Inuit land born amid hope, fear


Nunavut: The new territory in Canada's Arctic will be the nation's poorest, but natives are overjoyed at the opportunity for self-rule.

March 31, 1999|By Colin Nickerson | Colin Nickerson,BOSTON GLOBE

IQALUIT, Northwest Territories -- Already the hunters are fanning out across the frozen tundra to bag sufficient caribou for a feast the likes of which has never been seen in Canada's Arctic. There will be fireworks, much chest-thumping and grand oratory. There will be drum dancing and traditional throat singing.

Tomorrow, the eastern half of the Northwest Territories splits off to form the new territory of Nunavut -- "Our Land," in the language of the Inuit, or Eskimos, who make up 85 percent of the 27,200 inhabitants of one of the most remote, forbidding and sparsely inhabited regions on Earth.

The creation of the territory marks the beginning of a bold and risky experiment in native self-government, one that has fired the hopes of aboriginal people around the world, from the Maori of New Zealand to the Mohawks of New York.

For Nunavut is not to be just another tribal reserve. It will be both a full-fledged Canadian territory, governed by its own 19-member legislature, as well as North America's first true Inuit homeland.

"People are walking around with big smiles on their faces," said John Amagoalik, an Inuit leader.

But he added: "People are also nervous and maybe even a little frightened of what lies ahead."

With good reason.

Nunavut might be a symbol of hope, but it is also a stronghold of despair. On the instant of its birth, it becomes the poorest territory, by far, in Canada -- a welfare basket case where desperate social conditions are made worse by physical isolation and a brutal climate.

"Nunavut will be a rude awakening for many," said Goo Arlookto, an Inuit leader. "Too many people have convinced themselves that their lives are going to change immediately, as if having a territory to call our own is some miracle that will make groceries cheap and give everyone a job. In reality, this is just the first step of a long, long journey."

The emergence of Nunavut will mark the first significant redrawing of the map of Canada since Newfoundland quit the British Empire 50 years ago this week to become the 10th province.

Celebrations will be held in each of the 28 settlements scattered across a territory stretching nearly 2,000 miles from the Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay to the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, last stop before the North Pole.

But the epicenter of festivities will be in this ramshackle bush metropolis perched on the permafrost. With 4,500 people plus a hospital, weekly newspaper, government offices, a handful of prospecting and adventure tourism outfits, a pair of tanning salons and two fast-food joints -- Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken -- Iqaluit (ee-KAL-oo-eet) is far and away Nunavut's largest community and will serve as the territorial capital.

Everyone's hoping for a mild spring day -- meaning, oh, a degree or two on either side of zero Fahrenheit. Which is to say seasonable and even cozy if that cut-throat's razor of a north wind would only back off a bit.

And if there's a blizzard on Nunavut's day? Well, the Inuit have a word that covers every eventuality: "ayurnamat," which roughly translates to "That's the way of it, can't be helped, better luck next time."

Nearly all of the territory is tundra, the haunt of polar bears and spectacular herds of caribou. No roads lead to Nunavut; the only connections to the outside world are by air and supply ferries that ply the Arctic sea lanes during the few months of semithaw called summer.

Dogsleds are mostly for tourists or resident "qallunaat," white people, trying to prove themselves more native than the natives. The most common form of transport is the snowmobile, whose rip-roar has become as much a sound of the northland as the croak of ravens and thunderous cracking of ocean ice.

The far-flung communities are bound by a common culture and beset by the same daunting problems.

Unemployment is officially reckoned to be 30 percent, but in some villages nearly half the inhabitants subsist on government doles. The suicide rate is six times the national average. Alcoholism is epidemic, while aerosol highs and other solvent-sniffing is off the charts; health officials peg it at 26 times levels of abuse elsewhere in Canada.

The birthrate -- 29 births per 1,000, often to unwed teen-agers -- is higher than Mexico's and similar to that of developing countries. More than half the population is under 25, and almost 40 percent of adults have less than a ninth-grade education.

"We've gone from igloos to e-mail in a generation, and the changes have left some people stranded far behind," said Peter Ernerk, Nunavut's deputy minister for culture and language. "But Inuit are also showing themselves very adaptable."

In a strange way, the geographical isolation of Nunavut has proved a blessing. It has allowed the Inuit to keep their culture far more intact than any other native society in North America.

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