Nunavut - Canada's Newest Child

By Salloum, Habeeb | Contemporary Review, August 1999 | Go to article overview
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Nunavut - Canada's Newest Child

Salloum, Habeeb, Contemporary Review

For hours I had watched CNN, America's number one news station, vividly showing the plight of the Kosovo Albanians fleeing across the borders to Macedonia and Albania, fearing for their lives. Mostly old men, women and children, they told horrific stories of the murder of their menfolk and the raping of their women. I could not believe my eyes and ears as weeping women told tale after tale of rape, torture and mass murder - all this because they spoke a different language-and followed another religion than that of the ruling Serbs. 'How could humans be so inhuman?' I asked myself.

Sickened, I turned the TV to a Canadian station. I straightened up in my sofa chain It seemed to be another world. People here were celebrating with dance, song and speeches the birth of a new Canadian child - the Arctic territory of Nunavut. A feeling of elation gripped me. In my country we were helping to bring into the world a new political entity for a people from another race who spoke a different language.

At that moment I was more proud of Canada than I had ever been in my life. While the Serbs were murdering people because of their ethnic origin, in our country we were honouring and helping to create a territory that was different from the remainder of the country. 'A civilized way of living on this globe,' I thought subconsciously.

In a blaze of fireworks, beginning just after midnight, 1 April 1999, the new Territory of Nunavut was born. The long struggle of the Inuit people of northern Canada to have their own homeland had come about, not by revolution and violence, but after 15 years of discussions between the native people of the Noah and the Canadian government.

For all these years, the Inuit never wavered from their demands that they have a place of their own in the Canadian federation where they could protect their culture and well-being. With the help of the government they had succeeded. For the first time in fifty years, since Newfoundland entered Confederation, Canada redrew its map to give the Inuit a homeland. It was, perhaps, the most daring step any nation has ever taken to satisfy the political and geographical claims of its aboriginal people.

Formed from the eastern and northern parts of the former Northwest Territories, Nunavut, meaning 'our land' in Inuktitut - the language of the Inuit - is huge. Located almost entirely above the tree line, it comprises 20 per cent of Canada's total land mass - larger than western Europe. Yet, scattered across its 850 thousand square miles of barren Arctic landscape only about 28,000 people live in 28 communities - 85 per cent of these Inuit who were at one time referred to by the derogatory term 'Eskimo'.

With this overwhelming Inuit majority of the population the new territory will have, de facto, a 'native government' where the aboriginals can run their own affairs. However, the non-Inuit can participate fully in all facets of life in this new territory - one of the most sparsely populated lands on earth. There are no political parties and all decisions must be taken by consensus - the Inuit way of running society. The Inuit have come a long way in their evolvement into the political system of the country, but they still follow their historic ways in the political arena.

Of the 19 members elected to the new legislature in February, four were non-natives. It is expected that Nunavut will show how meaningful self-determination for a culturally well-defined society can be provided for, but not at the expense of the rights of minority groups. To a world plagued by breakaway republics and ethnic cleansing, the Inuit of the Arctic and the Canadian government have shown how, without wars and rebellions, a circle can be squared.

The new legislators chose 34-year-old Paul Okalik, the first ever Inuk (singular for Inuit) attorney, as the territory's first premier. A few years previously no one would have dreamed that Okalik, who at one time had reached rock-bottom in life, would one day become the father of the first Inuit territory created in Canada.

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