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Nunavut Territory Established: Inuit Gain New Homeland April 1

While January 1, 2000 signals the beginning of the new millennium for most of the world, the next century symbolically begins on April 1, 1999 for the Inuit of northern Canada. On April 1 st, a new flag and coat of arms will be unveiled as the Inuit celebrate the official establishment of their new homeland, Nunavut. Long-held aspirations of self-determination will finally be realized on this historic date. Economic growth coupled with a return to traditional Inuit values are among the long-term goals promised for this new state.

The last few months have been filled with last-minute preparations for the historic birthday of North America's newest territory. Multimillion dollar business expansions into the circumpolar region have included a new Internet service by Northwestel which will be provided to the Nunavut capital of Iqaluit this year. Higher education is entering the territory by way of the University of the Arctic, a new institution which is striving to be "in the North and for the North." Finally, and most notably, citizens have been laying the foundation for Nunavut's first government which was elected on February 15th of this year.

The creation of the Nunavut territory, where 82 percent of the people are Inuit, represents a victory for the political and cultural autonomy of indigenous peoples. While native groups in Canada, known as First Nations, suffer from some of the worst social pathologies and economic hardships in the country, there is a growing trend toward self-determination. For example, the Nisgaa Indians of northern British Columbia signed a treaty last year with the Canadian government that gave them the right of self-government over an area more than half the size of Rhode Island. Holding the reins of power to their own land provides the residents of Nunavut and these other areas the tools necessary for political stability, economic growth, and an increase in the standard living for everyone, as well as a boost in native identity and self-confidence. The establishment of Nunavut is the most ambitious Canadian aboriginal proposal for self-government, and reflects the obstacles and promises of political sovereignty for the native peoples of Canada.

The History of Nunavut

The story of Nunavut begins in 1976 when the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC), a national Inuit organization, proposed that a new territory in Northern Canada be created as a settlement of Inuit land claims in the Northwest Territories (NWT). The new territory, to be called "Nunavut" after the Inuit word for "our land," would include the central and eastern area of the NWT where the majority of residents are Inuit. Following a plebiscite held in the NWT in 1982 in which 56.5 percent of the voting public favored the division of the territory, the Legislative Assembly accepted the idea of establishing a new territory. A Constitutional Alliance was then established, composed of members of the Legislative Assembly and representatives of Aboriginal organizations in the NWT, whose goal was to agree upon the physical boundaries of division and the appropriate political structures for the territory.

While the Constitutional Alliance finally negotiated the Iqaluit Agreement in 1987, disagreements over land claim areas resulted in the non-ratification of the agreement and the canceling of the proposed plebiscite on the boundary specifications. In 1990, a single-line boundary for division was recommended by John Parker, former Commissioner of the NWT, and was presented to all NWT voters in a May 1992 plebiscite. Fiftyfour percent of those voting supported the proposed boundary, which was then formally adopted by the government of the Northwest Territories, the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut (the Inuit claims organization), and the federal government in the Nunavut Political Accord.

During the discussions of the division boundary, a separate land claims negotiation was also occurring over the creation of Nunavut. In April 1990, an Agreement-in-Principle to settle the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement was finalized which affirmed federal, territorial, and Inuit support for the creation of Nunavut "as soon as possible." The final agreement on outstanding items in the land claim was negotiated in December 1991 and was signed after Inuit ratification vote in May 1993. Meanwhile, Canada, the government of the NWT, and the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut negotiated a political accord separate from the land claim settlement in October 1992 which dealt with powers, principles of financing and timing for the establishment of a distinct Nunavut government. The Nunavut Act, which received royal assent in June 1993, establishes the legal framework for the new government.

Nunavut Land Claims Agreement

The historic land claims settlement was signed after 20 years of negotiation in 1993 between representatives of the Inuit of central and eastern Arctic and the Governments of Canada and the Northwest Territories. The agreement, the largest native land claim settlement in Canadian history, provides title to the Nunavut Inuit of an area of land one-fifth the size of Canada. Among the provisions of the 41 articles are: equal representation of Inuit with government on a new set of wildlife management, resource management, and environmental boards; the right to harvest wildlife on lands and waters throughout the Nunavut settlement area; a $13 million Training Trust Fund; a share of federal government royalties for Nunavut Inuit from oil, gas, and mineral development on Crown lands; the creation of three new federally funded national parks; the right of first refusal on sport and commercial development of renewable resources in the Nunavut Settlement Area; and the right to negotiate with industry, where Inuit own surface title to the land, for economic and social benefits from non-renewable resource development.

This agreement ensures a stable environment for future economic development in the new territory of Nunavut. In addition to creating five-year economic development programs for each region and encouraging the growth of native development corporations, the agreement also provides for the training and development of a professional bureaucracy to implement the settlement. For instance, the Sivuliuqtit Nunavut Management Development Program was established to train a core of Inuit leaders needed to effectively manage the new government of Nunavut. One of the most significant parts of the land claims agreement is the creation of the Nunavut Planning Commission (NPC) which gives the Inuit control over all activities on their settlement lands. The NPC has already begun mapping wildlife populations, human use, waste sites, and areas of archaeological significance, as Well as examining such land use issues as the potential impact of mineral development on the regions environment. Since members of the NPC are nominated by Inuit organizations and the governments of Canada and the Northwest Territories, the people of Nunavut are directly involved in the management of their settlement area.

Nunavut Government Structure

On April 1, 1999, the Northwest Territories will divide into two parts, with the eastern portion of a population of about 24,000 known as Nunavut. Since the majority of the population is Inuit, the Nunavut government will represent many Inuit values and traditions, even allowing workers time off to pursue traditional activities like seal hunts. The government will be established in evolutionary stages over sixteen years, scheduled to end in 2009, with the federal government promising more than $1.2 billion dollars in capital transfer payments to the people of Nunavut. In 1993, an organization called the Nunavut Implementation Commission was established to make recommendations on the government structure. It was decided that the primary institutions of public government will be an elected Legislative Assembly, a Cabinet, and a territorial court, all operating on the three official languages of English, French, and Inuktituk. With government departments and agencies set up in the twenty-eight communities throughout the territory, the Nunavut government intends to be decentralized, responding to the economic needs of each region.

As the official unveiling of the new government quickly approaches, construction crews are working around the clock to finish commercial buildings, dozens of apartments, and the new igloo-shaped Nunavut legislative building. In the new capital of Iqaluit, there are now two tanning salons, a Chinese restaurant, a cellular telephone service provider, and a Kentucky Fried Chicken outpost. New construction has also brought negative effects including a growing mound of trash in the town dump, leading to huge flocks of ravens in the near vicinity. Moreover, seven new town houses were recently destroyed by a fire set by Inuit teenagers sniffing gasoline. Only time will tell whether the recurrent problems of alcoholism, teenage suicides, and spousal abuse will be ameliorated by the new government. One thing is certain, however. The entire country of Canada, as well as much of the world, will be eagerly waiting to see what the future has in store for the new territory of Nunavut.

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