alternative, welfare.
  • Life in the new permanent settlements required skills which the Inuit, lacking formal training and education, at first did not have. After they had acquired such skills, chances for employment still remained poor, because of the reluctance of White employers to hire Inuit labour. The resulting massive unemployment led to demoralization, apathy, and indifference to education.

12Robbed of their personal identity, forced to leave familiar hunting grounds, put up in a strange house in a strange community of a size never before experienced, and constantly bossed around and reprimanded by White civil servants, the Inuit soon found themselves living a life that was regulated by southern “total institutions,” a life heavily subsidized by welfare payments, pensions, family allowances and other social service payments (Billson, 1988: 304). The resulting alienation led to complete uprooting for the Inuit.

13Characteristic of Ottawa’s administration of the Canadian North was a total lack of political vision, at least until the beginning of the 1970s. A development policy was formulated only after large quantities of oil and natural gas were discovered on the Alaskan North Slope in 1968 and expectations had risen that large reserves of nonrenewable resources also existed in the adjacent Mackenzie Valley delta and the Arctic archipelago. In March 1972 the Federal Cabinet presented the Canada’s North 1970-1980 plan, that set the priorities for Northern development: first people, then the environment, and after that economic development (Dosman, 1975: 98-9). In practice, these political priorities were implemented in reverse order.

14Exploration activities boomed after the Yom Kippur war of 1973 and the ensuing Arab oil boycott. As the industrial lobby in Ottawa gained strength and momentum, the government caved in and started giving out licenses for mineral exploration and exploitation. Several megaprojects such as the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Project, the High Arctic Pipeline Project (that would connect Cornwallis Island to either Québec or Manitoba), and the Arctic Pilot Project (the shipping of natural gas and oil from the High Arctic to southern Canada by way of mammoth submarines) a were being planned. In Québec, the Quiet Revolution had led to the James Bay Hydroelectric Development Scheme, which was to inundate large stretches of land of arctic and subarctic Nouveau Québec. Opposition against this technological megalomania was organized and it was then, in the early-and mid-1970s, that the federal government in Ottawa met with strong resistance on the part of the Inuit, who protested against the appropriation of their traditional lands, which they considered to be a further assault on their way of life or what was left of it.


  • 7 Land use conflicts typical of the epoch involved mostly Inuit hunters and white seismic crews sear (...)

15Until the beginning of the 1970s the Canadian Inuit had reacted with resignation to the many changes that were forced upon them. Structurally weak leadership and no notion of being a people account for this. Only after young Inuit had gone through the Southern Canadian schooling system and had become familiar with white political institutions, did the sense of Inuit peoplehood awaken. When Southern pressures on the North increased, this grew stronger and took institutional form. Native organizations, such as the Committee for Original People’s Entitlement (COPE-1969), the Inuit Tapirisat Canadami (ITC, established 1971), the Northern Québec Inuit Association (NQLA, established 1972), and the Labrador Inuit Association (LIA, established 1973) were founded. Their major aims were: the preservation of the Inuit language and culture, the promotion of a sense of dignity and pride in the Inuit heritage, and the achievement of full Inuit participation in Canadian society. Though ITC and other Inuit organizations presented themselves as non-profit, non-sectarian, non-political organizations, they were from the very start involved in political action, claiming large stretches of land from the government in Ottawa. Emphasis on land claims resulted from a number of land use conflicts7 that occurred in the early 1970s, the period of the so-called “resource boom.” Inuit organizations reacted by taking legal action to prevent resource exploitation or to postpone it until after they had been able to claim traditional lands and get these claims settled.

  • 8 Of this convention Cumming (1977: 33), legal advisor to the Inuit, wrote: “The James Bay settlemen (...)

16The first Canadian Inuit to settle a land claim were the Inuit of Northern Québec. Represented by NQIA, they were engaged in the lengthy negotiations that accompanied the James Bay hydroelectric project. Together with the Grand Council of the Crees, the leaders of the Northern Québec Inuit Association signed the James Bay Convention on November 11, 1975. Under this convention, the Inuit obtained financial compensation of Cdn$90 million, ownership of approximately 8,400 square kilometers of land and exclusive hunting, trapping and fishing rights in an area of approximately 86,000 square kilometers.8

17The Inuit living in Canada’s Northwest Territories, represented by Inuit Tapirisat Canadami, presented a comprehensive land claim to the Federal government in Ottawa on February 26, 1976. The claim aimed at the founding of a Nunavut Territory where the Inuit, through numbers and voting power, would be in charge for the foreseeable future. Also, the Inuit would have strong control over hunting, trapping and fishing, and they would hold surface title to at least 650,000 square kilometers of lands and waters, giving them a large land base and better control over what happened with regard to resource development. In short, what ITC wanted to achieve was self-government for the Inuit of the Northwest Territories. However, the Canadian government refused to discuss the political demands of ITC. Giving in to these demands would have far reaching constitutional consequences and the Canadian government was not ready yet to engage in such a discussion. But opposition against ITC’s claim not only came from the Canadian government. Inuit in northern settlements, also opposed the claim and criticized ITC for “selling out” communities. As a result, Inuit Tapirisat had to withdraw the claim in the same year. In December 1977 it presented a new version of the Nunavut land claim.

  • 9 For a full description of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, see Berger (1977).

18Briefly after ITC had withdrawn its initial land claim, the Inuit of the western Canadian Arctic, represented by the Committee on Original People’s Entitlement (COPE), presented their own claim, entitled Inuvialuit Nunangat, to Ottawa. This was done in May 1977 at a time when the option to build the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline was still open. Following the Berger Inquiry9 a ten year moratorium on the construction of this pipeline was issued. In the fall of 1978 negotiations between COPE and the Federal government had proceeded so far that an agreement in principle could be signed. After that negotiations stopped for a while. They were resumed in 1982 and, in March 1984, COPE and Ottawa reached a final agreement. The final agreement provided the Inuit of the western Arctic with a financial compensation of Cdn$67.5 million in 1977 dollars, legal title to about 91,000 square kilometers of land and exclusive hunting, trapping and fishing rights in this area and in the Crown Lands of the Inuvialuit region. All this was granted in return for the surrender of Inuit interests in approximately 344,000 square kilometers of land and adjacent offshore islands and waters (Canada, 1984). Like the James Bay Convention, the Inuvialuit Final Agreement only settled a legal dispute over ownership of the land.

19It said nothing about the political rights of the Inuit as an aboriginal people. These rights were dealt with in another forum: the process of constitutional reform.

  • 10 See section 15 (subsection 2), section 25 (subsection 1), section 35 and section 37 of the Canadia (...)

20The process of constitutional renewal got underway after 1982, when the Canadian constitution was repatriated. In various sections of the 1982 Constitution reference is made towards the existence of aboriginal rights.10 These rights, however, were not identified and defined. This was the task of a series of Constitutional Conferences in which the Prime Minister of Canada and the First Ministers of the provinces, as well as representatives of the aboriginal peoples participated. Under the Trudeau government constitutional conferences were convened in 1983 and 1984. The approach to aboriginal rights taken during these conferences came to be known as a “Top-Down” approach. This approach opted for the entrenchment of a constitutionally guaranteed right to self-government, followed by negotiation at the federal and provincial level as to how the principle is to be interpreted in detail. Constitutional conferences held under the Mulroney government in 1985 and 1987 took a “Bottom-Up” approach to the problem of aboriginal rights. This approach favoured constitutional entrenchment of the aboriginal right to self-government after definition of this right at the local, provincial and federal levels. The former approach did not work because of the unwillingness of the western provinces to deal with the matter in a “top-down” way, while the latter was rejected by the aboriginal peoples.

21In 1987, when the 4th FMC failed, the Meech Lake controversy further deteriorated the relationship between native Canadians and federal and provincial governments. The proposed Meech Lake Accord was an attempt to reconcile the political aspirations of Northerners and the political objectives of the Anglophone provinces with a view to bringing Québec into the constitution. The Meech Lake “betrayal”, however, could not halt the process set in motion by the constitutional process, and new attempts were made to redefine the relationship between the Canadian Government and the aboriginal peoples. This was done during the Canada Round of Constitutional renewal which led to the Charlottetown Agreement of 28 August 1992. This unanimous agreement, a package deal, contained an important paragraph on self-government. It stipulated that self-government is an inherent right of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples and this right would be entrenched in the Canadian Constitution. Furthermore, it stipulated that “governments and Aboriginal peoples would be constitutionally committed to negotiating agreements that would set out how the inherent right would be implemented (Canada, 1992: 6). The fate of the Charlottetown agreement is known. On October 26, 1992, it was rejected by a 54.2 percent majority of the voters.

22During the process of constitutional renewal the Canadian government and the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut (which represented ITC at the negotiating table) continued their negotiations over the Nunavut land claim. In 1990 they reached an agreement-in-principle and a final agreement was signed and ratified by the Inuit in 1992. Under this agreement the Inuit in the Nunavut settlement area would acquire the following rights and benefits:

  • title to approximately 350,000 square kilometers (136,000 square miles) of land, of which 35,257 square kilometers (14,000 square miles) include mineral rights;
  • equal Inuit representation in government on a new set of wildlife management, resource management and environmental boards;
  • the right to harvest wildlife on lands and waters throughout the Nunavut settlement area;
  • capital transfer payments of Cdn$l.148 billion, payable to the Inuit over 14 years;
  • a Cdn$13 million Training Trust Fund;
  • a share of federal government royalties for Nunavut Inuit from oil, gas and mineral development on Crown lands;
  • where the Inuit own surface title to the land, the right to negotiate with industry for economic and social benefits from non-renewable resource development;
  • the inclusion of a political accord that provided for the establishment of the new Territory of Nunavut and through this a form of self-government for the Nunavut Inuit.

23However, by far the most important clause in the final agreement was the one in which the federal government of Canada committed itself to introducing legislation into Parliament pertaining to the creation of a Nunavut territory and a form of self-government for the Inuit of Nunavut.

24Inuit leaders were afraid that the rejection of the Charlottetown Agreement would put the discussion about aboriginal self-government on the back burner, but the federal government lived up to its promises. On May 25, 1993, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Tom Siddon, Northwest Territories Government Leader Nellie Cournoyea, and Tungavik Federation of Nunavut president James Eetoolook, formally signed the Nunavut final agreement (Canada, 1993: 1). To ratify the Nunavut Final Agreement, the Federal Government of Canada introduced two pieces of legislation into Parliament, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act and the Nunavut Act. Both acts received Royal Assent on June 10, 1993. Both came into force on July 9, 1993.


  • 11 Nunavut Tunggvik Incorporated (NTI) succeeded the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut as the corporatio (...)

25Under article 37 of the Nunavut Final Agreement the Nunavut Implementation Panel was established. This panel, which includes one federal government representative, one representative of the government of the Northwest Territories, and two representatives of the Nunavut Tunggavik Incorporated11, has to oversee and provide leadership of the implementation of the Nunavut Final Agreement, to monitor the implementation of the Implementation Plan and the development of the Implementation Training Plan, and to attempt to resolve any dispute that might arise between designated Inuit organizations and government regarding the implementation of the Nunavut Final Agreement (Implementation Panel, 1994: 11-2). Although a statutory body, the Implementation Panel has had a marginal role so far, as panel members from the very beginning have struggled with the nature and scope of the Panel’s mandate (Implementation Panel, 1994: 12).

26Far more important has been the role played by Nunavut Tunggavik Incorporated (NTI), which represents the Inuit of the Nunavut Settlement Area and which has as its main task “to jointly manage, with the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, the various public boards (...) to be created within two years following the enactment of the Nunavut Land Claims Settlement” (Légaré, 1994: 17). These boards are: the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, the Nunavut Planning Commission, the Nunavut Impact Review Board, the Nunavut Water Board, and the Surface Rights Tribunal. These boards are government institutions that regulate and manage renewable and non-renewable resources in the Nunavut Settlement Area. As instruments of government their decisions are legally binding. This has a direct bearing on the operations of the future Nunavut government. Légaré (1994: 17) has described this in following terms:

(....) According to the Political Accord, Nunavut will be a public government and will hold the same jurisdiction as those already held by the Northwest Territories at the time of the signing ceremony (i.e. October 30, 1992). This means that the Nunavut Territory will have the same powers enjoyed by the provinces, except that it will not hold title to any land ownership, and might not therefore benefit financially from natural resource development. In fact, the land in the Nunavut Settlement Area... will be owned either by Nunavut Tunggavik Incorporated (i.e. Inuit owned lands: 18 percent) or by the Federal government (i.e. Crown lands: 82 percent). Therefore, the Nunavut government might have no legislative authority over non-renewable resources (e.g. oil, mining) and might not get any share in royalties from development (e.g. Lupin, Nanisivik and Polaris mines). Also, since the public boards will be established well before any Nunavut government institutions (i.e. by 1995) this could give to these co-management boards added legitimacy in solely managing the Nunavut lands for years to come and in ignoring the priorities of the Nunavut public government in economic development.

27These public co-management boards will not be the only ones with direct influence on the economic development policies of the future Nunavut government, Nunavut Tunggavik Incorporated, too, can affect such policies through the Nunavut Trust which manages the Cdn$1.17 billion capital transfer that comes with the Nunavut Final Agreement. The Nunavut Trust is responsible for protecting the money and investing it. The interest from the trust funds will be used to generate social and economic programs which are beneficiary to the Inuit (Légaré, 1993: 55). Examples of such programs are the recently established Nunavut Hunters Support Program which supplies financial assistance to hunting families, and the Small Business Assistance Program (NTI, 1995: 15). Under the aegis of Nunavut Tunggavik Incorporated, a host of other organizations and committees are involved in the planning of a Nunavut-wide economic development strategy. They do so to safeguard the interests of the beneficiaries of the Nunavut Land Claims Settlement, i.e. the Inuit, but at the same time this can lead to a power struggle with the future Nunavut public government, which not only represents the interests of the Inuit, but also of the non-Inuit residents of Nunavut. To avoid this, a close consultation process will be necessary between Nunavut Tunggavik Incorporated and the Nunavut Implementation Commission, which is preparing the establishment of the future Nunavut territory and government. What the level of preparation is to date, and what challenges the future Nunavut government will have to meet, will be discussed in the next paragraph.


28The Nunavut Implementation Commission (NIC), an all-Inuit commission whose mandate is to prepare the establishment of the Nunavut territory and government, started its work in January 1994. Following a long process of public consultations NIC issued in March 1995 a report entitled Footprints in New Snow. This report addresses a great number of issues, the most important, being the structure of the future Nunavut government and the selection of a capital city for the future Nunavut territory.

  • 12 In Recommendations #6-8, NIC (1995: 47) states that “all planning proceed from an understanding th (...)

29According to NIC, the Nunavut Government should consist of a democratically elected Legislative Assembly with no fewer than 16 and no more than 24 members (NIC, 1995: 19) and the election of the first Nunavut Legislative Assembly should take place in May 1999 (NIC, 1995: 20). How the Legislative Assembly would function is left open in the report. In Nunavut there should be only two levels of government – territorial and communal – according to the NIC; no intermediate regional level is deemed necessary. The Nunavut government should also be highly decentralized. Use of new communications technologies could revolutionize the electronic delivery of government services to remote locations (NIC, 1995: 55). With respect to the Nunavut civil service, NIC emphasizes that Inuit participation in new government employment in Nunavut should reflect the demographic realities of the new territory (NIC, 1995: 45-6).12 In order to achieve this, special attention should be given to the training of Inuit people for employment in the Nunavut government.

  • 13 This analysis was made on the basis of following factors: existing infrastructure and amenities; p (...)

30A considerable part of the report of the Nunavut Implementation Commission is devoted to the matter of selecting a capital city for the future territory, a matter that the NIC describes as “one of the most challenging ones” (NIC, 1995: 47), since much social prestige and considerable economic benefits are involved. In all, six communities expressed their interest in becoming a capital. Following considerable analysis13 the NIC believed that Cambridge Bay, Iqaluit, and Rankin Inlet best met the criteria used in the analysis. After much politicking and lobbying behind the scene, NIC presented its report Choosing a Capital at a press conference in Iqaluit on July 7, 1995, and announced that Iqaluit would be the best choice (Bell, 1995: 7).

  • 14 NIC (1995: 61-3) argues that the Nunavut Agreement creates investor confidence, makes Nunavut “ope (...)

31In concluding my remarks on Footsteps in New Snow, a report which focuses on formal structures rather than on political substance, a few words should be said on what the Nunavut Implementation Commission perceives to be the major challenges for the future Nunavut government. In its report, NIC acknowledges that social and economic circumstances of Nunavut communities are not really healthy. NIC points at rather dim economic prospects and resulting social traumas, but expresses the hope that the Nunavut Agreement and the establishment of a Nunavut government will change the economic climate, and thus help remedy these social pathologies. NIC is optimistic about the effect of the Nunavut Agreement and the establishment of a Nunavut territory and government14 but one can question whether such optimism is warranted. A quick glance at the major challenges the future Nunavut government will face may indeed put a big question mark behind NIC’s optimism.

  • 15 These figures have been calculated on the basis of figures provided by Robitaille & Choinière (198 (...)
  • 16 Table 1 (a), Community Concerns: Percentage Rating, lists following issues as a problem or a serio (...)

32The first of these challenges is a demographic one. As in many Third World countries, population dynamics in Nunavut may seriously undermine whatever progress is made. The rate of increase of the Inuit population is more than twice that of Canada as a whole. In 1987 about 17,500 Inuit lived in the Nunavut Settlement Area.15 NIC expects this figure to have risen to about 22,500 by April 1, 1999, an increase of almost 30 percent in twelve years (NIC, 1995: appendix A-6.2). A further characteristic of the Inuit population in Nunavut is the over-representation of the young in the population: in 1991, 39 percent of the Nunavut population was under 15 years of age (vs. 21 percent for the whole of Canada). The consequences of these demographic realities are considerable. As Irwin (1988: 37) has pointed out, there will be a high demand for work and a greater need for housing. Today, housing is already considered a very serious problem in Inuit communities as revealed by a study undertaken by the Inuit Women’s Association in 1990 (Pauktutit, 1990, table l.a)16. Given the present demographic trends, this situation will become worse (GNWT, 1989: 35). The trend towards smaller families and the increasing occurrence of incomplete nuclear families will also result in a higher dependency upon support from the state (Irwin, 1988: 37). Increased dependency on social assistance will in turn lead to “individualization of poverty and the undermining of the collective and traditional patterns of helping, sharing and co-operation centered on interconnected kinship systems” (Shewell & Spagnut, 1995: 41). Altogether, demographic trends in Nunavut are likely to put the developmental process under extremely high pressure. For the process to succeed, “much will depend upon the economic prospects for Nunavut.

33Economic prospects for Nunavut are gloomy as the report of the Special Committee on the Northern Economy of the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly revealed in 1989. The report classified 46 out of 61 communities in the Northwest Territories as underdeveloped. The underdeveloped communities are as a rule small in size, have relatively poor links with the outside world, have a low labour force participation rate, have a high unemployment rate, have low educational levels and a very limited private sector (GNWT, 1989: 22-3). As the report points out, to maintain the current low level of employment 2,789 additional jobs have to be created by the year 2001 to keep up with the population increase. Bringing unemployment in the underdeveloped communities at the level prevalent in the developed communities would mean the creation of 5,757 new jobs by the year 2001; and if employment rate and labour force participation rate were to be equalized, 11,396 new jobs would have to be created by the year 2001 (GNWT, 1989: 25). With a limited potential to create new jobs, other than those which are government related, the report projects increasing levels of poverty.

  • 17 See Canada & TFN (1993), Schedule 4: Budget Estimates for Institutions of Public Government, part (...)
  • 18 Non-involvement in someone else’s behavior is one of the basic tenets of Inuit culture. It is base (...)

34Since 1989, when the Scone report was published, the situation has not changed very much. Unemployment figures are extremely high and in terms of jobs not much relief can be expected from the creation of the Nunavut bureaucracy. The Nunavut Agreement will generate no more than 40 new jobs to fill the ranks of the public management boards’17 and the creation of the Nunavut government will generate approximately 600 jobs in the public sector (NIC, 1995: 30). Considerable expansion of the private sector, as hoped for by NIC, need not be expected. Renewable resource development projects, highly subsidized by the Canadian Government, have largely failed as a result of international actions (such as the European Community’s fur ban) and as a result of cultural factors (defective management due to the inability or unwillingness to give “orders,” an attitude which is valued negatively in Inuit culture).18 And large-scale development of non-renewable resource extraction is not to be expected in a Canadian economy that is subject to fundamental restructuring. In conclusion, Nunavut’s economy will be characterized by high levels of unemployment, by poverty, and by high levels of government subsidization and welfare dependency.

  • 19 Irwin (1988: 42) reports that tests carried out in the Keewatin district indicated that “Inuit ent (...)

35An important factor that contributes to the high unemployment rate is the low level of schooling amongst the Inuit. The Scone Report notes that the school drop-out rate in the Northwest Territories is very high and the success rate in completing grade 10 is about 20 percent for the Inuit, a figure that results in a high level of functional illiteracy (GNWT, 1989: 36). Apart from a high drop-out rate, the level of schooling is as a rule below standard.19 Deficient education among the Inuit population not only diminishes their chances for economic development, when the non-native population consistently benefits more from the educational process, poor levels of education among Inuit can also lead to what Irwin has called “structural racism” (Irwin, 1988: 44).

  • 20 According to Rasing (1994: 230), in Igloolik estimated drug use is 40 to 60 percent among individu (...)

36Poor levels of education, high levels of unemployment, poverty, high levels of government subsidization and welfare dependency will create severe tensions in Inuit society and the outcome may be a an even more deteriorated social climate than we have now. Socially, present day Inuit society shows all signs of uprootedness. A very high proportion (probably over 50 percent) of the adult native population is on welfare. It is destructive of individual and community integrity and self-respect, and leads to serious social pathologies (Franks, 1993: 8). The rate of alcohol abuse is frightening (Coates & Powell, 1989: 15-6), as is the rate of drug abuse.20 The “hidden crime” of child neglect and spousal assault is on the increase (Rasing, 1994: 232-3), and the teenage suicide rate is of crisis proportions (Coates & Powell, 1989: 16). As to the latter, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples dedicated a special report to this phenomenon in which it stated that “suicide is clearly one of the most urgent problems” (Royal Commission, 1995: ix). How urgent a problem it is, is demonstrated by the figures: Inuit suicides are 3.9 times as high as the national average in Canada (Muir, 1991: 40) and the suicide rate is expected to increase in the coming 10 to 15 years (Royal Commission, 1995: 18).


37On the basis of the grim realities as outlined above, Irwin (1988: 41) states that “if current trends continue most of the Inuit living in the Arctic in the year 2025 will be second generation wards of the state whose society, economy and culture may have more in common with an urban slum than with the life of their grand parents.” To overcome these problems he suggests that strong federal leadership is required (Irwin, 1988: 51). This may have been good advice at the time he wrote his report, but in the meantime the Nunavut land claim has been settled and the Inuit have now taken over the leadership in the developmental process in Central and Eastern Arctic. In this process there will be no place for any White tutelage, this time the Inuit want to solve their problems themselves. Under the present conditions of euphoria over the settlement of the Nunavut land claim, Inuit leaders may at times seem over-confident in what they may be able to accomplish. But self-confidence is exactly what is needed now, as it is the necessary basis for finding creative answers to the many challenges facing them. As the Inuit have always been very resourceful in overcoming adverse conditions, there is no reason to doubt that they will be able to do so this time. And though present conditions are indeed adverse, the general political setting is favourable: the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples has recently issued its final report in which it proposes a 20-year agenda for change and renewal of the long troubled relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. The agenda focuses on action in four areas: healing of individuals, families, communities and nations; economic development; accelerating development of human resources; and institution building (Royal Commission, 1996: 133-6). The Royal Commission has shown that not implementing this agenda and maintaining the status quo will be a costly affair, not only in terms of human pain and misery, but also in terms of economic loss to Canada (1996: 139-40). No federal, provincial or territorial government in Canada can therefore afford to ignore the Royal Commission’s agenda, and this is a completely new fact in the history of Aboriginal-White relations. For the Nunavut Inuit, this new reality may well be a key factor in overcoming the odds.



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1 This historical backgrounder is an abbreviated version of Remie (1993).

2 Diamond Jenness (1968:10) characterizes the impact of whaling in the Western arctic as follows: “In far northern Alaska, and in the Mackenzie River delta which adjoins it to the east, whaling crews left behind an Eskimo population reduced by European diseases and alcohol-promoted disorders to barely one-tenth of its earlier number, a population so demoralised that even today it has not recovered its pre-European virility”.

3 The Oblate Fathers established their first mission post in Chesterfield Inlet in 1912, a year after the Hudson’s Bay had opened a fur trading post there. As a rule, the founding of new mission posts followed the opening of HBC trading posts throughout the Canadian arctic.

4 Although Canada claimed sovereignty over its present northern lands as early as 1874, it did nothing to enforce it. In 1903, however, when the Norwegian Sverdrup Expedition (1898-1902) which had claimed parts of the northern archipelago, and the presence of large numbers of American whalers in the Beaufort Sea and north-western Hudson Bay posed a threat to its sovereignty, the Canadian government established police posts at Herschel Island and Cape Fullerton. In the beginning, main tasks performed by the RCMP were keeping the peace among the drunken and fighting whalers and collecting customs from foreign whaling captains.

5 For an analysis of welfare colonialism in the Canadian arctic, see Paine (1977).

6 For a full description of Project Surname and its consequences, see Alia (1994).

7 Land use conflicts typical of the epoch involved mostly Inuit hunters and white seismic crews searching for natural gas and oil. For a good description of such conflicts, see Hackman & Freeman (1978).

8 Of this convention Cumming (1977: 33), legal advisor to the Inuit, wrote: “The James Bay settlement fails in dealing with the two essential requirements in a land claims settlement. On the one hand, it fails to do anything significant to effectively preserve the traditional identity. (...) On the other hand, the settlement does not provide a mechanism to bridge the people into the new identity of the emerging industrial society in Arctic Québec”.

9 For a full description of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, see Berger (1977).

10 See section 15 (subsection 2), section 25 (subsection 1), section 35 and section 37 of the Canadian Constitution.

11 Nunavut Tunggvik Incorporated (NTI) succeeded the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut as the corporation representing the interests of the Inuit people of Nunavut. It was incorporated on March 15, 1993.

12 In Recommendations #6-8, NIC (1995: 47) states that “all planning proceed from an understanding that, at a minimum, Nunavut Government employment as of April, 1999, (should) be 50 percent Inuit by way of (1) overall composition, and (2) occupation of senior management positions”.

13 This analysis was made on the basis of following factors: existing infrastructure and amenities; potential for additional infrastructure, services and amenities; existing and potential transportation links within Nunavut and outside Nunavut; cost of living in the community; position/accessibility within the overall circumpolar region; attitude of the population of the community, taking into account its social, cultural and economic priorities; the extent of regional support; and climate (NIC 1995: 68).

14 NIC (1995: 61-3) argues that the Nunavut Agreement creates investor confidence, makes Nunavut “open for business”, and makes many economic ventures attractive to the Inuit. It will contribute positively to the development of the tourism sector, and supply the Inuit with new economic opportunities deriving from the opening up of new parks and conservation areas. NIC has high expectations with respect to the exploitation of non-renewable resources, referring in particular to the considerable mineral potentials of the Keewatin and Kitikmeot regions and the proven natural gas reserves in the Sverdrup Basin. NIC also points out that the Nunavut Agreement anticipates Inuit employment opportunities in the public sector, and the decentralization of the future Nunavut government can bring public sector jobs to the depressed communities.

15 These figures have been calculated on the basis of figures provided by Robitaille & Choinière (1987: 28).

16 Table 1 (a), Community Concerns: Percentage Rating, lists following issues as a problem or a serious problem:

Alcohol abuse


Drug abuse


Solvent abuse








Lack of recreation activities




Family Violence


Child sexual abuse




17 See Canada & TFN (1993), Schedule 4: Budget Estimates for Institutions of Public Government, part 1: 1, part 2: 1, part 3: 1, part 4: 1, and part 5: 1.

18 Non-involvement in someone else’s behavior is one of the basic tenets of Inuit culture. It is based on the assumption that the adult Inuk is a person who has reached the state of isuma (reason) and therefore knows how to behave. Any comment on his or her behavior, let alone ordering someone to carry out a specific task, is valued negatively. For a good example of non-involvement, see Birket-Smith (1959: 52-3).

19 Irwin (1988: 42) reports that tests carried out in the Keewatin district indicated that “Inuit entering adult education programs (...) tested, on average, 2.4 grades lower than their grade achieved in school”. In turn, “poor levels of education produce high rates of failure in all training programs in the Arctic”.

20 According to Rasing (1994: 230), in Igloolik estimated drug use is 40 to 60 percent among individuals aged 12 to 40, while drug use is estimated at 70 to 80 percent of individuals in the 16 to 30 age group. These figures may well be representative of drug abuse in the entire Nunavut area.


Associate professor at the Department of Anthropology, University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands. E-mail:

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