For Canada's Inuits, This Land Is 'Our Land' (Nunavut)

By Ruth Walker writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 5, 1999 | Go to article overview

For Canada's Inuits, This Land Is 'Our Land' (Nunavut)


Ruth Walker writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


For the first time in 50 years, Canada has redrawn its map.

The vast unwieldy Northwest Territories has been divided in two to create a new territory, Nunavut.

"We have regained control of our destiny and will now determine our own path," Paul Okalik, the premier of the newly launched territory, said at Thursday's inauguration festivities in the capital, Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay). The new subdivision, whose name means simply "our land" in the language of the Inuit (whose people called Inuk in the singular), is still huge. Comprising 20 percent of the land mass of Canada, Nunavut is as big as Western Europe, albeit with a population more like that of a commuter suburb: about 27,000, 85 percent of them Inuit. To a world vexed by the issues of breakaway republics and "autonomous provinces," the Inuit of the eastern Arctic and the government of Canada have shown how the circle can be squared. They have shown how meaningful self-determination for a culturally distinct group can be provided for without coming at the expense of the rights of minority groups. Nunavut represents the largest native land-claim settlement in Canadian history: a real estate deal, in effect, between the original inhabitants and the European settlers. Equal status But it also represents the establishment of a new political entity, a new "public government," as the phrase goes. With Inuit constituting the overwhelming majority of the population, the new territory will have, de facto, a "native government" - but one in which nonnatives participate fully. Of the 19 members of the new legislative assembly, for instance, four are non-Inuit. By negotiating both the real estate and political deals simultaneously but separately, Ottawa was able to avoid creating an ethnic state, says Dennis Patterson, a former premier of the Northwest Territories. And by setting up Nunavut as a territory, constitutionally on par with the two territories (the Yukon and remaining Northwest Territories), the creation of a fourth level of government was avoided."There were lots of win-wins, if you like." For one, "It will provide a stable investment climate," says Mr. Patterson. Mr. Okalik, a slender young man with a Sergeant Pepper mustache, says, "We in Canada have demonstrated to the world ... that this can be done without civil disobedience or litigation." A long process What it did require was long, long years of patient negotiation. Okalik was ultimately the lead Inuk negotiator in the process that resulted in the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement - but the process had begun before he was born. …

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