Northern Jurisdiction

Article excerpt

The Nunavut Act and Nunavut Land Claims Agreement of 1993 was the largest land claim settlement in Canadian history. Along with the Nunavut Political Accord, it marked the beginning of the development of Canada's third territory, Nunavut, officially established in April 1999. These events are remarkable not only for the quantities of land they involve and the flexibility they allow within the political organization of the Canadian federation, but also for the lessons they provide for other culturally distinct regions seeking to obtain greater political autonomy. The creation of new institutions allows for attempts to correct the biases and unpopular practices of former structures and rebuild the often negative relationship between citizens and the state. The approach toward political development in Nunavut is an example of how one federation has attempted to adapt to the diverse cultural populations within its borders.

The Nunavut Territory does not offer aboriginal self-government in strict terms, but to many observers, it adds up to de facto self-determination for the Inuit population. The Land Claim Agreement and the Political Accord, and the institutions established to ensure their implementation, must come to terms with the particular demands of political life in a northern, geographically extended region. They must also take into account Inuit cultural demands, which may conflict with the interests of other residents of Nunavut. The resulting tensions will dictate much of the future success of the territorial government and of Nunavut itself.


Situated in the eastern portion of Canada's north, Nunavut represents approximately 20% of Canada's land mass and 60% of the former Northwest Territories. It contains two-thirds of Canada's coastline and four time zones (although only three are used). These vast reaches are home to less than 30,000 inhabitants, more than 80% of whom are Inuit. The territory is defined by three regions--Qikiqtaaluk-Baffin (east and north), Kivalliq-Keewatin (south and central, near Hudson Bay) and Kitikmeot (central and western)--which in turn contain 28 communities. The largest of these is the capital, Iqaluit, with a population of 4,500. Due to the large proportion of Inuit inhabitants, Inuktitut is one of the official languages of the new territory, along with English and French.

According to the 1996 Canadian census, the rate of population growth in Nunavut far outstrips that of the Northwest Territories and the rest of Canada. At the same time, education levels are significantly lower. Well over half the Nunavut population is under 25 and lacks a high school diploma. High levels of unemployment and demand for services for younger people were a persistent obstacle to development in the Yellowknife-centered Northwest Territories. Such demographic demands, in addition to the geographic expanse of the region and the cultural particularity of the Inuit, dictated many of the provisions of the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement, which covers Inuit title to land, and the Nunavut Act, which establishes the structure of government in the new territory.

The structure of the Nunavut government does not differ significantly from that of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, and constitutionally the division of power is similar. This resemblance is not surprising, given that the Nunavut Act was modeled on the Northwest Territories Act. Despite the resemblance, however, Nunavut, by virtue of its origins as a land claims settlement, occupies a unique place in the Canadian federation. Through the Land Claims Agreement, Nunavut gained decision-making capacity in areas of jurisdiction normally reserved for the federal government.

Ottawa began to heed demands for self determination and develop strategies for dealing with the vast distances within the Northwest Territories in the 1970s. Efforts to address the issues of aboriginal land titles and cultural and linguistic protection for the Inuit sparked an interest in resolving the land disputes in the area. …