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.
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.
Ask residents what’s changed in the 10 years that have passed since Nunavut was created by carving almost two million square kilometres from the Northwest Territories, and you’ll likely get a blank stare. Some say nothing has changed, aside from explosive growth in the capital city of Iqaluit, which has doubled to more than 6,200 residents since 1995. Nunavut Arctic College was on the northern edge of town when I was a newspaper reporter here a dozen years ago. Now there’s a whole neighbourhood behind it with Inuktitut street names that southerners can’t pronounce. Multicoloured mansions overlook the bay, multicultured customers buy fresh parsley at the grocer’s, and homeless men urinate in front of the new Salvation Army shelter every morning because there’s only one bathroom inside.
Inuit have been trying to shape their role within Canada since long before Nunavut was born. Traditional society in the eastern Arctic has been unravelling for 100 years, most dramatically since the 1950s, when Inuit shifted from a self-sustaining nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary, wage-based economy largely controlled by, and beholden to, Ottawa. Inuit have sought ever since to recover their autonomy and become self-sufficient again. They’ve done so with varying degrees of success, led sometimes by people ill-prepared for public office, who were repeatedly returned to power in a cycle of denial that says as much about the electorate as it does about the elected.
Nunavut was supposed to be different: a model mixture of indigenous and public government with transparency and accountability. But a decade after Nunavut adopted its inuksuk flag and stirring motto — Nunavut Sanginivut (“our land, our strength”) — scandal, conflicts of interest, government accounting disasters and social problems persist. Some Nunavummiut have lost patience awaiting the cultural renaissance and say the Northwest Territories was preferable to the Nunavut carousel that turns furiously but goes nowhere. Such doubts would have been heresy 30 years ago when, fuelled by Inuit nationalism, enthusiastic and fiercely proud twentysomething Inuit political activists began the intense discussions and negotiations with Ottawa from which Nunavut eventually emerged.
Jack Anawak was a young man during that heady awakening. A one-time Liberal MP and a father of 14 — 12 of them adopted — he is committed to self-determination for Inuit, and is a bit of a heretic. Nunavut was created before its time, he says: Inuit were uneducated and unprepared in 1999 to run a territorial government. However, he adds, sounding very Buddhist, what’s done is done, and Inuit should focus not on what Nunavut is, but on what it could be.
“We need visionaries and dreamers,” says Anawak. “We need a Department of Imagination in government. Why should we just copy the British parliamentary system? This is Nunavut. We didn’t survive for thousands of years just to copy someone else.” He’s just completed a contract with the Nunavut Employees Union, and aspires, once again, to political office. “A boat in a harbour is safe. That’s what the Nunavut government is now. But that’s not what a boat is for. It has to go out and explore. We need bold, decisive action on issues and there isn’t the leadership to say we are going forward. Nunavut is comprised mostly of young people. They’re more idealistic. When that population gets to be in charge, Inuit nationalism will come back.” We’re sitting in the restaurant of Iqaluit’s Navigator Inn buzzed on caffeine. I ask Anawak the time. Judging by the angle of the sun, he says, it’s just about 3 p.m. As I marvel at his precision, he points to a clock over my left shoulder and laughs softly into his mug. Touché.
We tend to think Inuit such as Anawak have special skills and superhuman endurance. How else could they have survived long, dark winters in the Arctic with only primitive tools and no wood to burn? And how else can they keep this start-up territory afloat? But their power lies in their shared history. Inuit know their fickle land with a kind of intimacy that has all but vanished from southern society. In few other places in Canada do residents feel such a deep sense of ownership, share such a unique past, speak predominantly one aboriginal language and successfully maintain close family ties within a population smaller than Moose Jaw scattered across a land mass the size of Mexico.
But transforming an aboriginal spirit into a modern, effective bureaucracy with jobs for Inuit and service in Inuktitut is tedious and inherently fraught with discouraging trial and error. Add a shortage of health providers, a mounting energy crisis and a global economic meltdown, and you might fear for Nunavut's future. Without nurses, millions of litres of oil and robust commercial investment, Nunavut could not function. It does not even fully control its annual budget: more than 90 percent of its billiondollar operating revenues come straight from Ottawa. The Crown still collects most of Nunavut's resource revenues, and until the right to manage resources is devolved to the territory - likely during the next few decades - Ottawa retains the accruing royalties and taxes.
While leaders look to the future for economic and political independence, residents of Nunavut’s 26 communities — some as small as 150 people — hunt and go to work and play hockey and wonder what climate change will do to their land. Have their lives improved in 10 years? Circumstances vary across three time zones and three regions: Baffin in the east, with half the territory’s population; the central Kivalliq region; and the western Kitikmeot. The cost and logistics of binding such a wide, remote geography naturally fuel an east-west rivalry. Kitikmeot residents feel isolated from, and ignored by, Iqaluit, much like Albertans feel snubbed by Ottawa. But with its western boundary abutting N.W.T. diamond country, companies are scouring the Kitikmeot for more of the same and other minerals too, positioning the region favourably in Nunavut’s economic future. Despite that, says Charlie Lyall, president and CEO of the Inuitowned Kitikmeot Corporation, western Nunavut can’t even get money for training programs, let alone a new trades school like the one set to open in Kivalliq this year.
Rivalries aside, Nunavut and its corresponding land claims have brought political certainty to the region, which pleases Bay Street and has thus attracted an army of prospectors in the past decade. The exploration and mining sector spent $230 million in Nunavut in 2007, and several mines are set to begin shipping iron, gold and perhaps even uranium within a few years. These projects vibrate with longanticipated promises of security and jobs, but some Inuit balk at the potential impact on caribou, sea mammals and fish. “I’ve been trying to send the message that in the area of Mary River, there are migrating narwhals,” says Abraham Kublu, Pond Inlet’s 28-year-old mayor, singling out one of several species that will be affected by Baffinland Iron Mines’ massive Mary River Project, south of his community. “I spent two weeks with two narwhal researchers from McGill University. There were thousands of narwhals.”
And, as with any fledgling jurisdiction, there are signs of both progress and disarray. Last year saw the groundbreaking in Clyde River for Piqqusilirivvik, Nunavut’s new cultural school, which will teach language and survival skills to Inuit and non-Inuit. Retail sales in Nunavut are up, and so are building permits. But Iqaluit’s two-year-old $64 million hospital is still half empty, because government can’t staff the place, and the public service is operating under capacity, with 20 percent of the jobs still vacant. In some departments, job vacancies exceed one-third. Of jobs, at least, there is no scarcity.
With half its 30,000 residents under age 25 (and a birth rate twice the national rate), Nunavut has the country’s youngest population, which is both an asset and a liability: youth have dreams, says Jack Anawak, but they don’t necessarily know how to achieve them. The first order of business, everyone agrees, is getting more kids through school, and on that front, there is modest progress. Slightly more teenagers are graduating from high school now, nearly 30 percent, compared with 25 percent before the creation of the territory. More young people are attending southern colleges and universities, and fewer are smoking. Despair still drives far too many Nunavut youth to suicide, but for those bold enough to snatch a job among manifold opportunities — teacher, outfitter, receptionist, entrepreneur — their inheritance is a territory ripe for a creative make-over; indeed, starving for it. Aside from its youth, Nunavut’s greatest asset might be the absence of obstinate status quo.
“I think the socio-economic conditions of our people are getting better,” says John Amagoalik, an Inuit sage raised in Resolute and now director of lands and resources for the Qikiqtani Inuit Association in Iqaluit. “The younger generation seems to be in a much better position than we were. I notice they are more healthy and staying in school longer.” Amagoalik, known as the “Father of Nunavut” for his work as a negotiator in the 1970s, is now 61, paler and thinner than he was 10 years ago, with a grey ponytail hanging between his shoulder blades.
“Back then, it was very difficult to envision what we were going to experience in 30 or 40 years, but we knew things had to change,” he says. “We had lost control of our land, and we discovered oil companies and mining companies could do what they wanted, with the blessing of the federal government. It was a colonial situation.” Circumstances soon changed. Within one generation, Inuit mapped their homeland and negotiated Canada’s largest ever land claim and a new territory, both of which re-established Inuit traditional rights and decision-making powers. Formally educated at a residential school, Amagoalik used his new-found language and skills to help negotiate his people’s future. Responsibility and prestige must have been equally intoxicating, and youth a definite asset. “We were pretty young but so full of energy back then,” he says. “Most of the time, we were running just on adrenaline.” But even revered statesmen and winners of National Aboriginal Achievement Awards like Amagoalik are not immune to burnout. In 2001, he served six months’ probation after pleading guilty to assault. Police said alcohol was a factor.
Among the artwork and photographs crowding the walls of Leona Aglukkaq’s Legislative Assembly office, a snapshot of her with Jean Chrétien on April 1, 1999, stands out. She is smiling and radiant in a resplendent coat made from siksik (ground squirrel), caribou, wolf and wolverine. Her grin belies a very stressful year.
A centennial baby born in Inuvik, N.W.T., Aglukkaq grew up in Taloyoak, Gjoa Haven and Thom Bay, an outpost camp on the central Arctic’s northern coast. In 1985, she moved to Yellowknife to attend high school, with tentative plans for a career in health care or teaching. But after working as a page for the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly and watching firebrand MLAs such as Nellie Cournoyea and Lynda Sorensen, she discarded conventional “female” professions and entered the public service. Aglukkaq then ran for office in 2004, beating out six men to become MLA for the riding of Nattilik, one of only two women elected to the 19-member legislature. She took on the daunting Finance portfolio first, then Health and Social Services. In September 2008, she resigned her seat to run federally for the Conservatives. She is now MP for Nunavut and the federal Minister of Health.
But let’s rewind to 1998, when she was a 30-year-old acting deputy minister of human resources in the Office of the Interim Commissioner, Nunavut’s bureaucracy-in-waiting. After addressing practical concerns — such as finding office space (the new legislature didn’t open until October 1999), skilled staff (hundreds of them, preferably Inuit), desks, trash cans and computers, and then installing networks and servers — Aglukkaq was expected to prepare briefing documents and budget priorities for incoming MLAs. As Nunavummiut ate cake on April 1, 1999, government staffers were still scouring NorthMart for office supplies. “I took every job skill I’d learned and put them into one task. It was a test of what I know and what I don’t know. It was very stressful,” says Aglukkaq. “At the end of the day, I thought, ‘Something will go terribly wrong. There’s something we missed.’ But no. We’d done enough.”
Today, despite the territory’s perpetual job-creation machine, less than 70 percent of the labour force is working, with a higher representation of Inuit among the unemployed. Other territorial indicators are equally vexing. Violent crime is up 50 percent since 1993, and life expectancy is 10 years below the national average. Since 1999, 267 people here have committed suicide, mostly boys aged 14 to 24 — the equivalent of wiping out my entire university graduating class. A century ago, those young men would have been formidable hunters who found food when everyone was starving. Now, they are killing themselves. But when it comes to other health issues, such as teen pregnancy, fetal alcohol syndrome, lung cancer and diabetes, notes Aglukkaq, Inuit can’t always blame “the system” or a lack of funding for their own bad choices. “Building dependency creates a sick society, she says. “Where did this dependency come from? Why not brush your teeth? Stop smoking? Eat better? It’s complacency, and complacency has grown into dependency.”
Nunavut’s flaws have always been on display, like bleached bones on the tundra, periodically nudged by the wind but never buried. With vast expanses of treeless land and long stretches of unrelenting sunlight, there’s nowhere to hide: not in a small statistical sample where bad news gets amplified; not from police when you’re high and homeless; not from conflict-of-interest guidelines when you’re a politician approving million-dollar construction projects; not from your ex-husband in tiny towns of overcrowded households where nearly everyone is related by birth or marriage.
“You feel as if you’re in a fishbowl, with everyone watching. There’s a lot of pressure,” says Qajaq Robinson, a 31-year-old Crown prosecutor born in Iqaluit and raised in Igloolik by her teacher father and librarian mother. Fluent in Inuktitut, Robinson earned her law degree in 2005 with 10 other Nunavut residents through the Iqaluit-based, University of Victoria-affiliated Akitsiraq Law Program. She also coaches high school basketball and says Inuit pride is on the rise. But pride demands something of the proud: action. “We can’t remain in a bubble. We have to become worldly — do what we do here and also on Wall Street if we have to,” she says. “The survival of Nunavut depends on becoming more grounded and more worldly.”
In Resolute, a tiny smudge on the gravel coast of Cornwallis Island and Canada’s second most northern community (pop. 230), Zipporah Kalluk Aronsen sits on the floor of her kitchen. Next to her is a piece of cardboard, upon which rests a caribou leg, hoof still on, strands of coarse fur clinging to the flesh. “Have you ever spent time with Inuit?” she asks smiling. “This is real Inuit here.” She slices open the bone with an ulu and sucks out the marrow, which she says prevents cancer. The walls swarm with photos — among them, old black-and-whites from the 1950s of Kalluk Aronsen as a child in caribou skins, when people called her Ootoq (“seal sleeping on the ice”).
“We were so proud when we were told that we would have our own Inuit land, with Inuit rights, and our way of living would come back,” says Kalluk Aronsen, a court worker who helps accused people navigate the legal system. “That’s what we were promised. Lots of people probably could not go back on the land, but at least, they could preserve it and remember it.” Remember how to track polar bears and sew skin boots, for instance. Kalluk Aronsen articulates what many
of her generation — and others — fear most in this struggle to modernize: losing that which makes Inuit Inuit. She represents the grounded part Robinson talked about. Her daughter Celina Kalluk, who runs a graphic-design firm in Iqaluit and helped incorporate traditional images into an urban graffiti project there, represents the worldly part.
And if the term refers to your genes, then Kalluk Aronsen’s 14-year-old granddaughter Cassandra is worldly too: the offspring of an Inuit mom and a Jamaican dad who works as a mechanic for the hamlet. Cassandra gives me a tour of Resolute in running shoes and a fleece jacket lazily half zipped against -17°C weather. A trio of pre-teens — Amy Salluviniq, Melissa Idlout and Belinda Oqallak — joins us for a lark. Belinda is chewing something that looks like white plastic, and I ask her what it is. Qaqulaaq, she says, cartilage from a polar bear toe. They tell me they’ve been learning to throat-sing from an elder and take turns proving it. Amy and Melissa grasp each other’s elbows and sway, exchanging ancient, inhuman vibrations until one laughs and loses the game. When they finish, they ask me about West Edmonton Mall and listen, agog, to every detail.
Trendy clothes and indoor swimming pools might be scarce in Resolute — and Pond Inlet too — but cultural traditions and family bonds are not. And perhaps that’s what propels Nunavut forward in the face of diminishing odds, something Robinson calls “collective duty.” Nunavut has a long history of cyclical scarcity. For 40 generations, as the tundra warmed and cooled and the spirits chased away the animals, Inuit have understood that survival depends on decisive action. When food was scarce, groups leaned into the wind to search for caribou, and those too old or weak stayed behind, knowing their souls might soon be reincarnated in promising new flesh: a baby named for a grandmother, the past thrust into the future and the line between them forever blurry. Today, even among naysayers and heretics, there is commitment to move forward together, however slowly and painfully. It begins when someone starts walking.
“People need positive influences. They need role models, words of healing, love, comfort, support,” says Cheryl Akoak, 22. “Once you’re given the proper support, you take baby steps, and they lead to bigger steps, and you stop and look back and say, ‘I can’t believe I’ve gone this far.’”
Ten years ago, Akoak was an 11-year-old cadet parading about in uniform and brimming with pride at events in Cambridge Bay celebrating the creation of the new territory. In the decade that followed, she succumbed to addictions and depression, like so many of her friends, but managed to get healthy and sober with the help of her family. Now, Akoak and I sit beneath a poster that declares “There is hope for the future,” in classroom 22 of Nunavut Arctic College’s Iqaluit campus, where baby steps lead to bigger ones. She is hoping to complete a two-year mental-health diploma, though she has recently taken a break from school to take care of some personal problems. Despite her desire to help others, she has to stop and mend herself. If her struggle and success are any indication, there is hope yet for Nunavut.
But I am skeptical. We’ve talked for hours when I finally ask how she got the purple mark beneath her right eye, because it looks as if someone has punched her. Not so. It’s a scar from an accident seven years ago, when she was struck by an ATV and her eyeglasses cut deep into her cheek. It’s a scar she can’t hide from an event she can’t change, and she tires of explaining it. I tell her it makes her look tough, but like most young women, she’d rather be pretty.
We make assumptions based on what we see, and Nunavut is no exception. The cold, the darkness, the scars are all distractions from Nunavut’s powerful vitality. One thing’s certain: scars tell you something about the past but nothing of the future.