On April 1, 1999 the
map of Canada was re-drawn: the Northwest Territories divided into two
territories to allow for the creation of Nunavut, a homeland for
On April 1, 1999, the map of Canada was redrawn: the Northwest
Territories divides into two territories to allow for the creation of
Nunavut, a homeland for Canada’s Inuit. The creation of Nunavut is
testament to the strength of Inuit political leaders and to the
flexibility of Canadian political institutions.
Over the past six years, Inuit leaders have been busy preparing for this
event. Everything from new symbols on flags and licence plates to new
buildings to house a legislative assembly to new electoral districts and
election of a new governing territorial assembly has been prepared in
anticipation of this moment. And now, the real work begins.
The new territory of Nunavut is geographically large, with a unique
variety of landscapes and ecosystems. The whole territory, from the
glacial mountain fiords of the east coast of Baffin Island to the
rolling rock hills of the west coast of Hudson Bay, is arctic terrain,
which means that it is all to the north of the treeline.
What remains of the N.W.T. is frequently called the western Arctic but
more appropriately should be called subarctic, since the vastest portion
of that territory lies within the treeline. Nunavut can best be
described with reference to the distinctive culture, history, and
politics of the majority of its inhabitants, who are Inuit.
Inuit is an Inuktitut language word for people. Inuk for person. For
much of recent history they were known as Eskimos, but obviously
preferred the substitution of their own term for themselves. While the
striking aspects of their material culture are well known — iglu (snowhouse)
and kayak (small boat) perhaps better than ulu (woman’s knife) and umiak
(large boat) — their intellectual culture and values have served Inuit
as well in the modern world as their unique technology did in earlier
For the most part, Inuit prize flexibility and ingenuity — a good idea
is not something to hold back in the interest of maintaining the way
things were always done. At the same time, elders and ancient traditions
are highly respected. Balancing these two — an appreciation for newness
and respect for the wisdom of the ages — will be one of the challenges
Archaeologists maintain that modern Inuit, who certainly have a language
and culture distinct from that of other indigenous Americans, are the
descendants of Thule peoples who were late (and last) to cross the
Bering Strait, coming as recently as a millennium ago. Inuit have a rich
legacy of creation stories, some of which affirm their belief that they
were placed in their homeland by their own creator.
Traditional Inuit culture remains strong in Arctic communities because
Inuit continue to depend to a great extent on hunting to get enough food
to survive (and food sharing remains a critical aspect of community
Inuit visual arts have provided strong expressive mechanisms for the
transmission of Inuit culture, and the Inuit language, Inuktitut, has
remained resilient, due in part to a deliberate policy of Inuit leaders.
In the playgrounds of the many Arctic communities I have visited, the
language of play has been Inuktitut — surely as good an indicator as any
of a language’s vitality.
The history of the Arctic is rich and complex. Though most historians
have focused attention on explorers and expeditions, cultural contact in
the Arctic and Inuit responses to colonialism are compelling themes that
will continue to gain increasing scholarly and public attention.
Although nineteenth-century whaling had some local impact, for the most
part Inuit economic life remained in its indigenous pattern until the
fox and seal fur trades of our own century.
Hence there were Inuit Canadians who as late as the 1950s had little or
no exposure to outsiders. Permanent settlement into communities was for
many Inuit a phenomenon of the fifties and sixties. One of the biggest
challenges facing the leaders of Nunavut will be to find a way out of
the economic dependence that has become the most debilitating legacy of
colonial relations. Many of those leaders were born “on the land” in
what amounts to another world.
Politically the Arctic islands became part of Canada in 1880, though
virtually nothing was done about them until 1897 when William Wakeham,
co-chairman of an international boundary commission, ceremonially
hoisted a flag at Kekerten Island in Cumberland Sound, now a historic
It was not until 1921 that an appointed council composed of Ottawa-based
civil-servants, began to actively govern the Arctic and instituted the
series of annual eastern Arctic ship patrols that brought supplies and
services to coastal communities.
The status of Inuit, legally uncertain, was settled in 1939 in the
Supreme Court of Canada decision Re: Eskimos, which determined Inuit
were a federal responsibility and in effect, aboriginal citizens;
however, Inuit were not directly consulted about the governance of their
lands and communities until the late fifties. In 1965 Abraham Okpik
became the first Inuk appointed to the territorial council. In 1966 the
council expanded to include seven elected members, with Simonie Michael
the first Inuk elected.
Slowly the territorial council evolved into an elected, representative
body, with Inuit actively involved in its workings. By the early
seventies, Inuit in N.W.T. also organized themselves into the Inuit
Tapirisat of Canada, an association with a broad mandate to preserve
Inuit culture and promote Inuit interests. By the eighties, the ITC
represented Inuit across the nation.
Nunavut was a long-standing goal from the ITC, which presented the
notion formally as early as its first land claim in 1976. A lengthy
treatise would be needed to detail the twists and turns around the
question of division that occupied Inuit politicians in the late
seventies through the eighties. Suffice to say, however, that a
generation of astute political leaders emerged among Inuit, many of them
women, who with patience, determination, creativity, and will achieved a
Nunavut is an Inuktitut word for “our land.” Unlike other First Nations
in Canada, Inuit have not been interested in separate governing
institutions. Rather, their particular situation as majority occupants
of the Arctic has led them to promote the notion of increased power for
their public governments (as opposed to aboriginal governments) as a
vehicle for their political aspirations. They will be able to use their
substantial majority to elect enough Inuit politicians that the
government of Nunavut will be theirs. At least, they are able to do so
for the foreseeable future.
Nunavut is in part the creation of a land claim, the 1993 Nunavut Land
Settlement Agreement, which stipulated in one section the division of
the N.W.T. The land claim is now administered by a body called the
Nunavut Tungavik Incorporated, which, as a large capital and landholder,
will be a major player representing the Inuit interests in Nunavut.
Recommendations setting up the Nunavut government were made by a body
called the Nunavut Implementation Commission. It was chaired by John
Amagoalik, widely acknowledged as a founder of the territory. Its work
ended in 1997 when an interim commissioner, former member of parliament
Jack Anawak, was appointed to carry out its recommendations.
Over the past six years, the Inuit community has been engaged in
frenetic activity to have in place by the April 1, 1999, deadline, the
human and material infrastructure demanded by the new government. Over
the next eight years increased responsibilities will be devolved to the
Government of Nunavut. By the end of that time it will be a
province-like jurisdiction as the N.W.T. is today. Inuktitut is an
official language in the new territory.
The capital of Nunavut is Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay), but every
attempt has been made to decentralize and develop regional centres.
There are three main regions in Nunavut: the communities on and near
Baffin Island, the Kitikmeot communities on the coast and islands of the
central Arctic, and the Kivilik communities in the region of the
northwest coast of Hudson Bay.
Every one of the twenty-six Nunavut communities (the total population
amounts to a mere seventeen thousand) is its own unique microcosm, and
each has developed its own strategy for dealing with the traumas of the
past and the challenges of the future. The difference, for example,
between Rankin Inlet, which on the surface has the rough-and-ready feel
of a northern resource town, and nearby Whale Cove, where an older
rhythm of life still prevails, is striking.
While many would assess Nunavut’s ultimate chances based on its oil,
gas, and mineral resource base, it should be noted that there is another
resource with which Nunavut remains strikingly endowed — the continued
presence of elders who hold a treasure-trove of invaluable knowledge,
stories, skills, and values. Culture itself is one of the truly great
assets of Inuit.
For better or worse, so-called “authentic” aboriginal culture — and the
commodities it can produce — will only increase in value over the next
century. The degree that Nunavut, in its very forms of operation and
decision making, reflects, embodies, and conveys the Inuit culture from
which it has emerged, may ultimately determine its chances of success.
This article originally appeared in the April-May 1999 issue of The