The Very Short History of Nunavut, continued

It may be cold, it may be impossibly vast and empty, but in its first hours of existence, Canada's newborn Inuit territory proves that there's nothing so liberating as home rule.

Jul 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

Do I have your permission to compress the history of the Canadian Arctic into nine paragraphs? In 1576 Martin Frobisher sailed from England to seek the Northwest Passage. He anchored off Baffin Island, which now forms the eastern boundary of Nunavut, and loaded up his ship with tons of fool's gold while kidnapping other cargo: a man and an Inuit woman holding a small child by the hand. Frobisher's men carried them away from an elder, perhaps the child's grandmother, who "howled horribly." Perhaps it is no wonder that the capital, the only town of any size (population 4,500), which stands upon the site of the mariner's landing and which for years and years was called Frobisher Bay, changed its name to Iqaluit—"the place of many big fish." The locals would rather not remember him.

In Frobisher's time, Inuit families were self-sufficient, or else they starved. But then whalers from England and Scotland and elsewhere began to trade knives, needles, tea, rifles, and bullets for furs, meat, and ivory. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, subsistence hunting lost ground to the fur trade—although even now, as much as half of what some Nunavummiut eat remains "country food": caribou, seal, whale, ptarmigan, and the like, killed by relatives or friends. It was only in the second half of this century, when Canadian and American World War II air bases and then English-language schools mushroomed in the high Arctic, that the Inuit began to live in towns, 28 little government-created settlements scattered over the snow and ice.

The growing dependence on trading with outsiders proved sometimes beneficial, sometimes pernicious. What happens if, instead of killing caribou to feed my family, I hunt Arctic foxes to sell their skins for bullets? Then we earn a lot of bullets, provided that the price of fox skins stays high in the south and my caribou hunting is easy. But if the price falls, we just might starve, which dozens did in the 1934-35 central Arctic famine. We might also starve, or simply become idle and despondent, if hunting seals or whales were no longer acceptable, as happened in the 1970s and '80s when Greenpeace and other environmental and animal-rights groups crippled the international sealskin trade. These do-gooders are accordingly hated throughout the Arctic; with varying degrees of justification, unemployment and suicides have been blamed on them. Many's the time in Nunavut and Greenland that I've been asked, "Are you a spy from Greenpeace?"

It was in part to protect the Inuit from a drastic boom-and-bust cycle that, in the 1960s, Canada's federal politicians began to encourage the construction of hamlets where people could enjoy medical care, education, warm beds, and an uninterrupted food supply. An old lady who'd been born in an igloo once told me, "In old days we had a very hard time. Government came, and it got easier." We sat on the sofa in her house in Iqaluit's tumble of old military hangars and prefab housing and unnamed gravel roads. I asked her, "If people wanted to live on the land again, would you go with them or would you stay in your house?" Sitting with her hands clasped in her lap, her head trembling, perhaps from Parkinson's disease, she peered at me through her huge and rimless spectacles, and then replied in high-pitched, glottal Inuktitut, "I can't stay in a remote outpost now. From the hospital they're giving me medicine, so I must stay in town."

And so, on southern Nunavut's green-mossed rock, painted oil drums, painted wood-and-metal houses, and garbage dumps rose up in the summer rain. In northern Nunavut, the colored houses appeared upon tan gravel banks. Of course, this new way of life further accelerated the very dependence which had already caused so much harm. I wonder if by then the future was already as evident as a yellow light bulb in Iqaluit glaring down on rock-hard snow. That future was mass welfare. Animal populations declined near the towns, making hunting less practical and more occasional. Dog teams sickened in the close quarters. More than one hunter came home in those days only to find that the Mounties had shot all his dogs in the interest of public health—for the white people, it seemed, always knew best. Could this have anything to do with the fact that Nunavut has six times the national suicide rate?

The most famous of these resettlement efforts took place between 1953 and 1955, when the government forcibly relocated some 17 extended Inuit families from Inukjuak to new settlements at Resolute and Grise Fiord. Inukjuak lies way down in northern Quebec, nearly 400 miles south of Nunavut as the Arctic raven flies. To me it is almost paradise. It is green, not white. In summer the tundra hangs thick with crowberries and caribou run everywhere. In winter the sun never disappears entirely. Elisapi's mother, Old Annie, who sewed my kamiks, the sealskin boots I wear on my feet, was born in a camp there. She never wanted to leave. But they shipped her north.

Some Inuit believe that the Canadian government wanted to assert sovereignty over the high Arctic islands in the face of the American air bases strategically placed there in World War II, and therefore settled them with the indigenous people most likely to survive. But it should also be said that Inukjuak was not so edenic in the late 1940s: The caribou herds were dwindling, the price of fur had fallen, the people were falling deeper into welfare addiction. The government figured, paternalistically, why not just move some Inuit to the northern ice and let them become the self-sufficient hunters of old. For good measure, they also relocated some families from Ellesmere Island's Pond Inlet—northerners to help the southerners settle in. But the relocations were accomplished against people's wills, with misinformation, and with appalling results. The people from Inukjuak were unfamiliar with the hunting strategies they needed to succeed on the Arctic pack ice; they didn't even get along with the Pond Inlet Inuit, who didn't even speak the same dialect. Look at a map of Canada to see how far away from home these people were taken. See Inukjuak on the northeastern shore of Hudson Bay? Now let your eyes sail north as the Canadian Navy sealift-supply ship C.D. Howe did, carrying those Inuit families: first 300 miles into what is now Nunavut (we're out of Hudson Bay at last) and then perhaps 1,000 miles farther north and 200 miles west, almost to the magnetic North Pole.

The first time I went to Resolute, it was mid-August, around the same time the settlers had arrived, and it was snowing. By the time I left six weeks later, I had to chop up my drinking water with an ax. "When we arrived it was dark and cold," an old woman told me. "My child was really skinny from starving." The Inukjuak Inuit, who had never built igloos, constructed houses out of old packing crates and foraged for food in the garbage dumps of the whites, a sparse scattering of whom were stationed there with the Mounties, who oversaw a trading post in Resolute. For high prices, payable in furs, an Inuit hunter could obtain a scant few supplies, but sometimes there was an additional price—the sexual services of his wife. The results of the relocations: hunger, tuberculosis, lifelong bitterness.

The communities in Resolute and Grise Fiord survived, because Inuit are pretty damned tough. And in the more than 20-year-long tale of the land-claims negotiations that created Nunavut, one reads a similar tenacity. What Nunavut gained—besides more than a billion Canadian dollars over the next 14 years and valuable mineral rights—was a measure of self-governance. Nunavut is now a territory, exactly like the Yukon, exactly like the Northwest Territories it had been part of. What the Inuit gave up was the land. One of the only native North American groups who had never entered into a land treaty, many Inuit were anxious about extinguishing aboriginal title, and when the matter first came up for election in 1982, only 56 percent voted in favor of division. But what ultimately passed in 1993—the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act—was the biggest land deal between a government and an aboriginal people in North American history. Suffice it to say that in the face of federal skepticism and infighting and bureaucratic foot-dragging and worse, a partition line was at long last drawn through the Northwest Territories. What lay east became Nunavut.

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