We'll Have Nunavut

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Canadian Inuit have a territory of their own, but self-government is not without its challenges

by Susan Hyde

Inuit means "the people who are alive at this time" in Inuktitut. Eskimo, a Cree Indian word meaning "eaters of raw meat," is considered derogatory and is no longer used in Nunavut.

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On April 1, 1999, Nunavut separated from the Northwest Territories to become the newest Canadian territory. The creation of Nunavut was the outcome of the largest aboriginal land claims agreement between the Canadian government and the native Inuit people.

The Inuit, who make up 83% of Nunavut's 24,730 residents, will be one of the first indigenous peoples in the Americas to achieve self-government. Nunavut means "our land" in Inuktitut, the Inuit language.

Where is Nunavut?

Nunavut is bordered by Baffin Bay and the Labrador Sea to the east, Manitoba and Saskatchewan to the south, and the Northwest Territories on the west. Covering 777,000 square miles (almost 20% of Canada) Nunavut is larger than Alaska. Nunavut contains three regions—Kitikmeot, Kilvalliq (Keewatin) and Qikiqtani (formerly Baffin)—and 28 communities.

Most of the area is frozen and snow-covered for more than half the year. The land is primarily tundra. Although there are rich deposits of copper, lead, silver, and zinc, the lack of paved roads and an infrastructure, as well as the harsh climate, make the development of these resources difficult.

Iqaluit (formerly known as Frobisher Bay), the new capital and largest city (population 4,200) is currently experiencing a building boom as it prepares for the new government. Grise Ford, the northernmost city, (population less than 150) lies north of the Arctic Circle. Temperatures range from -40 degrees F in the winter to 5 degrees F in the summer. The population density is 0.01 persons per square kilometer.

The Nunavut People

Inuit means "the people who are alive at this time" in Inuktitut and refers to the people of "Eskimoid" ancestry inhabiting northern Canada. The term Eskimo, a Cree Indian work meaning "eaters of raw meat," is considered derogatory and is no longer used in Nunavut.

The Inuit lived in the Nunavut region for thousands of years before the first European explorers arrived searching for whales and a Northwest Passage.

Once a nomadic people who followed the caribou, seals, and fish for food, most Inuit now live in small communities that depend on trapping and mining for their livelihood. There are three official languages, Inuktitut, English, and French. Educational achievement is low: in 1996, 26% had attended or graduated from high school, 32% attended trade school, and about 11% had attended or graduated from university. Unemployment is high, at 15.3%.

Although the Nunavut government faces many challenges with high unemployment, low educational levels and little infrastructure, the Nunavut land claims settlement, one of the most comprehensive and innovative land claims between an aborigine group and a state, gives the Inuit control over their economic, political, and cultural future.

Creation of the New Territory

The discovery of oil in the northern regions of Canada during the 1960s and 1970s stimulated aboriginal groups to bring several land claims against the Alaskan and Canadian governments.

For the politically organized Tungavik Federation of Nunavut, 13 years of intense negotiation led to the 1992 Land Claims Agreement, enacted in 1993. As part of the agreement, the Inuit insisted on the creation of a new territory. There was little progress until the Inuit forced the government to put the question on a plebiscite. 53% of the voting public favored the division.

With the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, the Inuit gain title to 136,000 square miles of land plus $1.1 billion dollars in compensation, a share of mineral, oil, and gas development, the right to participate in decisions regarding the land and water resources, and rights to harvest wildlife on their lands.

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