As early as 1963, some natives of Canada’s Northwest Territories began agitating for greater autonomy within a nation where the vast majority live within 200 miles of the U.S. border. In particular the eastern Inuit (formerly called Eskimos) sought to control more aspects of their Arctic lives above the tree line. Not until 1999 was Nunavut (“our land” in the Inuktitut language) separated from other northern territories by an act of Parliament. On April 1, 1999, the Territory of Nunavut was born with Iqaluit, a city of 6,000, as its capital.
Canada’s creation of Nunavut was a dramatic example of the growing awareness of indigenous rights in several nations. As in the United States, where Native Americans began rallying for recognition and respect, creating the American Indian Movement, aboriginal groups in Australia and Canada’s 630 officially recognized “First Nations” likewise began demanding greater self-determination. In 1973 after a long period of refusing to abide by most treaty rights, Canada changed course and signed six major treaties, including Nunavut’s.
Straddling the Arctic Circle, and including Ellesmere and Baffin islands and Cape Dorset—a center of Inuit indigenous art—Nunavut has a population of 29,500, 80 percent of it Inuit, in 26 settlements spread across 770,000 square miles, a fifth of Canada’s total land mass. Most of this vast territory is inaccessible by road or rail; everything arrives, expensively, by air. The government of Nunavut, whose first premier was lawyer Paul Okalik, oversees an annual budget of about $500 million (U.S.), more than $18,000 per resident. About 84 percent comes from the federal government in Ottawa.
Prior to the 1950s most Inuit were still leading traditional lives based on hunting and fishing. The cold war changed that. In an agreement with Canada, the United States built the Distant Early Warning, or DEW, Line, a system of radar installations designed to detect Soviet invasion across the North Pole. Although the DEW Line was useless against nuclear submarines or intercontinental ballistic missiles, it remained in place for 30 years. In 1985 Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney and U.S. president Ronald Reagan signed a new defense agreement. Abandoned DEW Line installations littered the Arctic landscape, in some cases leaching PCBs and industrial solvents into the ground.
Around the same time as the DEW Line’s installation, Canada’s government began to move Inuit families into permanent settlements where they were offered health care, education, and other services, but at a price. Their new lifestyle pushed many Inuit communities from subsistence hunting to fur trapping for the cash needed to buy newly available “southern” goods.
Reliable sources of income remain scarce in Nunavut, although mining, fisheries, tourism, and cultural products are being aggressively explored. The Internet plays a significant role, allowing Nunavut’s widely separated citizens to communicate with each other and the world via expensive satellite hookups that leaders hope to replace with fiber-optic installations.
The emergence of global warming patterns in the Arctic poses both threats and opportunities. Some believe that the storied Northwest Passage, now frozen most of the year, will soon be navigable in summer, cutting almost 5,000 miles from a sea voyage between Europe and Asia. Nunavut’s government has discussed building a deepwater port and a 185-mile all-season road. On the other hand, climate change would likely further endanger Inuit ecology and traditions of self-sufficiency.
See also environmental problems.