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Broken promises

Persistent poverty and implementation problems are compromising the vision set out in the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement

Shadowy image of person

On May 25, 1993, a promising new relationship between the Canadian government and the Inuit people was born in the freshly painted teachers' lounge of Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit.

Teacher Nick Newbery was in the room when then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signed six copies of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement as the players quietly stood around a well-worn table. There was “no clapping, no cheering, no overt emotion,” Newbery recently wrote in Above & Beyond magazine. But when the PM and the chief Inuit land claims negotiators walked into the school gym and took their seats on a stage draped in Inuit weaponry and seal and polar bear skins, the room packed with elders and other Nunavummiut erupted with elation.

“The ceiling almost blew off with the noise of the applause combined with the swelling sense of pride and delight,” he recounted.

Later, Annie Aningmiuq, representing Inuit youth, eloquently spoke of how the newly proposed territory of Nunavut offered Inuit hope and emancipation. “And to non-Inuit,” Newbery writes, “the event was also a source of pride, that, despite the many mistakes made in the recent past, at least Canada finally recognized Inuit as full partners and was welcoming them into the Canadian federation.”

John Amagoalik, then chair of the Nunavut Implementation Commission, was also in the room that day. His assessment of the relationship between Canada and its aboriginal people today is a stark contrast to the optimism on that joyous occasion.

As he told the CBA's National Aboriginal Law conference in Iqaluit last week, Canada's history of colonialism continues to infect its relationship with aboriginal people despite the progress that's been made. Furthermore, that relationship will not improve until relics like the Indian Act are dismantled and the Department of Indian Affairs disappears.

He calls colonialism the “dragon in the room” whenever government and aboriginal leaders sit down to discuss issues of concern.

“I am 66 years old and all my life I have lived under the colonial regime that Canada has with its aboriginal people,” he said. “Residential schools, relocations, the killing of our dogs, an assimilation policy intended to destroy our language and culture, the destruction of our environment, the theft of our lands and resources; all these things are what colonialism is.”

“When you go back to wherever you go,” he told the group, “please tell others that it's time to slay the dragon. It's time to negotiate a new relationship.”

The poverty trap

The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement that started life with such promise is now mired in implementation problems. The territory is educating a new generation of young leaders, its government is led by its own people and Inuit culture is thriving, but Nunavut doesn’t have the money, capacity or infrastructure to give its citizens a good quality of life.

Iqaluit lawyer Paul Crowley, who has lived there since 1995, describes a territory that still lacks the basics of a modern economy – adequate housing, affordable energy, reliable telecommunications, food security – and remains hampered by a historic lack of investment in people and infrastructure.

For example, crowded housing has contributed to the spread of communicable diseases and the worst rates of TB in the world. Crowley estimates the territory needs to spend $1.6-billion on housing – money the Nunavut government does not have. Meanwhile, residents pay 70 cents per kilowatt hour for energy compared to 10 cents in the south and approximately 70 per cent of families are food insecure, meaning they lack reliable access to nutritious food.

“We face a structural condition from which we cannot rescue ourselves: the classic poverty trap,” he told the conference. The Inuit relinquished aboriginal title to about 83 per cent of their land when Nunavut was created, so the territory has little means of raising its own funds. And even if it did, “it’s not going to make up for the historic shortfall in investment,” said Crowley, who estimates it would take at least double the amount the territory gets in transfers for 10 years in order to catch up – at least $6-billion. Most of the GDP is generated by government spending.

“We have enough money to run the territory, but we do not have enough to build it,” he said.

Furthermore, there have been issues with the implementation agreements established by the NCLA, especially with respect to provisions dealing with Inuit employment in government.

As Laval University researcher Louis McComber has written, the political hypothesis behind the creation of Nunavut was that the Inuit population could “assert a form of self-government” through the public Nunavut government. The goal was to fill 85 per cent of government jobs with Inuit by 2020. So far it has failed to meet its interim goal of 56 per cent by 2010; the main hurdle has been low levels of education, according to a report by Auditor-General Sheila Fraser.

The Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. which represents the Inuit of Nunavut has launched a billion-dollar lawsuit against the federal government arguing, among other things, that Ottawa failed to provide enough money for education to allow Inuit to meet its goal for public sector jobs. Collectively, NTI argues, Inuit have lost a potential $123-million a year by not being employed in the territorial government at levels set out in the NCLA. The lawsuit goes to trial next year.

Crowley says extreme frustration led to the litigation. “The Government of Canada keeps Inuit in a state of financial and emotional despair, not holding up its end of the bargain,” he told the conference.

“A distinct lack of enthusiasm”

The structure and processes of government lie at the root of problems with implementation, says Dougald Brown of Ottawa’s Nelligan O’Brien Payne.

In 1987, the federal cabinet approved estimates for implementation costs. Those estimates eventually became hard expenditure caps, even though there was little or no experience at the time on which to base the estimates and no idea of what the true cost of ongoing obligations would be. Furthermore, he says, with the exception of the amount of capital transfers, Inuit were not privy to internal cost estimates.

Although agreements are negotiated on behalf of the Crown, performing the obligations which arise falls to individual government departments. And many of those departments displayed “a distinct lack of enthusiasm” when it came to implementing the land claims agreement.

“For many departments, the obligations in the NLCA were viewed as additional burdens or constraints that were at the margin of their mandate and consequently, they received little or no attention,” Brown said.

Government departments also viewed land claims implementation as a program responsibility, not a contractual promise, he added. Departments are engaged in program delivery so if the activities they were required to implement fell in their mandate, there was a “reasonable chance” they would get done; however things which fell outside an existing program tended not to get done.

The “de facto funding cap” led many departments to seek additional funding to cover the cost of activities required to carry out the obligations – and when the funding didn’t materialize, they opted not to carry them out.

Furthermore, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Department Canada (AANDC), which is responsible for overseeing implementation of the NCLA, has no authority to direct other departments to carry out implementation activities or use program funds for specific purposes.

Brown believes an effective arbitration regime is essential to resolve disagreements and provide remedies for breaches.

“The availability of effective remedies against the Crown would force the government to confront the lack of co-ordination, lack of accountability and the funding limitations that have impeded implementation,” he says.

The $64-million question

Education Minister Paul Quassa has always been proud to say he was born in an igloo. He reminds people there was a time when Inuit were fully independent and self-reliant with their own leaders and governance.

“They had knowledge that no other race had; they were inventors of tools, utensils, essentials of life, and they survived a harsh climate that no other race has ever experienced,” he told the conference. “That whole way of life was expropriated when Europeans started coming on to our vast land.”

When asked whether Nunavut today is what he had helped negotiate, he answers carefully. “That’s the $64-million question,” he says. He mentions some successes: Nunavut has its own government and many successful Inuit organizations. It has met the vision, but there is still a lot of work to do – on both sides.

“We are very proud to be part of Canada,” he says. “On the other hand, Canada has to recognize that this is [its] last frontier; here is an opportunity where Canada can be proud and say to the rest of the world that we have a public government that is governed by its own people.”