It's been a decade since Nunavut was ushered into the Northern family. Associate editor Brent Reaney and photographer Patrick Kane look at Nunavut 10 years in.
Kneeling on the kitchen floor of his parents’ simple home in Pangnirtung, wiry Aidan Metuq stabs a hunk of frozen seal with his Swiss Army knife. The meat slips off the cutting board and bloodies the linoleum. Aidan’s mother, Alukie, wipes up the mess and gently chides him in Inuktitut; his father, Noah, pays him no mind, dissecting the glistening carcass with the skill of a butcher. On the cardboard between them is the animal’s skin, folded like a bedsheet, blood-stained and still frosty from the trip home. Noah just sold half the seal meat to a local grocery store; the rest will feed the family for a couple days. “The only thing ever stopping me is the weather and gas,” he says, barely looking up from his task. “Today was an excellent day, a nice, beautiful cold day.” Most of the seal goes into a pot to be boiled, but Alukie and Noah occasionally pop raw cubes into their mouths. Aidan ignores the pot entirely, gobbling slice after slice. Moments later he hops up onto a chair, plucks a banana from the kitchen table, snaps it like a twig and slurps both halves with the same enthusiasm he showed for the seal. Then he shuffles off to the computer room, leaving mom and dad to finish up.
Like Aidan, Nunavut turns 10 this spring. It’s been a long decade, filled with challenge, but it’s also gone by in a flash. Ask 100 Nunavummiut how things are going you might get 100 different answers. They’ll talk about what’s changed: Inuit politicians now direct the territory’s affairs, channeling a river of money that flows through the new legislative assembly. A new Inuit middle-class has bloomed, supported by jobs in the bureaucracy and Inuit organizations. A few items have been struck off the territory’s lengthy infrastructure list. Bureaucrats – even non-Inuit ones – answer the phone with ullaakkut, Inuktitut for “good morning.” Mining exploration has boomed. And graduation rates are up. For the first time ever, the territory is creating educated professionals. But people will also talk about what’s stayed the same. The birthrate is Third World, leading to overcrowding, violence and disease. Too many of the new jobs sit unfilled, and the average Inuk’s yearly income has barely risen, to about $25,000. And many people – particularly those who live in the far-flung central Kivalliq and western Kitikmeot regions, two days’ flight from the capital of Iqaluit – continue to feel isolated and marginalized. Some even say they wish Nunavut had never happened.
Though about the size of Western Europe, Nunavut counts just 30,000 residents. To many Canadians, it’s main export is crazy stories: about hunters stuck on ice floes, kids suffering from rickets, locals getting run over and killed by water trucks. And sure enough, the stats aren’t pretty. People here live 10 fewer years that other Canadians. They’re three times as likely to light up a cigarette. Violent crime numbers – already through the roof – appear to be worsening, while the suicide rate is horrific. But these are easy cans to kick. After its creation on April 1, 1999 the Economist magazine called Nunavut “North America’s boldest experiment in aboriginal self government.” It’s that and more. Some outsiders dismiss it as billion-dollar-a-year welfare state. To the Inuit who tied up their dog teams, put on suits and ties and fought for the territory, it remains a dream-come-true. And to the bright young people growing up there today, it’s a mixed bag, plentiful in both promise and pain.
Somehow, Nunavut is all of these things. And just when you think you’ve figured the territory out it – like young Aidan Metuq, with his seal-meat and bananas and computer – shows you another side.
Pangnirtung is Nunavut in microcosm. A 45-minute flight from Iqaluit, it huddles in alongside a fiord so dramatic that approaching planes go through contortions to land beside the glacier-scoured walls. The town is home to some 1,300 residents, from hip-hop teens with sideways ballcaps to a core group of hunters who still survive largely off the land. The old part of the community is a dense tangle of tiny homes and winding lanes; out in the new subdivision are row houses and a gleaming territorial government office. The birth of the new territory brought dozens of jobs and a new lifestyle here – but there’s still no shortage of people who feel the party is passing them by.
Wearing a bright blue zipperless parka and a grey-camouflage toque, Ezra Arnakaq navigates a snowmachine through Pangnirtung’s old town. Behind it trails a komatiq, which feels every bump. Ezra is a bright, good-looking 22-year-old who gets just as excited talking about how to make Nunavut’s education system more culturally relevant as getting a good deal on an old Russian hunting rifle. He grew up in Pang but went to high school down south. He speaks unaccented English, yet can switch effortlessly into the rhythmic, throaty tones of Inuktitut. He says his uncle, Davidee Arnakaq – at whose house we’ve just arrived – is an elder with strong opinions on Nunavut. Polio has left Davidee in a wheelchair and unable to hunt, but it hasn’t hurt his sense of humour. Sporting a bright yellow hockey jersey and a long grey goatee, the 67-year-old wheels his way around the kitchen, motioning for us to sit, laughing and joking in his limited English. Kids jostle in the adjoining room.
As Ezra interprets, I ask how things are, 10 years into the new territory. Davidee says he’s noticed more trucks and other signs of material wealth, but his own life’s become tougher. He says he feels left out. He’s also disappointed by how little Inuktitut is used in government. When the idea of Nunavut was being sold to Inuit, he says, “they were fed all these fine promises, basically. Self-government and our culture would be used and implemented and available and strong. It was kind of overlooked how much work it was going to be.” Davidee complains of Pangnirtung’s overcrowded houses – a problem Nunavut hasn’t solved, he says, though he feels it should be easy to remedy. Then the kicker: He says life would be better without Nunavut. As we get ready to leave, Davidee mentions how little money he has. Looking at the $9 tin of coffee on the counter and thinking of the $15 bags of milk at the grocery store, I ask if that’s why he and others in Pang ask to be paid for interviews. He says it’s one way he can help make ends meet. I drop two $20-bills on the table.
If Davidee is a case of Nunavut’s failure to meet expectations, there are even more heart-wrenching examples. Crime, both in Pang and elsewhere in Nunavut, is on the rise, and the territory is undergoing a crisis of young people killing themselves. At the Anglican church, pastor Looee Mike knows all about it. Her son took his own life, and she estimates one person a day in Pang considers doing the same. The numbers show it’s mainly young men killing themselves – but those numbers don’t say why. It might happen after something as simple as a messy breakup. The root causes, though, are complex. As researcher Jack Hicks wrote in a paper on suicide among Inuit youth, “weak health and education systems, poverty, high rates of all kinds of violence, high rates of substance abuse and generally poor living conditions also help answer the question.” Whatever the reason, when people in Pang are suicidal, Mike is often the person they call. “I just ask them, ‘What would you like me to say at your funeral service? You’re not going to be alive, so you might as well tell me exactly why and exactly what you want done. At least you can do that for your loved ones,’” she says. Mike then prays with them and says usually “they say ‘OK, I’ve changed my mind.’”
Of course, not everyone in Pang is out of money or short on hope. Nunavut’s creation spawned something almost brand new – an Inuit middle class, labouring in government offices and Inuit organizations throughout the territory. There’s no clearer example of this than the Akulukjuks. At the bungalow they just bought, a few minutes walk from the Anglican Church, symbols of suburbia abound. There’s a Dodge Dakota pickup in the driveway, three televisions, and a matching stainless-steel fridge and stove in the kitchen. There, Rosemary Akulukjuk, a plump, short-haired 30-year-old, sits at the table downing pastries from a big white bucket. Her partner, bed-headed Jupee, carves up a stack of Eggo waffles to start his day. He works at the airport, while she does clerical work at the territorial government office. She’s been working with the new government for nearly 10 years, ever since she graduated from high school. If it weren’t for Nunavut, she suspects she’d be bagging groceries for a fraction of the pay. “None of the jobs would have been here if it was still NWT,” she says.
Yet despite their bourgeois lifestyle, the Akulukjuks retain aspects of Inuit tradition. They still hunt when they can. Proof of that is the framed photo of their oldest son, Joseph, not yet five, standing proudly over his first caribou kill. Kid-sized caribou-skin outfits hang outside the front door, across from stretched sealskins. Nearly a dozen ulus rest on the kitchen counter, ready to carve up country food. And if the Alukukjuk’s don’t have time to harvest caribou or seal themselves, and they can’t get it from family or friends, they’ll get it the middle-class way: at the grocery store. Increasingly, this is Nunavut’s new normal.
Coming from Pangnirtung, Iqaluit seems like a little slice of Paris. With its movie theatre, busy bars and gourmet latte shops, it’s by far the most urbane place in Nunavut. Just about everyone seems to have a BlackBerry. Brief-but-real traffic jams clog the city’s main street as people drive home for lunch in subdivisions built on the tundra. And unlike in the rest of the territory, jobs are plentiful. Since 1999 Iqaluit’s population has doubled, to about 7,000, and statistics show it’s become considerably “whiter.” But it’s also drawn countless Inuit immigrants, who’ve moved in from more rural outposts to join this Arctic metropolis. With so many newcomers, Iqaluit’s lingua franca has become English. Yet one place you’re guaranteed to hear Inuktitut is the legislative assembly, a hulking blue box with an exterior shaped into blocks to resemble an igloo.
Inside, behind glass doors with handles carved from bone, six wooden arches converge above the circular chamber. The 18 mainly Inuit members meet there, watched over by visitors perched on sealskin cushions within arms’ reach behind them. In the centre of the floor sits a skin-covered komatiq. This morning, the assembly is voting to appoint a new cabinet minister. The early money’s on Tagak Curley, a feisty 64-year-old who’s spent the past four years pelting the government with criticism from across the room. After two failed attempts at becoming premier, he’s offering up his experience to the territory’s newly chosen leader, Eva Aariak. He stands, one hand holding notes, the other in the pocket of a burgundy suit to go with a tie speckled with tiny flags. Along with his most recent political experience, he long ago served as a cabinet minister in the old NWT government. “I’ve been a Northerner most of my life and I think my experience will be helpful to the premier,” he tells the members. After two rounds of voting, Curley wins.
In the assembly, Curley’s fiery passion conceals his lack of height. Following him to his office across the hall lets you in on his secret: he’s diminutive, and punches well above his weight. Seating himself at a desk piled with stacks of legislative documents, he recalls his days of “walking in the wilderness,” as one of the first voices demanding the creation of Nunavut. He sent dozens of questionnaires to Inuit leaders, asking how best to protect the Inuit language and culture. The dozens of hand-written responses – still in a stack at home – confirmed the need for an Inuit movement. Then the question became, would a land claim, and all the hunting rights and benefits it would bring, suffice? He leans across his desk and his dark eyebrows furrow. “I said, ‘That’s not enough. We’re going to be put in a corner, disappear and close the door. The government wants to shut us up. I said we need another cause.’” Ten years after that cause, the creation of Nunavut, was fought and won, Curley admits high hurdles still face the government. But when it’s suggested Nunavut was a mistake, he launches into a tirade. The new territory may be imperfect, he says, but under the NWT, conditions would be worse. “Challenges are never easy. They will never be.”
If Curley is the grizzled veteran of Nunavut territorial politics, Johnny Ningeongan is its virgin lamb. The former mayor of Coral Harbour was elected last year to represent that town and Chesterfield Inlet in the territorial legislature. Until recently, both his communities were, in Nunavut lingo, “non-decentralized” – bereft of the government jobs that went to places like Pangnirtung. Consequently, work in Ningeongan’s riding remains scarce. “With the high cost of fuel and gasoline and electricity, some of the people are barely making ends meet,” he says. “But hopefully things will turn around for the better. It’s going to take a lot longer time for us to build. For the time being, we are feeling the grips of growing pains. But I think that’s part of the whole cycle of things. Canada must have felt the same thing when it was starting to form as a country. As a territory, we’re going through the same sort of up and downs.”
Jim Bell is somewhat less forgiving. Though unelected, he’s Nunavut’s de facto watchdog, monitoring its progress – or lack thereof – from the helm of Nunatsiaq News. His boosters call him “the conscience of Nunavut”; others deride him an embittered naysayer who sheds more heat than light. Today he’s inflamed about a part of the land claim requiring Nunavut’s public service to employ some 80 per cent Inuit – the same as their share of the general population. The target has never come close to being met, and is one of the drivers behind a $1-billion lawsuit Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. – the organization charged with implementing the claim – has filed against Ottawa. Bell, however, says the target is a distraction. “People are now obsessed with this number,” he says from behind the desk in his cluttered office. “Deputy ministers’ bonuses are partly tied to their ability to achieve those Inuit-employment targets, so there’s an incentive for them to poach employees from other departments. They’re competing with each other, and that’s a race to the bottom.” Not only has it left the bureaucracy unstable, he says, it’s also led to the recruiting of wildly under-qualified candidates. He says the government should forget the target and focus on getting Inuit trained and ready to fill as many jobs as possible. “Probably now, 10 years into the new territory, it’s time to start getting practical and pragmatic,” he says. “Put the dreams in the fridge for a while. Put them on ice.”
Stacey MacDonald has different advice. Orignally from Kugluktuk, in the western Kitikmeot region, she remembers how, when she went south for university, she craved pop-culture and shopping and vowed never to return to the Arctic. Now in Iqaluit for about three years, she’s become a filmmaker and photographer passionate about her culture. She dismisses the notion – particularly widespread in the alienated Kitikmeot region – that Inuit are worse off now than 10 years ago. “I think the way we’re better off is a sense of pride,” she says. “Feeling proud to be Inuk. Feeling proud that we were able to pull this off. Twenty-one-year old negotiators were able to give us a new territory. That’s crazy. There might be a lot of things that we’re not proud of, but that’s a pretty amazing story right there and it’s hard not to feel proud.”
Back in Pangnirtung, snowmachines and trucks surround the town hall. The community’s former MLA is inside offering bowls of caribou stew and good-sized hunks of muktuk to say thanks for the support while he was in office. Kids stampede through the halls, thumping from one parent’s arms to the other’s. About 100 people fill the tables. The vibe is relaxed. A group of older ladies, most wearing modern parkas that have been “Inuitized” with fur around the collars kneel in a circle to play dice. American pop music throbs in the background. The food is shared, the bellies are full, the chatter is in Inuktitut, the smiles are wide. Somehow, you get the feeling this is what Nunavut was supposed to be.