TORONTO -- The Canadian government announced yesterday that it had agreed, in effect, to grant political domain over 770,000 square miles, one-fifth of Canada, to the 17,500 Eskimos who live there.
Under the agreement, the government accepted the creation of a new political subdivision in Canada to be known as Nunavut, an Eskimo term meaning "our land," and approved carving it out of the eastern reaches of what is now known as the Northwest Territories.
For the Eskimos, the agreement marked the culmination of a battle for political and economic rights that began centuries ago, when European explorers first reached the largely barren, icebound terrain of the Arctic archipelago.
In addition to getting political control and land rights, the Eskimos will gain broad economic rights from the accord, including a cash settlement from the Canadian government that will amount, with interest, to more than $1 billion over 14 years.
In a part of the accord that could have far-reaching economic implications, the Eskimos also will be granted limited rights over the development of minerals and other resources in Nunavut, which encompasses areas that some experts think could yield valuable deposits of oil, gas and precious metals.
The Arctic areas to be included in Nunavut -- reaching from the northern tip of Hudson Bay almost to the North Pole and accounting for nearly two-thirds of the Northwest Territories -- have proved too remote and their climate too forbidding for any ** but small and mostly exploratory development.
The government and Eskimo leaders hailed yesterday's accord as a major step toward two goals that have been pressed with increasing militancy by Canada's native peoples: self-government and control over, or at least a voice in, development of the resources that underpin much of the Canadian economy.
"It's a bit mind-boggling," said John Amagoalik, principal negotiator for the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut, which led the 15-year campaign for native rights in the Arctic region. "This agreement will make the Inuit of Nunavut the largest landowners in North America."
Equally important, he said, is that the agreement will end a century or more in which his people have become more and more dependent on the Canadian government for the subsidies and decisions that defined their lives.
"We have been saying for 20 or 30 years now that the Inuit really wanted to become full Canadians citizens, and the granting of self-government and the recognition of our rights in the north will result in that," Mr. Amagoalik said.
For the agreement to become final, details must be ironed out, including defining the powers of the territorial government to be established in Nunavut, a political unit that Eskimos hope eventually will become a Canadian province.
Once some details are settled, the accord will be put to the Canadian Parliament for approval, which is expected to be a formality, and then to a plebiscite among all 52,000 people living in the Northwest Territories. With those approvals, the designation "Northwest Territories" will vanish from Canadian maps.
The negotiators of yesterday's accord said they expect the plebiscite to be held as early as March, but they warned that putting the agreement into full effect, including the establishment of the territorial government, could take years.
No capital has been chosen, but it is likely to be at one of the two main centers, Resolute in the far north on Cornwallis Island or Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island.
For many Canadians, the territories are at the heart of Canada's sense of itself, a place whose history is filled with the derring-do of Arctic explorers and Mounties, and of the rough adventurers who went to the territories in pursuit of gold, furs and other riches.
Under the accord, the Eskimos will gain outright title to 135,000 square miles, about a sixth of the area of Nunavut, and will hold mineral rights in 14,000 square miles. The remaining rights will rest with the Ottawa government, but the Eskimos will be paid resource royalties from any development amounting to 50 percent of the first $2 million in Canadian funds and 5 percent of the remainder.