Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Canada Carves a Homeland For Natives in the Far North

CANADA has carved out a huge new territory to be run by native people, but not all of Canada's native leaders are happy with the deal.The place is to be called Nunavut, meaning "our land." Truly a kingdom of ice and snow, it stretches from the shores of Hudson Bay, the southern range of the polar bear, to the north pole. The territory will cover 770,000 square miles - a fifth of the land area of Canada, bigger than Alaska, and almost three times the size of Texas. "For the very first time the government of Canada has put on paper its commitment to create Nunavut," says John Amagoalik, an adviser to the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut who negotiated for the Inuit, as the natives who live in the far north are known. The federal government reached the agreement with the Inuit after 15 years of talks. "This is an area that Canadians have taken for granted ever since the first whaling vessels and explorers started to go north into the eastern Arctic. But it has not really belonged to us," says Thomas Siddon, minister of northern affairs in Ottawa. If the boundaries are approved by the people of the Northwest Territories in a March 1992 plebiscite and ratified by Parliament next fall, Nunavut will become Canada's third territory, after the Yukon Territory and what remains of the Northwest Territories in the west. (A territory is a self-governing unit without the full powers of a province.) But the worry among native leaders elsewhere is that this deal sets a precedent for other land claims in Canada. Although the Inuit will be granted self-government, they will not be given the independence demanded by some Indians. (Last year, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said no native group would be allowed to form a separate country within Canada.) Nor are they being given full ownership of the land, although they will have some mineral rights and share in profits of development. Other land claims in Canada range from the difficult - as in British Columbia, where there are 19 contested areas - to the almost settled, such as negotiations in the Yukon. Nunavut will be granted self-government, in much the same way as Manitoba has self-government. Voters will elect their own leaders and legislature; no longer will there be any quasi-colonial control from Ottawa and the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. Nunavut voters will still vote to send a member to the national House of Commons. Of Nunavut's 22,000 people, 17,500 are Inuit - the people once known as Eskimos, a term said to be derived by Europeans from a derogatory term. But some native leaders are concerned that the Inuit could be swamped by newcomers. "No one can say with any certainty how many people are going to reside in Nunavut in the year 3000 or how many of them will be Inuit. They may be a minority," says Ovide Mercredi, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, which represents Canada's half-million "status" Indians. A status Indian has a right to live on a reserve and receives certain federal government benefits, such as housing and welfare. Adding to the debate, a native group from Saskatchewan filed a suit against the federal government Dec. 20, saying the creation of Nunavut covers land given to them in treaties in the late 19th century. "We were excluded from the negotiations," says Chief A. J. Felix of the Prince Albert Tribal Council. He says his people use the land on the north of the Saskatchewan border with Nunavut. "There is a solution, and that solution would be to exclude certain areas," he says. "The federal government is making a very serious attempt to have one first nation [group of native people] at the throat of another." In spite of these objections, preparations for the creation of the new territory are going ahead. The agreement, signed Dec. 16, calls for the federal government to pay $580 million (Canadian; US$501 million) to the Inuit over 14 years. The Inuit will also receive money from any mining or oil development in the territory. The Inuit will receive 50 percent of the first $2 million (US$1.73 million) in royalties received by the federal government and 5 percent of the remaining royalties. A wildlife management board will be set up to govern hunting and trapping and a $13 million (US$11.2 million) fund will be set aside to help the Inuit with transition to self-government. There is no indication yet of where Nunavut's capital will be, although many of the Inuit leaders live in Rankin Inlet in the eastern Arctic. When Parliament considers final legislation to create Nunavut and change the map of Canada in the fall, it likely will not be without a fight from native leaders who dislike the deal. "It's not a done deal yet," says Mr. Amagoalik. "But I think in the end, the Inuit will end up pulling in the same direction."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.