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
To me it was a kind of miracle that this good thing was about to happen. And Iqaluit, which like so many Arctic towns is saturated with militaryspeak from the air-base days, seemed filled instead with joyspeak. Late in the evening on that last night of Northwest Territoriality, the bunkerlike elementary school filled with crowds come to hear the Anglican service in honor of Nunavut's birth. The stage was bedecked with figures in red and white robes, and the minister said, "We must remember that what we call Nunavut, our land, is in fact God's gift to us." In front of me was a little girl, half asleep in her mother's amauti, a parka with a hooded pouch in back for carrying babies. "We pray for our new commissioner," the minister went on, "for our new premier, for their families, for our new justices, who will be sworn in in a few moments, and most of all we pray for ourselves." In that cavernous, windowless gymnasium, built on concrete like a shop floor, they rose and prayed in English, French, and Inuktitut. "Now may the blessing of God Almighty be with us, both now and indeed forevermore. Amen." Then the minister smiled, checked his watch, and said, "Twenty-two minutes," and everyone laughed. In Inuktitut they sang "Now Thank We All Our God" in sweet and steady voices. A woman in a crimson vest embroidered with a white polar bear leaned her head upon her husband's shoulder as she sang.

A Nunavut for Nunavummiut—only some of the white cab drivers were sullen about it. Their taxi lights shone slow on the glassy night snow between the still, cold lights of the settlement.

The new territory purports to represent the interests of all residents, but the ultimate goal is to create a de facto self-governing Inuit homeland—not now, of course, but in 20 or 50 years. Today the non-Inuit 15 percent of the population holds a disproportionate number of the government, medical, and teaching jobs. Few Inuit are trained. Only a third of Nunavut's teachers are Inuit; there are no Inuit doctors; there is only one Inuit lawyer in all of Nunavut, 34-year-old Paul Okalik, and he has been elected its first premier. A high-school dropout from Pangnirtung, a little village on the eastern shore of Baffin Island, Okalik wrestled with alcohol problems, jail, and his brother's suicide before going back to school on student loans. Despite his involvement in the Nunavut negotiations, he is as freshly minted a politician as Nunavut is a territory: He passed the bar and became premier within six weeks. The new territory's elder statesman—the father of Nunavut—is John Amagoalik, the journalist-politician who negotiated the land-claims settlement that created it and ran the Nunavut Implementation Commission that shaped its government. Sixteen of Nunavut's 19 legislators are Inuit, too—a few former mayors, some businessmen, a snowplow operator. Starting on Nunavut Day, when a white person in the territorial government wrote a memo to his superiors, the reply might well come back in Inuktitut.

"They cannot just want to throw white people away," a Quebecer teacher named Thérèse, who works at the elementary school in Iqaluit, told me. "Not all of the Inuit are qualified." But then she added quietly, "I know some white people are afraid of losing their jobs, but gradually they should be replaced."

Plenty of Caucasians do fine in Nunavut: Elisapi's husband, Joe, for one, is white and as northern an individual as I have ever met. But many find living in Nunavut difficult. The language daunts them; the mores are so different. Thérèse had spent four years in Iqaluit, but she planned to return south. She had a few Inuit friends, acquaintances really, from work. But Nunavut was not hers.

Meanwhile, in northern Quebec, the Inuit region known as Nunavik (from which the relocations to Resolute and Grise Fiord were carried out) harbors similar, half-concealed aspirations to autonomy. And down in Ottawa, even as Nunavut set off its fireworks, Cree Indians were drumming and singing on Parliament Hill in protest of the new territory, on the grounds that 31,000 square miles of their land have been stolen to create it. And of course, many Quebecers long to secede from Canada and form their own Francophone nation. The white taxi drivers I talked with in Iqaluit are among this number: They told me that this whole Nunavut business was all shit. The Inuit weren't ready, one of them opined. Quebec should secede, but not Nunavut. Quebec pays too much in taxes, and Canada just called Quebecers fucking frogs. The Prime Minister was an asshole. This last cabbie was an angry, stupid man, but, like the Inuit themselves, all he really wanted was some kind of recognition.

Finally, from what now remains of the Northwest Territories comes talk of further partitions and ethnic homelands. There was a move to rename this region Denedeh because so much of it was Dene Indian land, but the whites (who'd become the majority after the partition of Nunavut) voted down the measure, after which a bitter joke went around the Northwest Territories that the only real way to satisfy them would be to call the territory by the Anglo name of Bob.

Given the desire of so many places to un-Canada themselves to varying degrees, I was all the more impressed when the prime minster of Canada, Jean Chrétien, who had flown up to Iqaluit for the Nunavut Day festivities, rated justice over expediency in his speech that night. "We have come to recognize the right of the people of the north to take control of their own destiny," he proclaimed. And everyone stood up and cheered, and I cheered.

It would be as pleasing as it would be false to end our tale with the close of that inaugural ceremony in one of the concrete military hangar bays, as tiny old Helen Mamyaok Maksagak, first commissioner of Nunavut, hugged to her heart the flag of her territory, presented to her by Inuit boys from Canada's Boy Scouts, the Junior Rangers. Or to conclude on Nunavut Night, the evening after the fireworks, where a heavy-metal band from Kuujuaq was entertaining one crowd with noise and dry-ice vapor while two hangars down the little kids were jigging to banjo and fiddle, and the old ladies in parkas were nodding, smiling, clapping, and everyone was applauding, and Premier Okalik was wandering around in his sealskin vest, floating in a shyly happy dream.

The air grew hot with the fragrance of bubble gum, wet fur, human sweat. Dancers came out, circling and snaking to the repetitive melody; an old man in a red cap and a collar of wolverine skins with the claws still on jogged happily up and down, watching. So many people with Nunavut hats and T-shirts, so many with the new Nunavut sweatshirts! But finally it was time to go back out among the gray snowdrifts and glaring streetlights of April, back to the steep-roofed houses to sleep. And the next morning and forever the tale of Nunavut must continue, this time without miraculous ceremonies.

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