Inuits drafting plans for an independent homeland in Canadian arctic

April 17, 1994|By Chicago Tribune

IQALUIT, Northwest Territories -- Adamie Pitseolak dreams of leading his people to master a more modern destiny as they carve an independent homeland out of the arctic ice.

But with five years to go before they redraw the map of North America, there is growing anxiety among Canada's Inuit over whether Nunavut (Our Land) will be a shining success or a dismal failure.

Once known as Eskimos (literally, "eaters of raw meat"), the Inuit yearn to preserve their ancestral ways of hunting, fishing and trapping across the snow-swept top of the globe, while also moving into the modern world and the next century.

'We've lost our traditions'

But Canada's Western-based culture constantly clashes with the traditional Inuit lifestyle, and these generous, hardy people are worried about their crusade to decolonize the arctic.

"Our generation is living in the 20th century, but it's like we've lost our traditions," explains Mr. Pitseolak, 21, working late one night at his computer in an office-complex that is shaped like a giant igloo. "That's going to change when Nunavut comes."

Inuit leaders are drafting plans to tackle many intractable social problems: Unemployment is 80 percent in some settlements, and the Inuit also endure high rates of alcoholism, substance abuse, spousal abuse, welfare dependency and school dropouts.

"We want to get people off welfare. We want to make them independent again as they once were," said Peter Ernerk, a veteran Inuit leader and one of 10 commissioners on the Nunavut Implementation Commission.

"The key thing will be jobs for the Inuit, staying-in-school initiatives and encouraging our youth to take advantage of the many opportunities that will come with the land claims settlement."

Under a land claim agreement creating Nunavut, Canada will pay $800 million over 14 years to an Inuit trust, which will invest it and distribute the interest. The commission intends to set up a fully operating government by April 1, 1999.

Encompassing one-fifth of Canada, Nunavut will divide the Northwest Territories and contain 770,000 square miles of arctic tundra, rocky coastline and mountainous islands, reaching within miles of the North Pole.

It will be populated by about 18,000 Inuit residents of three regions stretching from Baffin Island in the east, through the Keewatin Region along the west coast of Hudson Bay, to the Kitikmeot Region in the central Arctic.

Many Inuit believe self-determination will ease the self-loathing and sense of dependency in their community.

"The Inuit are a very adaptable people," Mr. Ernerk said. "I was born in a snow house outside Repulse Bay, and I lived in fishing camps, caribou camps and seal camps for the first 16 years of my life."

Like many other older Inuit, as a teen-ager, he was sent to a residential school in Chesterfield Inlet where his Roman Catholic teachers "told us to forget about our own language and our own culture."

Decades later, Canada works to preserve and celebrate its multicultural heritage, but the emotional scars remain on a people taught for a time to reject their primitive roots. Nunavut is seen by many as a way to revive lost pride and perpetuate traditions.

Cultural issues

"I'm not worried about Nunavut," Mr. Ernerk said. "I'm positive about this. The Inuit people will have a lot of say in running their government."

But whether the pride and empowerment of self-government brings more self-confidence and better adjustment remains to be seen. The Inuit also have a disproportionately high suicide rate compared with Canada's overall population, and the rate appears to be increasing.

"Before the white man came there was no suicide in our communities," said Mr. Pitseolak, whose 17-year-old brother hanged himself a decade ago. "The white man's society -- what he has brought up here -- has changed and ruined our history."

Pitseolak spoke as he worked late into the night entering registration information into a computer for the Baffin beneficiaries of the land claim.

"For some crazy reason, I know I'm going to be one of the leaders," he says earnestly, contemplating the long road to independence that his brother and others will never see.

Iqaluit, population 3,900, is the hub of the eastern arctic and probable site for Nunavut's capital. The town is a jumble of

snow-covered houses, huts, stores and public housing sprawled along the rocky slopes rising above of Frobisher Bay.

In addition to plentiful snowmobiles and computers, signs of modern influences are ubiquitous, from satellite dishes and antennae atop roofs to the VCRs and microwaves inside and the jets arriving daily beside geodesic domes housing airport radars.

But it is also in Iqaluit that temperatures dip to 40 degrees below zero, and lower with wind chill, during the long, dark arctic winters that try the spirit.

Last year, on Baffin Island alone, 15 young Inuit committed suicide, and four already have killed themselves in Iqaluit in 1994, according to Staff Sgt. Jack Kruger of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

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