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Nunavut - Canada's newest child.

For hours I had watched CNN, America's number one news station, vividly showing the plight of the Kosovo Albanians fleeing across the borders to Macedonia and Albania, fearing for their lives. Mostly old men, women and children, they told horrific stories of the murder of their menfolk and the raping of their women. I could not believe my eyes and ears as weeping women told tale after tale of rape, torture and mass murder - all this because they spoke a different language-and followed another religion than that of the ruling Serbs. 'How could humans be so inhuman?' I asked myself.

Sickened, I turned the TV to a Canadian station. I straightened up in my sofa chain It seemed to be another world. People here were celebrating with dance, song and speeches the birth of a new Canadian child - the Arctic territory of Nunavut. A feeling of elation gripped me. In my country we were helping to bring into the world a new political entity for a people from another race who spoke a different language.

At that moment I was more proud of Canada than I had ever been in my life. While the Serbs were murdering people because of their ethnic origin, in our country we were honouring and helping to create a territory that was different from the remainder of the country. 'A civilized way of living on this globe,' I thought subconsciously.

In a blaze of fireworks, beginning just after midnight, 1 April 1999, the new Territory of Nunavut was born. The long struggle of the Inuit people of northern Canada to have their own homeland had come about, not by revolution and violence, but after 15 years of discussions between the native people of the Noah and the Canadian government.

For all these years, the Inuit never wavered from their demands that they have a place of their own in the Canadian federation where they could protect their culture and well-being. With the help of the government they had succeeded. For the first time in fifty years, since Newfoundland entered Confederation, Canada redrew its map to give the Inuit a homeland. It was, perhaps, the most daring step any nation has ever taken to satisfy the political and geographical claims of its aboriginal people.

Formed from the eastern and northern parts of the former Northwest Territories, Nunavut, meaning 'our land' in Inuktitut - the language of the Inuit - is huge. Located almost entirely above the tree line, it comprises 20 per cent of Canada's total land mass - larger than western Europe. Yet, scattered across its 850 thousand square miles of barren Arctic landscape only about 28,000 people live in 28 communities - 85 per cent of these Inuit who were at one time referred to by the derogatory term 'Eskimo'.

With this overwhelming Inuit majority of the population the new territory will have, de facto, a 'native government' where the aboriginals can run their own affairs. However, the non-Inuit can participate fully in all facets of life in this new territory - one of the most sparsely populated lands on earth. There are no political parties and all decisions must be taken by consensus - the Inuit way of running society. The Inuit have come a long way in their evolvement into the political system of the country, but they still follow their historic ways in the political arena.

Of the 19 members elected to the new legislature in February, four were non-natives. It is expected that Nunavut will show how meaningful self-determination for a culturally well-defined society can be provided for, but not at the expense of the rights of minority groups. To a world plagued by breakaway republics and ethnic cleansing, the Inuit of the Arctic and the Canadian government have shown how, without wars and rebellions, a circle can be squared.

The new legislators chose 34-year-old Paul Okalik, the first ever Inuk (singular for Inuit) attorney, as the territory's first premier. A few years previously no one would have dreamed that Okalik, who at one time had reached rock-bottom in life, would one day become the father of the first Inuit territory created in Canada. He had been an alcoholic, served time in prison for a break-in and had a brother who committed suicide. Yet, he turned his life around. He went back to school, took a law degree and entered politics, becoming a crusader for a land where the Inuit would be able to administer their own affairs.

For him, when the fireworks lit the skies over Iqaluit, the territory's capital, celebrating the birth of his dream, it must have been a truly joyous event a realization of a long cherished hope. At the inauguration festivities, Okalik declared: 'We have regained control of our destiny and will now determine our own path.'

Okalik must have felt proud on inauguration day when, along with 18 other legislators, most wearing ceremonial costumes, he was sworn in while swaying drum dancers recalled Inuit culture which for many decades had been fading into oblivion. For Okalik and the other Inuit leaders who took the oath that day, it was a fulfilment of a dream to rescue their people from the quagmire into which they had fallen.

Until the early 1960s, the Inuit had roamed their frozen landscapes, fishing and hunting and living in igloos and tents. At that time, the Canadian government decided, in its wisdom, to create programmes offering housing, education, food and medicine, bringing the Inuit into the modern age. However, instead of providing them with a better standard of life, this transplanting of their traditions and lifestyle caused great social upheavals and made the Inuit, as a whole, lose their self-esteem and faith in their own culture.

The men and women felt useless. Their children were taken to residential schools where teaching was exclusively in English and children were whipped for speaking their aboriginal languages. When they returned to their homes they looked down Upon their culture and could hardly communicate with their parents who usually knew only Inuktitut.

For hundreds of years, the men had been hunters, feeding their families while the women made the clothing and reared the children. Now, both men and women felt marginalized. A blend of awe and intimidation toward white society took hold. The new generations, educated in schools which degraded their culture, wanted to be white, but it was not a natural goal. It became an unfulfilled dream, drowned in alcohol and family abuse.

A quarter of the Inuit became heavy drinkers, three times the national average. Alcoholism prevented a great number from holding down jobs. In 1996, one in three residents, living in the now Nunavut territory, were on welfare - more than three times the national average. Education in the boarding schools did not work. Less than half of the Inuit aged 15 and over reached grade nine and only one per cent finished university. Not even one Inuit doctor or nurse are today to be found in Nunavut. Unemployment became rampant when in some of the communities it topped 50 per cent. Hovering over these afflictions the average income, which has always been at least 50 per cent lower than the remainder of the country, has never been able to catch up with the cost of living - constantly some 65 per cent higher than the Canadian average.

Violence, abuse, teenage pregnancy and suicide became very common. The suicide rate was six times the national average. Jack Anawak, the new Minister of Justice for Nunavut, summing up what happened to the Inuit after government patronage was instituted, said, 'people getting into wage economy and government assistance led to a rash of suicides and alcohol abuse.'

The government in Ottawa, after long years of patient negotiations, in 1993, signed the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement - a pivotal step leading to the creation of the new territory. Ottawa conceded that the north was the Inuit's homeland and the people in that part of Canada should determine their own fate. Thereafter, the government helped guide the Inuit in their efforts to create a homeland where they would feel at home and solve their own problems.

Hence, it was no surprise when the Inuit leaders were joined by Canada's Governor General Romeo LeBlanc, Prime Minister Jean Chretien and the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Jane Stewart at the April 1st inauguration ceremonies which gave birth to Nunavut. The government's help in bringing about the establishment of the new territory is reflected in the words of Prime Minister Chretien on that occasion: 'This is indeed a great day for the people of Nunavut and for Canada. The creation of this territory is all about giving the people of Nunavut the tools for their future development and giving them the opportunity to fully take part in building Canada.' He continued, 'On the eve of the new millennium, we are showing the world that respect for diversity is an essential and enduring aspect of our history and our future together.'

The Prime Minister's words are not just empty phrases, but have behind them Ottawa's muscles. The government will pour $800 million a year into Nunavut - at an average cost of $30,000 per resident. Also, it has pledged some $1 billion over a fourteen-year period for a land claim settlement. Canadian taxpayers have shelled out $150 million to set up the government of the territory and Ottawa has set $40 million aside to train and recruit Inuit civil servants.

Nevertheless, despite words of platitudes, monetary aid and well wishes, there are still many hurdles the new territory must face. It has immense tasks ahead of it, and more than a few stumbling blocks. Nunavut is a long way from everywhere. The high cost of transportation makes almost all products at least twice as expensive as in the remainder of Canada. In the whole of this vast territory there are only 12 miles of roads and most transport must be by air.

With an average per capita income of only $11,000, much less than Canada as a whole, the people of Nunavut must deal with a cost of living which, in many instances, is much above their means. The worry now is lofty expectations, false hopes, and realistic answers. There is little doubt that the new government of Nunavut will make many mistakes as it feels its way forward. Nevertheless, Canadian Prime Minister Chretien has predicted that the Inuit will succeed by fusing their traditional methods with modern technology.

The best hope for the future of the territory's economy are the mining resources, fishing, handicrafts for export and, above all, tourism. The rugged outdoor sports: dog sledging, mountain climbing, kayaking, river rafting and fishing, and the viewing of caribou, musk-ox, polar bears, walrus and whales are expected to be the main lures which will draw hardy adventurers to one of the last great wilderness areas in the world.

These combined with eco-tourism in an endless landscape of fjords, lakes, mountains and tundra, and the ancient Inuit culture will, no doubt, make Nunavut attractive for those who enjoy the crisp and clear outdoors. Already, after civil service and mining, tourism is the third largest employer drawing annually some 18,000 business and leisure travellers. However, those who come pay more for their vacations than in the others parts of the country - the Arctic is expensive.

Iqaluit has only four full service hotels with a total of some 175 rooms, costing on the average about $150 per night. Restaurants usually offer only local specialities. Non-indigenous foods are available, but must be flown in, making the meals costly. As to alcohol, most communities in Nunavut either restrict or ban it completely.

However, at the inauguration ceremonies, people were not thinking of tourism and prices. All the past woes and future hopes for the new territory were put on the back burners as everyone celebrated the newly born addition to Canada's family. Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay) with a population of 4,500, the largest urban centre in the territory, was afire with activity.

Inuit conventional songs, food and traditions of the Far North set the pace. The haunting chant of throat singing and the drumbeat of swaying dancers combined with fiddle and accordion music, adapted by the Inuit from Scottish whalers, to create an uplifting aura of joy and pride among the participants. The words of an elder, Mariano Aupilardjuk: 'Let us celebrate the Journey's end. Let us eat and drink and be merry,' told the story of that historic evening.

Amid the inauguration ceremonies and celebrations, Inuit pride in their traditions was apparent. All ceremonies began with the lighting of a Qulliq - the oil lamp once used to heat igloos. The food served were the historic dishes of the Arctic which included Caribou, Arctic Char and musk-ox. In the first session of the Nunavut legislature, the members sat around an Inuit sled and the legislature's mace, made from narwhal tusk and studded with local gems, symbolizing co-operation the cornerstone of Inuit virtue. Amid these symbols of the past strode the colourful Northern Rangers, the red-capped field militia made up entirely of Inuit stationed in northern outposts.

That day, the icing on the birthday cake of Nunavut were the words of Canada's Governor General, Romeo LeBlanc, when he reflected upon the new territory and its inhabitants. 'Through courage, sharing and ingenuity, the Inuit have prevailed in the harshest land on earth.' He went on the say, 'You are the closest people on earth to the North Star. Tonight when Canadians look up to the North Star, we will remember your long history of courage, compassion and endurance.'
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Author:Salloum, Habeeb
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Aug 1, 1999
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