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Self-Rule Comes to the Tundra

COLUMN ONE

Icy, isolated Nunavut, Canada's newest territory, braces for new power structure--and visitors.

April 01, 1999|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IQALUIT, Canada — Pity Bert Rose. He's the one with the rumpled hair and the baggy shirt, slumped in a back office with a phone in his ear.

As Canada prepares for today's inauguration of its first new territory in half a century, he and his co-coordinators are the ones putting on the party: figuring out how to transport 1,200 people from all over the world into a remote quarter of the Canadian Arctic and finding a place for all of them to sleep in this frigid island village of 4,500. Rounding up hunters to shoot enough caribou and musk ox to feed all of them, and shipping in 1,400 chairs and 500 cots. And finally, putting on a show for them, one they'll remember for the rest of their lives, if they live through it, if they don't wander out onto the sea ice, or pat a vicious sled dog, or get stranded by a blizzard for so long the town runs out of food.

"Take all the time that you want," Rose says to a visitor hesitating at his door. "The world is collapsing around me."

It isn't every day that they redraw the map of North America. In this case, Canada is carving an official new territory out of the vast plains of tundra and ice of the eastern Northwest Territories, a homeland for tens of thousands of Inuit (once known as Eskimos) who have been the Arctic's stateless natives for about 4,000 years.

The territory of Nunavut, which comes into being today, is one of the most important experiments in aboriginal self-rule in an era when other nations are closing the books on native land claims in the sparsely populated Far North.

In Alaska, the Inuit population above the Arctic Circle joined other native groups in 1971 in a settlement that awarded them $1 billion and 44 million acres of land but no real autonomy. In Greenland, Inuit residents won home rule from Denmark in 1979 but no financial reparations.

'A Huge Step for Any Aboriginal People'

Nunavut will have both: a territorial public government that is open to all but in effect controlled by the 22,000 Inuit who live here--84% of the region's population--and a $730-million trust that will generate $40 million to $53 million a year for new businesses, training programs and social projects. On top of that is oversight of a $411-million annual territorial budget, more than 90% of it handed over by the federal government of Canada. Per-person spending will be by far the highest in Canada.

"This is a huge step for any aboriginal people, in Canada or anywhere. Where they've been a minority in terms of the total nation, they now have a political jurisdiction that enables them to govern themselves," says Mark Dickerson, political science professor at the University of Calgary and an expert on northern affairs.

And so, 1,800 people will gather today in a chain of old military hangars on the tundra about 1,250 miles north of the nearest city, Montreal. There, three new judges, 19 new legislative assembly members (all but four of them Inuit) and a territorial commissioner will be sworn in, and fireworks will rocket over the ice chunks of Frobisher Bay.

The fact that the onlookers will include the Canadian prime minister, the governor-general, several Cabinet ministers and diplomats and news crews from around the world is only part of Rose's ordeal. The biggest problem, as he sees it, is that Iqaluit's average temperature on April 1 is 1 degree above zero, and the available electricity in the ceremony hangars may not be enough to keep the heaters and big-screen TVs and satellite dishes running.

"I also think about somebody down in Montreal chartering a plane and saying, 'We'll take you up to Iqaluit to see the celebration,' and 150 people arrive in Iqaluit with the assumption that they'll be able to find accommodation," Rose says. "I don't know what we're going to do. Jail cells, maybe?"

Nunavut represents a fifth of Canada's landmass, slung so far over the top of the globe that few Canadians have ever been here. The magnetic North Pole lies in its northwestern quadrant. It is home to half the world's population of polar bears, three quarters of a million caribou--and about 27,000 people, spread out in 28 communities. None of the locations can be reached except by plane or, during the few summer months when the sea ice melts, by boat.

Iqaluit, the new territory's capital, was an early outpost of the Hudson Bay Co. and a stop-off point for whalers but didn't come into its own until the 1950s, when Frobisher Bay served as a marshaling area for construction of the Cold War-era Distant Early Warning radar line across the north.

The U.S. built one of the longest runways in North America here, a strategic refueling point for bombers that might one day be headed toward Russia. The 12,000-foot runway turned the tiny shantytown, once dubbed "the armpit of the Arctic," into an oddball international crossroads for years.

Famous Visitors Over the Years

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