Grounded on Ice

By Olsen, Eric P. | The World and I, March 1997 | Go to article overview
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Grounded on Ice

Olsen, Eric P., The World and I

The Inuit Struggle to Preserve Their Values

The little road to nowhere winds out of the Baffin Island village of Iqaluit into the arctic tundra, a tentative encroachment that quickly surrenders to the frozen wilderness. The treeless hills around the village are pocked by small glacial lakes and softened by robust mosses and patches of brilliant blue flowers hastily celebrating the brief warmth of summer. Underfoot is evidence of recently departed caribou herds, a migration as timeless and portentous for the people of the north as the passage of the seasons. Scanning the terrain from the crest of a low hill one spies the ancient stone inukshuks--cairns often constructed in the form of a man--silhouetted against a gray sky.

Baffin, the fifth-largest island in the world, lies due west of the world's largest, Greenland. The Canadian island is home to some ten thousand people, 80 percent of whom are Inuit populating a handful of inaccessible villages dispersed along the coast. The Inuit existence, perhaps to a greater degree than that of any other people this side of Tierra del Fuego, has been one of physical hardship. Such a contest against nature gives testimony to the resilience, courage, and inventiveness not just of the Inuit but of the human species.

A dream becomes reality

Home to more than four thousand people, Iqaluit has been chosen as the capital of the soon-to-be established territory called Nunavut. Spanning the vast and empty tundra of Canada's eastern Northwest Territories, Nunavut is intended to provide the Inuit with a semiautonomous homeland.

The decision to create Nunavut was approved in a regional plebiscite--held in May 1992--that ratified an earlier agreement between Canadian and Inuit authorities. It is the largest ever settlement of a land-claim suit made by an indigenous people. The plan was voted into law by the Canadian Parliament in 1993 and goes into effect in 1999.

In each of the territory's far-flung villages are a people in the midst of many converging discoveries: spiritual, psychological, and political. But they claim the benefit of hindsight as they prepare to assume control over this new territorial division. "Nunavut will wed traditional knowledge with modern technical know how in the operation of the government," says Peter Ernerk, a former minister of the Northwest Territories and a commissioner of the Nunavut Implementation Commission. "Once created, Nunavut will, I think, be the envy of the world, a new deal for the people of Canada."

"We're trying on legislation from all over the world," says Caroline Anawak, a longtime resident of Rankin Inlet on the northwest shores of Hudson Bay. She is an activist for Inuit self-determination and wife of the Northwest Territories' sole member of the Canadian Parliament. "Nunavut is more than just a land claim settlement," she says. "It's a dream. I think this is the biggest secret in North America. The world should be following this, cheering this, because if we can pull it off, it will be for everybody."

Visitors may consider this kind of visionary rhetoric an exercise in wishful thinking. Nunavut at present has virtually no economic base. The Canadian government spends an astronomical $15,000 per person to provide services and a veneer of modernity to the lives of the Inuit population. Economic development is currently limited to exploratory mining, a nascent tourist industry, and the export of traditional arts and crafts, which generated an estimated $10 million in retail sales in 1995.

Many Inuit are only too aware of their society's leap into modernity and are guarded in their optimism. "The scary part is that indigenous peoples all over the north are looking to Nunavut to see what we will do," says Eva Adams-Klaassen, the arts and crafts supervisor of Nunavut. "The non-Inuit are in a panic about the transfer, talking about leaving. And if they leave en masse, where will that leave us?

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