A territory ‘torn between two worlds’

Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik discusses his territory’s struggles in annual Corry lecture

Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik talked laws, values and roads in Macdonald Hall.
Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik talked laws, values and roads in Macdonald Hall.
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A little more than four hours north of Kingston by plane, Canada’s youngest territory stretches across 20 per cent of the country’s land mass, encompassing some of the most bleak and beautiful landscape in the world.

This is Nunavut: “our land” in Inuktitut, the language of Canada’s Inuit population. 85 per cent of the territory’s inhabitants are Inuit, and their ancestors have survived in this unforgiving landscape for several thousand years.

Today, it’s inhabited by a population of about 29,000 people in 26 tiny communities. There are no roads between the communities or out of the territory, and there are no ports. In the depths of winter, many areas see 24 hours of darkness, and in the summer, the sun never really sets.

Extreme conditions are only one facet of the challenges facing Nunavut. Its premier, Paul Okalik—the territory’s leader since its official inception in 1999—described the issues facing his land and his people in a speech in Macdonald Hall on Monday morning.

The soft-spoken premier visited Queen’s to deliver this year’s Corry Lecture. Established by Dr. J.A. Corry, the University’s former principal and a noted lawyer and political scientist, and jointly administered by the Faculty of Law and the department of political studies, the Corry Lecture is intended to address “some aspect of the relation of law and politics, taken up either in general and philosophic terms or some lively current Canadian issue.”

Six years after its creation, Nunavut remains a “lively current Canadian issue” due to the pressing problems still facing its population. The territory continues to be plagued by high rates of suicide and unemployment and significant educational challenges, though great strides have been made in these areas since the territory became self-governing.

“To this day, we are torn between two worlds,” Okalik told a capacity crowd in a Macdonald Hall classroom. “In the last few years alone, the Inuit have moved from igloos and tents to permanent houses.” He said the changes have wreaked havoc on their traditional nomadic and family-centric culture.

Okalik described the confusion he felt growing up in the hamlet of Pangnirtung, an isolated community of 1,275 on Baffin Island. His parents had been forced to settle there by the RCMP two years before he was born, and they didn’t speak any English.

Okalik learned English from books that depicted a Canada “that didn’t look like the tundra I knew,” he said, and unfamiliar children playing games he didn’t recognize.

“And what were those big yellow buses? Didn’t they have snow machines?” he joked. “Personally, it was a confusing time for me. I didn’t understand why it was so important for me to be in school.”

The CBC reports that as a teenager, Okalik became an alcoholic who worked a variety of jobs before going to jail for stealing money, and he was deeply affected by the suicide of his brother when he was 15.

Okalik turned his life around after the birth of his daughter Shasta, according to the Edmonton Journal. He graduated with a BA from Carleton University and went on to earn a law degree from the University of Ottawa.

He returned to his homeland in time to negotiate the 1993 land claims agreement that led to the Apr. 1, 1999 creation of Nunavut, and became the first Inuit member of the Nunavut bar. Okalik had no political experience before becoming the Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Iqaluit West and the territory’s first premier.

“It’s like anything, [I became a politician] because I wanted to help out, and to ensure success,” he told the Queen’s Journal after his speech.

Okalik was named premier when he was only 34 by the 19 elected MLAs. Government in Nunavut is consensus-based, with each member running independently for election in ridings across the territory, and then together selecting the premier and cabinet ministers. In 2004, Okalik was given a second term to continue the work he’d begun.

He said governing a territory spanning “two million square kilometres of water and ice” has its challenges, not the least of which is incorporating traditional Inuit culture into the system of government favoured by the rest of Canada.

To that end, they have established a council of elders to assist them in decision-making, and the assembly sits at a circular table when in session to facilitate achieving the all-important consensus.

“We have a constitutionally enshrined responsibility to consult with the Inuit birthright organization [Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.],” Okalik said. “Listening and communication are skills that have held us in good stead in the past,” and will continue to do so, he said.

Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, which translates to “Inuit traditional knowledge,” is the set of beliefs and values used to guide and shape the government of Nunavut.

“Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit continues to define our social values, and we continue to work towards making Inuit knowledge the foundation of our government,” Okalik said. “This connection to the land is at the center of our world ... It allows us to flourish where others could not.”

The territory’s Inuit communities do remain closely tied to the land, but restrictive federal laws hinder their traditional self-sustaining rites of hunting and fishing, Okalik said.

“We have numerous fish in our water, but no access to them, because that’s decided in Ottawa,” Okalik said. “If we were given the opportunity to benefit from our resources, we could do quite well with a small population.”

Aside from fishing and hunting, Nunavut hopes to channel the growing industries of mining, arts, culture and tourism in order to benefit its people.

The government’s website lists the income from the traditional harvesting economy as $40 million annually and from mineral exploration activity as $150 million in 2004, a far cry from the $35 million earned in 1999. The territory’s first diamond mine is scheduled to begin production in 2006.

The government also hopes to generate revenue from Nunavut’s oil and gas reserves, from the estimated 18,000 tourists attracted each year by the territory’s natural beauty, and from the traditional Inuit art that is becoming popular all over the world.

“We have an abundance of resources and could contribute a lot more, but we’re burdened with [inadequate] infrastructure,” Okalik said. “We would love to have at least one road [leading into the territory]. Right now we have two million square kilometres and no access.”

Infrastructure, laws, communication and education are the main areas that Okalik’s government has tried to improve in the last six years. In an effort to merge Inuit culture with the present-day systems, Okalik wants Inuktitut to be taught in schools along with English and French, and the territory has begun training its own lawyers, teachers and nurses.

“It is very difficult to explain laws written in Ottawa to Inuit, who have a very different system we’ve lived under for a long time,” Okalik said.

He cited the differences between the Criminal Code and the Inuit ways of dealing with offenders as a key example. In Inuit communities, the elders “focus on healing the community before the problem gets any worse,” Okalik said. But under the Canadian system, offenders are held separately and wait up to a year for trials.

“This is not helpful—it’s something we want to change,” Okalik said. “My focus is on creating whole new laws in our own language.” He said he wants Inuit knowledge to be included in these new laws, since the Inuit perspective was overlooked in the creation of the first code.

The new nurses, meanwhile, will help to cope with the extreme difficulties of delivering health care to the huge land mass. Okalik’s government has connected every community to an internet TeleHealth network in the hopes of improving home care.

“Hopefully that will make a difference,” he said. “We are focusing on providing a more traditional system.”

These changes are all part of Okalik’s central desire for his land and people: to be fully Canadian.

“Our goal is basically to be Canadian in 2020, to have the same basic rights and socio-economic standards ... while maintaining our culture and land,” he said.

Thanks to its tiny population, Nunavut has only one seat in the House of Commons and one in the Senate, and Okalik said that has made it hard for his government to communicate with Ottawa.

“When you have 30,000 residents in a country of 30 million, it’s difficult to be heard,” he said. “[Martin’s] administration is a significant improvement from the last. We couldn’t go anywhere with them.” Okalik said that thanks to post-9/11 security measures and other policies pursued by the Chrétien administration, all citizens of Nunavut must fly to Iqaluit to obtain passports, an inconvenience Okalik likened to making Kingstonians travel to Winnipeg for the documents.

These logistical troubles pale in comparison to the territory’s suicide rate—which was 3.9 times the national average as of 2001—and comparatively low standard of living, Okalik added.

“In a country as rich as Canada, we continue to struggle to meet our basic needs,” Okalik said. “But we’re a very practical people, and we take much pride in trying to do our own thing and survive.”

—With files from archives.cbc.ca, gov.nu.ca and the Edmonton Journal

The Road to a New Territory

1982
More than 80 per cent of voters in the Northwest Territories vote to split the territory in two.

1992
N.W.T residents are split when deciding the new boundaries of Nunavut: the Inuit people say a government in Yellowknife is too far away to govern the territory’s eastern land, but the Dene people say the proposed borders cut through their land.

1993
Then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signs a land claim agreement with the Inuit. Residents enroll in adult education programs, and Anglophones take lessons in Inukitut, the territory’s third official language along with English and French.

1997
The people of Nunavut vote on whether or not one man and one woman should represent each local riding. The motion is defeated in favour of having only one representative.

April 1, 1999
The new Canadian territory is born.

--Source: cbc.ca

Did you know?

•The word Nunavut in Inukitut means “our land.”
•The population of Nunavut is 29,000.
•The territory’s land base is twice the size of Ontario’s.
•Every day in June, there are 24 hours of daylight in Nunavut’s most northern community. Every day in December, there are 24 hours of darkness.

—Source: cbc.ca

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