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Canadian Inuit help out their Russian kin

Arctic native people send aid to their cultural cousins hit byRussia's crisis.

Call it "hands across the icecap."

It's an unusual aid initiative from the native peoples of Arctic Canada to those of Arctic Russia. It illustrates how, in the age of e-mail and fax machines, "horizontal" connections among members of a cultural group may be more important than the "vertical" connections within the traditional nation-state.

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Fourteen tons of foodstuffs and supplies landed in the Russian Far East Wednesday as the first phase of what is hoped will develop into a multimillion-dollar program to help Inuit (Eskimo) villages of the Chukotka Autonomous Region.

The money has come from the Canadian government. But the aid is being organized by the Canadian branch of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), a nongovernmental organization representing the 125,000 Inuit of Russia, the United States, and Denmark, as well as Canada. Its agenda focuses on development and environmental issues.

The food and supplies were flown into Anadyr, the regional capital. From there, the aid is being transferred to three predominantly Inuit villages: Enurmino, Sireniki, and Yanrakynnot.

Officials are quick to point out that the aid is to be distributed on an equal-opportunity basis, to non-Inuit as well, but clearly the personal links between the indigenous peoples in the two countries have been a factor is getting the aid organized.

The airlift, in the planning stages since November, has occurred as Canadian Inuit are feeling a shock closer to home: the loss of nine people in an avalanche in the northern Quebec community of Kangiqsualujjuaq. As one official puts it, the tragedy highlights how "marginalized" the Inuit are, with inadequate housing and other problems. But they have demonstrated their generosity before. An international aid officer in Ottawa notes that during the Ethiopian crisis of the mid-1980s, Inuit were among the highest per capita donors in the country.

For two years, the ICC in Ottawa has been offering technical assistance to RAIPON, the Rus-sian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, for instance. "We've had our Russian interns," says an ICC official in Ottawa. "And we keep in touch by e-mail." Because of such contacts, "we were able to make our needs assessment very quickly."

RAIPON appealed for help to Jane Stewart, Canada's Indian affairs minister. The association provided "village-by-village documentation" of where the needs were, says Michael Rudiak, an international operations officer at the Canadian Red Cross in Ottawa, which is working with the ICC to organize aid.

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The Russian government normally supplies the Chukotka villages with food and fuel, brought in by ship during the warmer weather.

But economic woes forced Moscow to cut back the number of ships it sent over the summer. This winter is predicted to be especially severe.

There have been conflicting reports as to the gravity of the Rus-sian crisis, especially in areas far from Moscow. International-aid efforts have been hampered by Russian bureaucracy and corruption as well as Moscow's ambivalence about accepting aid.

Walter Slipchenko, who chairs the group organizing the Chukotka project, acknowledges that "money can be misspent," and that, he says, is why the first phase of the aid is coming in as foodstuffs and supplies.

But he insists, "Of course [the aid] will make it. The battle [for government approval] has been fought."

Of the connection among the Inuit in different countries, Mr. Slipchenko says, "The problem is that most people have a Mercator-projection map [whose distortions increase toward the poles]. If you have a polar-projection map, the Arctic Ocean begins to look more like the Mediterranean basin. You see that all these countries are neighbors."

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