The Globe and Mail
April 1, 2011
Crime has doubled in Nunavut since the territory was founded 12 years ago this week, raising a critical question: Is Nunavut a failure of Canadian nation building? And if so, what must be done for history’s scars to heal?
Inside the dead man's house, Elisapee Qaumagiaq fell silent. She let the walls speak for her.
Someone had plunged his knuckles through the hallway drywall again and again and again, from the kitchen all the way down to the bedrooms. The blood had been washed away, but the tale of murder, outlined in felt-pen evidence markings, swirled beneath Ms. Qaumagiaq's snow boots.
She looked around for a few moments before saying the place was giving her “the creeps” and heading outside for a smoke in the minus-10-degree gale strafing the shores of Tellik Inlet. Ms. Qaumagiaq was with Cape Dorset's housing agency. She was responsible for getting the place back in shape, to help answer the never-ending shortage of shelter in the area. But, with so many scenes of death in recent months, the task was weighing on her.
“He was a good kid,” she said of the young man who lived there until he was shot last September. “Just a little angry.”
His death began a run of gun violence that terrorized Cape Dorset, the 1,300-person hamlet and famed sculpture and printmaking centre nuzzled against the Precambrian cliffs of tiny Dorset Island, just off the southwestern coast of Baffin Island. Around here, the events are simply referred to as “the Incidents,” if they're mentioned at all.
On the night of Sept. 19, a Sunday, a Grade 11 student named Peter Kingwatsiak allegedly crept into his uncle's bedroom and tried to stab the older man in the head while he slept, then fled after his uncle awoke. According to police, the teen then grabbed a gun, walked into his stepbrother's home and opened fire on the slumbering young man. Mappaluk Adla, or Mupp as he was known among friends at the youth centre, crawled for help, but never made it past the front door. He was eight days short of his 23rd birthday. The next day, schools were locked down until police picked up his accused killer around lunchtime.
Three weeks later, on Oct. 10, a 19-year-old man named Elee Geetah allegedly shot dead his brother, Jamesie Simigak, in a dispute over an iPod. He then barricaded himself inside a house and came out only after the RCMP flew in an emergency-response team from Iqaluit.
Finally, three days later, two Grade 9 boys sprayed the town with gunfire and traded shots with the police. One bullet flew through a constable's front window and embedded in his bathtub. His wife and two daughters were away at the time, but afterward the entire family left Cape Dorset, never to return.
The police and local media talked of a town unravelling, of a place where social norms had collapsed. What no one said aloud was that the unhinged town was symptomatic of an unhinged territory. While Canadians were aware there were social problems in the North, the outbreak of mayhem in Cape Dorset last fall drew broad attention for the first time to their violent extremes – the toll Nunavut pays in cold blood.
The rate of violent crime per capita here is seven times what it is in the rest of Canada. The homicide rate is around 1,000 per cent of the Canadian average. And the number of crimes reported to the police have more than doubled in the dozen years since the territory was formed. If it were an independent country, Nunavut's crime statistics would place it in the realm of South Africa or Mexico.
Even more than Nunavummiut harming each other, they are hurting themselves: Inuit males aged 15 to 24 have a suicide rate 40 times that of their peers in the rest of Canada, and children are abused at a rate 10 times the national average, even as 50 per cent of social-worker positions stand vacant.
Beyond physical violence, on the 12th anniversary of its founding, Nunavut is struggling on all levels just to meet the basic needs of its 33,000 inhabitants. Seven in 10 preschoolers grow up in houses without adequate food. Within Confederation, Nunavut ranks last in virtually every measure – education, general health, substance abuse, employment, income and housing.
With this kind of havoc and hardship, it's hard not to conclude that Nunavut is a failing state – that the bold experiment in domestic nation-building Canada launched in 1999 has gone deeply wrong. Is it at risk of becoming our own Haiti of the Arctic Circle, or can something be done to reverse the damage?
When they are asked, however, many Nunavut politicians refuse to talk about the violence and dysfunction. This includes the most powerful local bureaucrat in Cape Dorset, its Senior Administrative Officer, Olayuk Akesuk. “Us Inuit have a different way of trying to forget,” he said. “We keep it to ourselves. You don't want to remind people, or it comes back. We don't want to remind anyone of what happened in the past.”
There are many explanations for this reticence – from a desire to deflect attention from the societal ills so often reported in the southern media, to a deep and historically understandable mistrust of qallunaat (white people), to a belief that the spirits of the dead walk among us and must be respected. Perhaps most important, Nunavut is an ethnic state, formed of Inuit, by Inuit, for Inuit. Any slight against the territory can be perceived as a slight against the people.
Unfortunately, the result is a culture of silence in which problems are denied, or reflexively answered with an appeal to the traditions of the elders. In a territory with a burgeoning youth population and staggering social problems, this tight lid can serve to heighten the pressure, and there is danger that it will explode. If Cape Dorset, a bustling artists' enclave that should be one of the North's great success stories, can't hold it together, what hope do the other 24 Nunavut towns have?
One of the few people who would speak openly was the new mayor of the territory's capital, Madeleine Redfern, and she put it bluntly: “What's increasingly clear is that we were not ready for Nunavut.”
From an airplane's perch, each of Nunavut's 25 communities seems like a speck of contrast against a uniform landscape. Together, they hold a population the size of Moose Jaw's, spread across the land mass of 14 Britains, five Germanys or one Mexico – all without a single road connecting them.
In 1999, that population and the Canadian government launched an experiment in forging this scattering of hamlets into a united whole. At midnight on April 1, with the minus-45-degree night air framing the moon in a blue halo of ice crystals, Ottawa sliced the Northwest Territories in two, creating Nunavut (“Our Land”) out of the eastern 60 per cent.
The new territory would be 80-per-cent Inuit and the new government would have a mandate to protect their culture and lifestyle, in part by legislating that the ethnic makeup of the bureaucracy mirror the makeup of the population.
Some right-wing pundits bristled at the creation of a federally funded territory along ethnic lines, even branding it a variety of apartheid, but there was no going back. Nunavut's political fate was sealed. Its human fate was less certain: The social problems were already pronounced, but the fledgling territorial governors (then convening in a high-school gym) proclaimed themselves uniquely qualified as locals to tackle them.
“What we affirm today, with the stroke of a pen, is the end of a very long road,” said prime minister Jean Chrétien, who travelled to Iqaluit for the celebration. He meant that the path to Nunavut began at least in 1976, when a handful of Inuit dared to submit a land claim to the federal government. In truth, its roots lay much deeper in the troubled history of contact between Inuit and the white arrivistes from Europe.
In Cape Dorset, qallunaat first came in significant numbers around 1903, first bringing religion, then trading posts, then law enforcement and bureaucracy. The Hudson's Bay Company set up in 1913, soon drawing hundreds of Inuit into the fur trade. But in 1949, when prices plummeted for white-fox furs, the most coveted pelts, so did Inuit fortunes.
By the 1950s, RCMP officers at the sparse Cape Dorset settlement saw mass starvation setting in. People were eating dog food to stay alive. The Mounties radioed for a massive food airlift, and urged Inuit in far-flung seasonal camps to move to Cape Dorset, close to food and health care.
It was then, in the words of Mary Simon, president of the advocacy organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, that “the colonization process evolved to the point where our people expected things to be given to them.” Expectations grew and grew, on federal assurances that life would be better when this nomadic hunting people instead settled in one place.
While the shift increased Inuit life expectancy from 35 in the early 1940s to 66 in the late 1980s, the transitional period sapped all manner of Inuit self-reliance, replacing it with shoddy government homes, abusive residential schools and social-assistance cheques. Generations since have been raised to sentimentalize the past and expect little of the future, a recipe for the cultural disorientation and undirected anger that breed violence.
For Ottawa, the relocation tidied up the North, sweeping a scattered population into pockets suitable for social assistance, health care and all the other stuff of Canadian governance. It also helped to satisfy four distinct quandaries: a series of court decisions beginning in the 1950s that ruled Canada was responsible for the welfare of its aboriginal peoples; a long-standing policy of assimilating aboriginal people into mainstream culture; a burgeoning desire to open the North to mining; and the need to solidify Canada's international claims to Arctic sovereignty.
Throughout the push into settlements, however, the federal government systematically excluded Inuit from decision-making roles. Their fates would be sealed in faraway offices, without consent or consultation.
Finally, Inuit Tapirisat of Canada was formed in 1971 to lobby for Inuit rights. By 1976, it had submitted a land-claims proposal to the federal government demanding a vast tract of land and mineral rights under Inuit title, along with the creation of a new Inuit-dominated political entity called Nunavut.
After 17 years of grinding negotiations, prime minister Brian Mulroney signed those tenets into law with the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and the Nunavut Act. A few years later, Mr. Chrétien's signature made the territory official.
About a year after its formation, Jim Bell, the conscientious editor-in-chief of the Nunatsiaq News (who is not an Inuk), wrote that Nunavut was a “made-for-failure territory” – overburdened with bureaucracy, paralyzed by an inadequate budget, destined to be a political basket case into the foreseeable future. More than a decade later, “I can't be anything but pessimistic,” Mr. Bell said recently.
“Part of the promise of Nunavut was that, once in control, the majority Inuit government would offer better government – that has not happened. ... The only thing Nunavut has been successful at doing is creating a space were Inuit identity can be expressed. But it is not meeting the basic needs of the population right now.”
That failure was evident at the home of Peter Ningeosiak, a neighbour of Mapalluk Adla in Cape Dorset. A bloody seal lay outside his bungalow, its whiskers dangling with icicles. Inside, the 73-year-old man sat at his kitchen table, leaning his right ear toward a radio blasting the CBC hourly news and looping his thumbs around a twine belt holding up ragged trousers.
Mr. Ningeosiak was born in a remote hunting camp at a time when Inuit still relied on dogs for transportation and snow for shelter, and firmed up those hands over decades of hauling seal and slicing beluga muktuk.
Today, his beaten-down government home houses nine to 11 relatives.
In 2006, University of British Columbia social work professor Frank Tester surveyed 91 homes in Cape Dorset to glean the human toll of housing shortages and overcrowding. Some issues cited were obvious, such as cleanliness, privacy and sleep. Others were not. One in four brought up anger. About one in five said depression and violence. Dr. Tester noted that at times one woman a week was being removed to a shelter in Iqaluit.
At Mr. Ningeosiak's house, his adult children sleep on two couches in the front room. His grandchildren sleep on the floor. When they wake up, they watch television and fight.
“They argue and they shout, smash glass,” Mr. Ningeosiak said. “The children get scared when there is violence. When we were out on the land, this didn't happen.”
Iqaluit is Nunavut's boom town, its big smoke, its metropolis. The airport hums all night. Big banks, absent from most other hamlets, line the main drag. In a new and welcome development, Iqalummiut can even buy double-doubles.
And yet, here in Nunavut's bridge to modern Canada, one in five houses is overcrowded and one in 10 families use their living room as a bedroom. Hundreds of homes need major repairs.
The government of Nunavut is working on it: The town is filled with welding sparks, hard hats and the growing steel skeletons of sturdy apartment blocks. But Iqaluit's residential boom is outpacing the construction boom – its population has nearly doubled, to 7,250, since it officially became the capital in 1999 and professionals from all over the country started coming to seek high-paying government jobs.
That invasion ramped up the already-existing tension between Inuit and newcomers. Despite a mandate to fill 85 per cent of government jobs by 2020 with Inuit, the rate has languished around 50 per cent for a decade, because Nunavut's education system cannot produce enough qualified candidates.
Ms. Redfern, the new mayor, is perhaps the most prominent critic of this broken system. “We live in a chilly banana republic,” she said last year, a few weeks before she would become mayor.
At the time, she was bemoaning her chances of ever holding public office in her home territory. Born in the North to an Inuit mother and a father who had immigrated from England, she went through grade school in Ottawa before going on to law school and becoming the first Inuk to clerk for the Supreme Court of Canada. She doesn't speak Inuktitut fluently, and her southern education is treated suspiciously up here.
“I think it's the same in a lot of small places,” she said. “It's an insular culture here and when you go away, you're not always trusted immediately upon your return.”
This discourages some youth from seeking education away, even as dropout rates at home sit at 75 per cent. Those who do graduate receive an education that falls well short of standards in the South. Thanks to an unofficial policy of “social promotion” that grants students passing grades regardless of academic performance, graduates can possess both a high-school diploma and functional illiteracy. Last autumn, one non-Inuit family in Cape Dorset was planning a move to Ontario because the hamlet's high school didn't offer a single university-recognized course.
And yet education is what Nunavut arguably needs the most. Half of the territory's population is under 25, with a birth rate that leads the nation – a demographic crush of ignorance and incompetence that could hamstring the territory for decades.
Nunavut's political culture is overtly populist but deeply conservative. There is a strong resistance to change, and reverence for all things traditional. Encouraging young men to hunt is a popular remedy to virtually every social problem, though one might question the encouragement of gun use in such a violent climate. The majority's views on women's roles, abortion and gay marriage hark back to an era before the suffrage movement. Elders are the ultimate authority, their wisdom unquestionable as an oracle's.
Such a culture can become incapable of identifying its core problems, let alone addressing them. For example, the territory introduced a suicide-prevention plan only last year, even though the crisis was well documented at the very outset of Nunavut. Two people involved with the process said it was impossible to convince Inuit leadership that Southern solutions such as increased mental-health services and providing training in suicide intervention were viable solutions to a uniquely northern problem.
Even Nunavut Health Minister Tagak Curley, one of the original Inuit activists, told The Globe and Mail, “Suicide isn't such a big problem any more” – a statement in plain contradiction of the facts.
One of Mr. Curley's colleagues, Justice Minister Keith Peterson, is far more forthcoming. He sees all the suicide death notices (more than 320 since 1999), speaks with the shattered families and talks openly about the plight of Nunavut's youth.
“I'm not going to sit here and tell you why they're doing it, or how to solve it,” Mr. Peterson said. “We don't know.”
Nor does he have the money to find out. Roughly 90 per cent of the territorial budget comes directly from Ottawa, which works out to about $32,000 for every Nunavummiuq. Earlier this year, Mr. Peterson, who is also Nunavut's Finance Minister, was scrambling to fill a $110-million shortfall in the Housing Department caused by the inability to keep pace with population growth – a shortfall that worked out to roughly 10 per cent of the territory's total budget.
To make matters worse, the Nunavut Act bars its government from holding debt greater than $200-million. Already owing $140-million, the territory has little room to borrow or sell bonds to erase the shortfall, especially with an ever-growing list of badly needed infrastructure projects it can't afford.
That means cuts. Big ones. “We're stretched. … It's taken some real stick-handling on my part to straighten this thing out.” Mr. Peterson said. “Good thing I'm a hockey player.”
But the rink is tilted against him. In a series of investigations, federal Auditor-General Sheila Fraser has revealed the extent of Nunavut's bureaucratic dysfunction: In one recent audit, her office found that its public service limps along with 23 per cent of its positions unfilled, and a hiring process so sluggish it undermines the most basic functions of government.
“It's clear we have a crisis in leadership here,” Ms. Redfern said, bumping along Iqaluit's icy roads in her Ford pickup one afternoon. “People here have to realize Nunavut is a tool. It will give us a leg up only if we use it properly – if we decide to embrace self-improvement, education, good governance. So far, we haven't.”