Canada's unique Inuit Land: Next April half of Canada's Northwest Territories will become Nunavut, the first full territory in a modern nation ever to be governed and administered by aboriginal people.

Sun Journal

May 09, 1998|By Colin Nickerson | Colin Nickerson,BOSTON GLOBE

IQALUIT, Northwest Territories -- Springtime, and the rays of the midday sun spark a thousand tiny rainbows in the ice mist. The howl of Eskimo dogs tethered on the frozen barrens of Frobisher Bay is offset by the hoarse squawk of the giant ravens that steal their bones. The weather, as usual, is cold -- below freezing.

A snowmobile wends along the snowpack of Iqaluit's main street. The driver, an Inuit outfitted in fur, has a carbine slung from his shoulder. The wooden sled bumping behind his machine carries a fresh-killed seal. Meat for the table, hide for mukluk boots.

It's hard to imagine this ragtag settlement of board shacks and prefab structures perched on permafrost as the center of anything.

But a year from now, Iqaluit will become the capital of a bold political experiment that has fired the hopes of Canada's Inuit, or Eskimos, and raised excitement among the world's aboriginal peoples.

On April 1, 1999, the central and eastern portions of the Northwest Territories will break away to form a new entity, the Territory of Nunavut -- "Our Land," in the Inuktitut tongue. It will be the first full territory in a modern nation ever to be governed and administered by aboriginal people.

"We're headed for a great day, the realization of a dream," says John Amagoalik, a veteran Inuit politician who has battled for decades to create the new territory.

"People are exhilarated, of course," he says. "But also we are a little fearful. We have to make this work. We have to show that aboriginal people can control their own destiny in a competent, democratic way."

Critics of the scheme say the new territory will just be a huge drain on the Canadian government, whose tax dollars will continue subsidizing a land where the unemployment rate is at least 30 percent and communities face an array of social problems, from epidemic alcoholism to illiteracy.

Moreover, anxious whites in the region fear that the territory will be radically redrawn along racial lines -- with the majority Inuit handed every plum government job while taking every seat in the territorial legislature.

"Some non-aboriginals who have made their lives in the north are afraid there will be no place for them in Nunavut," says Jim Bell, editor of the Iqaluit's weekly Nunatsiaq News and himself a "southerner," the politically correct term for whites. "But I think the fears are exaggerated."

Even the Inuit admit that for decades to come, white Canadians will hold the best jobs as doctors, engineers, teachers and technicians,simply because there are too few natives with the necessary skills and education.

Nunavut will be a territory of boggling geographic proportions and minuscule population: 25,000 people -- about 85 percent Inuit -- inhabiting 26 settlements scattered over 733,000 square miles, an area bigger than Alaska.

No roads lead here or connect any of Nunavut's far-flung communities, although some inhabitants own cars carried in by barge during the brief breakup of sea ice that counts as summer. In Iqaluit, the only street that extends beyond the town proper runs a few miles to an abandoned dump, and is officially named the Road to Nowhere.

Some people still rely on sled dogs, but the most common form of transportation is snowmobile. To get from one community to the next means boarding a village-hopping plane. The southernmost settlement, Sanikiluaq on Belcher Island in Hudson Bay, lies 1,500 miles from the northernmost, Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island.

Nearly all the territory is Arctic tundra, the haunt of polar bear and caribou. Many Nunavut dwellers have never seen a bush or blade of grass, much less a tree.

The isolation, a bit unsettling to an outsider, has nonetheless allowed the Inuit to keep their culture far more intact than that of any other native group in North America. Aside from a few missionaries, traders and prospectors, there was little contact between the Inuit and lower Canada until the early 20th century, when Ottawa started sending in teachers, doctors and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

"Our luck was to inhabit a land that no one coveted," says Amagoalik, born in the high Arctic village of Resolute Bay. "There was less intrusion in the north. Inuit were able to stay more united, to keep their identity."

By Arctic standards, the soon-to-become capital of Nunavut, Iqaluit, ranks as a major metropolis with 4,220 souls, two good-sized stores and a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. The nearest capital of any sort is Nuuk, Greenland.

Iqaluit has a modern hospital, a plentitude of government offices -- with more to come -- and the territory's only direct flight to the outside world, the daily jet to Montreal, 1,200 miles to the south.

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