Nunavut Turns 20: What's Next?
Atuat Shouldice’s two kids are watching Pawn Stars on a giant TV while a blizzard blows outside in Rankin Inlet. The boys eat hot dogs drenched in ketchup, while Shouldice sits at the kitchen table preparing frozen Arctic char. He lays the fish on top of an unfolded Rice Krispies box. He slices it thin, rolling the meat off like orange segments before dunking it in soy sauce and wasabi he bought from the Red Top Variety Shop around the corner, that sells ice cream and potato chips next to bullets and leather mittens. Wasabi would have been difficult to find here 20 years ago. For a town of 2,842, Rankin Inlet isn’t the place it used to be.
It’s one of the largest communities in Nunavut. Shouldice grew up here, but like many of his generation, he left home for school in the south. There were limited training and education resources in his own territory. Even today, students have to leave.
He’s a water resource officer with the federal government, but what he’d love to do is guide full time. Right now, that’s just not feasible. There are no roads to Rankin and air travel is expensive. “As long as [visitors are] in town I can accommodate the person—I can show them polar bears and caribou and falcons, and I can tour them around town to meet people and see different things. But to get them here is the struggle.”
In Rankin, he’ll drive visitors around, pointing out the enclosed sled he built to keep his kids warm when he takes them out on the land, the hockey arena where Jordin Tootoo laced up his skates (it also serves the best spring rolls in town), and the one room shack by the water where his mother grew up with her 12 siblings and parents—staff housing from the old nickel mine. Rankin is a mining town, first established in 1952 to support the North Rankin Inlet Nickel Mine, which employed the first Inuit miners in Canada. The history is easy to spot—Shouldice points out a metal graveyard of abandoned mine equipment. When he was a kid, they called the rusting hulks “the elephants.”
“[For] pretty well everyone my age, it was their playground when they were kids. If you remember playing around there you had a pretty good childhood.”
He had a good childhood in Rankin. That’s what he wants for his own kids. “Rankin’s home. Nunavut’s home. I want to raise my boys here. I enjoyed living in the south, but there’s nothing like going home,” he says.
He’s not sure his boys will end up staying in the North, but he wants them to have the option. “If you hang out with my boys for a while you’ll see they’re their own little people. I guess my job is to show them what I know and they’re going to do whatever they want when they’re men.”
If his sons, and the generations that come after them, are going to be able to make their lives in Nunavut, the territory has a long way to go. On April 1, 2019, Nunavut turned 20. It's founding in 1999 made it the first new province or territory in 50 years. It didn’t happen overnight. In fact, the process had been going on for decades, whether you clock it to the fight for Inuit rights in the ’60s and ’70s, or to the moment in 1993 when the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement was signed: the largest Indigenous land claim settlement in Canadian history.
With the agreement, Inuit gained equal representation with the government on wildlife and resource management boards and environmental boards, and title to 18 per cent of the land—350,000 square kilometres—including mineral rights, the right to harvest on land and waters, a share of federal royalties from oil, gas and mineral development on Crown land, and more. The intent was to put Nunavummiut in positions of power to take control of their own territory.
John Main, MLA for Arviat North-Whale Cove, was at university in New Brunswick in 1999. “I considered myself a Nunavut resident as soon as April 1st hit,” he says. “Just growing up in Arviat, you saw the need for a better quality of living and better access to services, better access to the kinds of things other Canadians take for granted. And so I think in 1999 there was a feeling of optimism that these needs were going to be recognized and things will start getting better.”
In its first 20 years, the creators of Nunavut carved out a territory as well as a brand. They succeeded in defining what it means to be Nunavummiut. Nunavut has the youngest population in the country—as of July 1, 2018, Statistics Canada estimated that the median age in Nunavut is just 26 years old, compared to 40 in the rest of Canada. Shouldice’s two sons are part of the nearly 30 per cent of the population that’s under 14 in Rankin Inlet. An entire generation grew up only knowing Nunavut as its own territory. Their culture and home doesn’t just exist—it’s recognized and celebrated. But is that enough?
“The challenges we’re facing are some of the same ones we were facing in ’99,” says Main, pointing at everything from ports and roads to education and access to employment. “We just don’t have the basic stuff that a lot of places have.”
Today, Nunavut is a territory of contrasts. “We have this huge income disparity,” says Main. “It’s true on an individual level, where you have some people pulling in six figures at a steady government job and then their neighbour who’s living in an overcrowded house, [with] little to no prospects of landing that same job. It’s also true on the community level, I believe. You have the poorer communities who are certainly not seeing any great improvement, and then you have the communities that are more well-off.
By 2006, the bloom was already beginning to come off the arctic rose. Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) filed a lawsuit against the federal government for alleged breach of contract and failure to live up to the promises in the Land Claims Agreement. An out-of-court settlement in 2015 included $255.5 million in compensation from the federal government, with much of that going toward training for Inuit employment. People are still waiting.
“Out of 10 I’d give them maybe a four,” says Eric Lawlor, the community economic development officer in Pangnirtung, when asked about the people who ushered in the creation of Nunavut. “Because of the situation we’re still in. Like the cost of living, the food, the housing, the social support, the health care system, the language especially. They had promises to keep for 2020 and they haven’t.”
Lawlor’s house is full of kids—he has three of his own, plus two foster kids. He calls himself the father to five, but dad to about a dozen, as his place is always packed with kids coming in and out. The porch is full of mittens and boots and snowpants, the door sealed with a roll of blue insulation, taped above the frame. People don’t really knock in the communities: they just walk right in. It’s one of the things Lawlor loves about Pangnirtung. He moved here 17 years ago from the East Coast and has no interest in leaving.
It’s 1 p.m. and his house smells like fried bacon and French toast. His family had a long night and a slow start. His 10-month-old foster son Dale spiked a fever, sending them on a whirlwind trip out of the community. They brought him first to the health center in Pangnirtung, before they were sent to Iqaluit for treatment.
“We were stuck there for three days and we had to go to the boarding home. When we arrived the place was packed, there were probably 20-some people waiting for rooms, all the hotels were booked and they were going through a list of names that they had, personal houses that they could put people in,” says Lawlor. “The stress of it just compounds the health issues.” ˚
In Pangnirtung, they have a doctor who comes up regularly, but isn’t there permanently. And you can’t schedule when your baby gets a fever. That, he thinks, shows the biggest issue holding Nunavut back: infrastructure, or a lack thereof. Politicians agree.
“The infrastructure deficit is crippling us basically. That’s how I see it,” says Main.
In 1999, there was hope the Land Claim Agreement would see Nunavut benefiting from its own resources, whether that be royalties and mineral rights or equal representation in government. And that that would trickle down to benefit everyone, raising the quality of life across the new territory. But to get there today, there is a need to create sustainable options so Nunavummiut can continue to grow on their own.
Lawlor sees that need literally in the roof over his own head. He calls housing one of the biggest crises in the territory. In Pangnirtung, he’s seen families of 13-14 people crammed into three bedrooms. According to the 2016 Statistics Canada census, across Nunavut there were 9,820 private dwellings and 3,030 of those—or about a third—had more than five people. In Pangnirtung, where the census counted 415 dwellings in 2016, 125 had more than five people. Lawlor’s working on a project to bring small, energy efficient housing units to Pangnirtung. He hopes to build 10 units that are solar and wind powered, big enough for a small family or one person so costs stay low. His plan is to sell the houses so people in his community can gain equity and stop paying rent.
He knows what sustainable programs can do, and what happens when they go away: between 2007 and 2015 he managed the youth centre in Pangnirtung. The department of justice funded it for a five-year term. When the money ran out, the centre had to close its doors. Volunteers still run the hamlet’s soup kitchens and youth summer programs, but they don’t have the funds or the energy to take it on full time. “The volunteers for that society are overwhelmed with the work they’re doing already.”
Which leaves young people in Pangnirtung out in the cold. The youth centre functioned as a drop-in place to escape over-crowded homes, giving kids a place to go to play games, watch movies, and socialize. But change is coming. In December the hamlet hired a new senior administrative officer who is from Pangnirtung. They also recently applied for funds for a community youth coordinator and a community elder co-ordinator, with programming starting in November. “I think there’s a number of people that want to see things get done, that want to see change, that are actually stepping up and starting to create the change that they want to see.”
“Because of the situation we’re still in. Like the cost of living, the food, the housing, the social support, the health care system, the language
especially. They had promises to keep for 2020 and they haven’t.”
Sandy Kownak wants to see more of that. She’s the managing director for Inspire Nunavut now, but was in Yellowknife in 1999 preparing for the new territory. Originally from Baker Lake, she and her husband had gone to the NWT as part of a training opportunity in 1997 through the federal government. The idea was to go and learn so in 1999, when Nunavut happened, there would be Nunavummiut ready to step into the newly created bureaucracy. Back in the early ’90s, when she was in college and the idea first seemed like it could be a reality, she had her reservations.
“Who’s going to run Nunavut? I was worried in 1992, because I didn’t see Nunavummiut in college, right? So I knew the challenge was going to be to build that public service,” she says, sitting in her office in Iqaluit.
Inspire Nunavut is a business entrepreneurial program focused on building that capacity so Nunavummiut can take the reins and diversify their own economy. It started in 2013 to address high unemployment and dropout rates in Nunavut’s isolated communities. In 2018, Nunavut had the second lowest employment rate in the country. Despite high government targets for Inuit employment, the Inuit employment rate has hovered under 50 per cent for years. Inspire Nunavut has run programming in seven communities, and by the end of the year 100 students will have taken part. Although targeted at youth, the majority of participants are between 22 and 30.
“Those are the students that didn’t find the opportunities in their communities to work, but even though they were unemployed they were doing their own entrepreneurship anyway. Baking, making parkas, carving, making jewellery, do you see what I mean? People are doing stuff that might not be captured under an employment index,” says Kownak.
The program helps Nunavummiut start businesses, which in Pangnirtung means a carpentry shop and a forge making traditional tools from materials scavenged from the dump. It also teaches entrepreneurial ways of thinking so people can stay in their communities—even if they’re not working for the government or a mine.
A lot of the training happens online. With a bowl of microwaved oatmeal cooling beside her, Kownak answers a steady stream of dings from her computer, as students log on and start their days with questions for her. The lack of internet connectivity has been a big stumbling block for Nunavut. It’s the first thing Kownak says when asked what Nunavut needs for the next 20 years. With it, businesses and people can be connected to the world. Without it, they’re as isolated as they were in 1999. “Some days, in the morning we might not be connected for whatever reason, and then next thing it works all of a sudden,” she says with a laugh. “We want the world to know, through our entrepreneurs, Nunavut’s here.”
It’s not just for themselves: local businesses mean more jobs for everyone. “Any business that hires other than the owner, one more person, that’s a success for us,” she says, pointing to a sewing program in Igloolik that just this year started hiring employees. “Twenty-five years ago, if Inspire Nunavut was in Baker Lake, guess what, I would be in Baker Lake. But because it wasn’t or the opportunities for me weren’t there I had to leave. I had to go look for work.”
Internet is on the list for big infrastructure dream projects. The premier and other politicians have floated the idea of fibre connectivity in Nunavut; for roads to Rankin Inlet; for an Arctic university; for green electricity plans to replace aging diesel facilities. But infrastructure is not just limited to hard infrastructure like roads, electricity and internet connections. It’s also social supports and programming, something the younger generation—more open about mental health than ever before—is demanding. Some strides were made in the territorial budget announced in February. The GN is allocating $4.6 million towards addictions and trauma treatment, and $90 million for medical travel. But is it just reacting to problems in the moment instead of looking forward?
Nunavut right now has a very small window of opportunity to make big changes. According to the Conference Board of Canada, Nunavut’s economy is expected to grow by an average of 4.6 per cent each year until 2025; the highest in the country, with gold production peaking in 2024. More mines are coming online, including Agnico Eagle bringing its Meliadine mine and Amaruq satellite outside Rankin Inlet into operation, and Sabina Gold & Silver Corp projects in the Kitikmeot. The Canadian average economic growth for the same period? Below two per cent.
“Twenty-five years ago, if Inspire Nunavut was in Baker Lake, guess what, I would be in Baker Lake. But because it wasn’t or the opportunities for me weren’t there I had to leave. I had to go look for work.”
Economically, mining has been one of the big successes of the last 20 years. “The mines that are operating right now, they’re operating on Nunavut’s terms. It’s not like the old days where the mining company just went in, they did what they want, they extract the metal and they just left stuff there and a mess,” says Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq. “We want economic development in our communities but we want it on our terms.”
He sees Nunavut’s economic success—which includes being one of the hottest exploration prospects across the three territories, outpacing the NWT—as a sign that at least some of the goals and dreams of 1999 have been achieved.
“I’m not sure if we’ve met the goals economically or not, but the economy in Nunavut is definitely getting better and brighter. We probably didn’t meet everybody’s expectations because people’s expectations are quite different but I think that we’re going in the right direction,” Savikataaq says. “We want economic development and growth for all of the communities so that regular Nunavummiut can benefit from either getting a job or selling stuff to meet their daily needs just to live.”
The next generation of Nunavummiut have thoughts on what that boom could do. Namely, that the time is ripe to invest not just in short-term projects or in the same old systems, but in something new, something sustainable and something homegrown. Something uniquely Nunavut.
Terrie Kusugak is playing her guitar and singing when the power goes out. The blizzard in Rankin Inlet is in full swing, but it doesn’t phase her. She keeps going, talking by the blue light filtering through the snow (she says you know a blizzard isn’t going to stick around when the snow doesn’t stick to the windowpanes). The 24-year-old is an artist who grew up in Rankin, and has been involved with Qaggiavuut, the performing arts group, honing her craft after attending school in the south.
And for her, it might be time for young people to burn the systems set up in 1999 to the ground.
“This system is created against us. We have to become educated enough to break out of that system to create a new system that works for us,” she says. At the time, the new territory borrowed frameworks from other parts of Canada—education from Alberta, ways of organizing the government from the NWT. Kusugak isn’t sure this “mix-and-match” is still a good fit for modern Nunavut, or that it takes into account the uniqueness of a territory “that has 25 individual communities that you cannot travel between without flying.” She thinks changes are coming from her generation—a generation that’s benefited from having pride in their culture and where they’re from, enough that she sees the definition of what an Inuk is expanding. “We’re it. We’re the ones that have to change it,” she says. “I really don’t know where Nunavut’s going next. I think we’re headed into more acceptance to outliers. More acceptance [that] being Inuk is breaking out of that mould of an Inuk who grew up in an iglu and speaks Inuktitut and goes dog sledding. Those people exist, but they’re not the only identity of Inuit anymore.”
For Kusugak, it would be pretty on brand to have young people take over in Nunavut. “When Nunavut was created it was created by 20- to 30-year-olds. Some of them had gone to post-secondary, most of them hadn’t, but it was run by the youth. And now it’s being run by older people but we have more youth than ever. So I think sometime soon that paradigm will shift and [we] will start seeing more younger people in higher roles.”
Mumilaaq Qaqqaq just wants her friends to be alive to see it. She’s 25, and a wellness program specialist with the Quality of Life Secretariat. She doesn’t want to go back to her home community of Baker Lake. “Personally? There’s no way I could live in Baker right now. Too much history, too much trauma.” Just a month into the new year she says she already knows three people who killed themselves. “I can’t. It’s too much. It hits too close. I think sometimes I can feel very, ‘Oh what am I even doing? Are we moving any way? Are we taking one step forward and 10 steps back?' Especially when something like that happens in my home town, and I’d feel even more that way if I lived there.”
Now’s the time to put new systems and supports in place so her generation can come home and build their lives there, she says. Qaqqaq thinks the focus should shift from looking south, to looking north—circumpolar collaborations and learning from other Arctic nations, like Greenland. She’s over taking cues from southern Canada.
About a year and a half ago, she had tattoos put on her face—she’s hesitant to call them traditional, but rather traditionally inspired. She’s got others, including a puzzle piece on her arm featuring the Nunavut flag, Danish flag for her mother’s home country, and the Canadian flag that she got when she was 19. She’s ready to have the Canadian part covered.
“That’s how much these systems are working to make sure you don’t even see what’s right in front of you,” she says. “I recently watched a clip from Peter Mansbridge when Nunavut [was founded] and he talks about the creation of Nunavut and he says things like lack of economic development and some of the issues and I said 'Whoa, we’re still there, I could use the same wording today.' I think it’s the big picture, it’s getting the federal government to listen to us.”
She wants to see youth representatives in the legislative assembly, at the Quilliq Energy Corporation, and involved in decisions about everything, right down to hiring principals and teachers. “I don’t think our youth are given enough opportunity. They’re doubted a lot. Nobody’s giving them the tools to be ready,” she says. She wants her generation to be given a seat at the table, now, and not just as lip-service—she wants them given the opportunities to learn, as well as have their input respected.
It wouldn’t simply be a matter of putting young people in charge. What Nunavummiut of all ages, across the territory, say again and again is Nunavut cannot rest on its collective territorial laurels. Nunavut needs to take strides to be sustainable.
That means producing its own doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, and politicians. That means investing in programs and policies to address the root causes of the social issues that throw up roadblocks to that success, instead of just reacting to the crisis of the day. The next 20 years have to be truly forward looking, and that means being willing to slough off what isn't working and embrace what does. Could Nunavut 2040 have a collaborative model of government, based on the way Inuit organized themselves for centuries, instead of a model borrowed from the NWT? Could investment in mental health facilities and resources—real ones built in the territory with an eye towards the complexities of the region—mean fewer people kill themselves, fewer people fall to alcohol and drugs, and more people bring their talent and passions to the arts, the economy, and politics? Could communities be connected by roads and internet, breaking the isolation and siloing of resources? Anything is possible. If the last 20 years was about building the foundations of a new territory, the next generation needs to move in, and build a home that reflects their own hopes for Nunavut. The founders of the territory carved a seat for Nunavut at the political table, now, the next generation needs to pull up a chair, and get to work.
“I think as a territory we need to focus on the basics. Education, economic development, healthcare, and housing. Those are the things where we have a huge need,” says Main. “I think if we can address the basics, in terms of getting our labour force working, maximizing all the benefits coming from resource development, coming from construction, from everything, I think then things will start to fall into place across our territory because people will be more independent. They will be more able to lead a better life.”
Back in Pangnirtung, Lawlor is letting one of his cats outside. Both stores in town have run out of kitty litter and more won’t be arriving until the sealift in August. It’s a cold day and the mid-afternoon sun is starting to set. But he says the cat will be OK. Inside, his foster son demands to be held—he prefers Lawlor to anyone else. The child is originally from Qikiqtani. Lawlor just found out his last name, and would love for him to stay in his family. He’ll be OK, too. And so will Pangnirtung, and Nunavut, at least if Lawlor has anything to say about it. “If the momentum keeps up, it could be quite something else. People probably wouldn’t even recognize the place.”