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January/February 2009 issue

Nunavut — Territory of unrequited dreams   (Page 1 of 5)

Born in 1999 from years of negotiations by determined Inuit activists, Nunavut is still a desperate work-in-progress. But a new generation of Inuit are transforming their lives — and their land — offering hope for Nunavut’s next 10 years.
By Lisa Gregoire, photography by Patrice Halley
Territory of unrequited dreams
Sidebar: Project Naming
Map: Explore Nunavut
Photos: Life in Nunavut
Videos: Pond Inlet
  Throat-singing teens
Info: 10th Anniversary Celebration
Library and Archives Canada

Judy Kunnuk Maktar pulls her black tank top down over narrow hips and tosses back the thick, waist-length mane of hair she’s been growing since she was three years old. Then, with the cheeky flourish of Hilary Duff or Alicia Keys — her favourite recording artists — the 11-year-old performs an Inuktitut song and dance she learned in school. There’s barely enough room to contain the fancy footwork in her modest public-housing unit in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, a community of 1,300 across Eclipse Sound from the glacier-encrusted peaks of Sirmilik National Park. After my applause, she offers an encore of giggling gymnastics, bending backward like a supple reed until her hands touch the floor near her feet, three necklaces dangling near her nose. She later presents me with a tissue rose she made for me during recess and a card with my name written over and over in Inuktitut syllabics. She is thrilled to be hosting someone from somewhere else.

Look closer, and you’ll find individuals for whom Nunavut has given hope and opportunity…
Judy’s mother Maina, just coming off a 10-hour retail shift at the Northern Store, grabs a soda from the fridge, sinks into a faded couch and puts her feet up for a few minutes before tackling the dishes in the sink and popping a frozen pizza into the oven for Judy, Michael Angelo, 9, and husband Jacobie, an apprentice electrician who is, at the moment, replenishing his and Maina’s supply of home-rolled cigarettes. Her gaze, a blend of pride and amusement, flits between me and Judy. Jacobie left school in grade 11 to get a job to help his family pay the bills. Since then, he’s been a stock boy, a community-hall supervisor, a recreation co-ordinator, a bylaw officer, and a carpenter and bear monitor at the nearby Mary River iron mine.

Maina and Jacobie work hard and yet seem to have little to show for their exertions. Judy and her brother sleep on mattresses on the floor, and there are blankets on the windows. The kitchen holds tonight’s dinner but not much more. There’s no Nintendo Wii, no rug on the linoleum tile, little adornment save for Christian icons, family photos and some children’s artwork, but the Maktars are generous, and they give thanks before eating.

I ask Judy what she wants to be when she grows up, to which she replies, “A telephone operator.” Her father winces.

“Why do you want to do that?” he asks. “It’s too easy. I would rather you be a lawyer.” His words and this spartan home — like so many spartan northern homes — remind me that even though a decade has passed since Nunavut was born on April 1, 1999, two threads still compete to unravel and mend this place: scarcity and aspiration.

There are not enough senior accountants to audit government spending here, not enough teachers or doctors or Inuktitut-speaking police officers — there never were. Houses are still scarce, and so are fresh vegetables, furniture, university graduates, hardware supplies, fishing quotas, computers and affordable airline tickets. This family and this territory survive one paycheque to the next.

Despite these acute needs, the Nunavut government dreams of making Inuktitut the working language of government by 2020 and has just passed a pair of language laws that legislates its use in the public service, municipal offices, courtrooms, clinics, schools and private businesses. It’s a cultural victory, to be sure, but prohibitively expensive given compliance deadlines, Nunavut’s limited control over government revenues and the insatiable infrastructure demands of a new territory.

But Nunavut has always been stubborn that way. Just as the tundra’s ubiquitous lichen clings to rocks, erodes the surface and grows by micrometres each year, so does Nunavut change: slowly, bewilderingly. Momentum seems impossible in a place where adversity smothers any sign of progress. On the surface, anyway. Look closer, and you’ll find individuals for whom Nunavut has given hope and opportunity, people who inch forward not in spite of scarcity but because they’ve lived with it so long that it’s normal. That’s why little girls in Pond Inlet can sing and dance and become lawyers if they so choose.


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Comments on this articleLeave a comment

Most limits for people occur between their own two ears. Let's encourage our children to dream and tell them they can succeed! Inspire change in the youth, a worthy goal.

Submitted by Cheryl Wood on Monday, March 5, 2012

Leafs will win Stanley Cup YA I learned a lot and leafs represent Nunavut. Yes Leafs you are important to me.

Submitted by Henry on Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Has it been thought that project naming also be extended to Nunavik, that is arctic Quebec? I'd also wish to contact Earl Larden who wrote a comment last year. I'd appreciate help. Thank you.

Submitted by Putulik Ilisituk on Friday, January 29, 2010

i loved this article, i was only six when Nunavut became a territory but i still remember that day. i don't live in Nunavut now but i love going back and wish to live there again one day. This article reminds me that i need to keep my dreams alive, I want Nunavut to prosper.

Submitted by Priscilla on Wednesday, February 4, 2009

It has been forty years since we taught in the eastern arctic in Sugluk now Salluit but hearing the throat singing again has brought a flood of memories. Well done girls

Submitted by Earl Larden on Sunday, January 18, 2009

grise fiord. an eye opener. much enjoyed. thank you Lise. who shares my married name.

Submitted by maureen gregoire on Friday, January 16, 2009

This was a fascinating article. I live in the UK and have a subscription to Canadian Geographic given me by a Canadian friend. This was an intriguing voyage into the very northern limits of human settlement - thank you.

Submitted by Maureen on Thursday, January 15, 2009

Lisa brought me into the dreams, the reality and the richness of a peoples spirit flourishing in the midst of change.

Submitted by Dr. Maggie Hodgson on Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Lisa Gregoire Has done a marvelous overview of a subject dear to my heart. The Inuit people . Thank You

Submitted by raymond frank on Saturday, January 10, 2009

if the people believe,it will happen.

Submitted by bruce on Tuesday, December 30, 2008

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