Our Times 3

The dissociative state of Nunavut

Indigenous Politics

Dissociation can be an involuntary coping mechanism to help with an overwhelming experience such as trauma or loss. Dissociative behaviour is usually a diagnosis given to an individual, but an analysis of the state of Nunavut today suggests that it is a concept that may assist in understanding the character of the territory’s political system.

Eighty-five percent of Nunavummiut (the people of Nunavut) are Inuit. Settlement of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA) in 1993 resulted in the creation of a suite of Inuit representative organizations, the most important being Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI). The NLCA also resulted in the division of the Northwest Territories on April 1, 1999, and the creation of a new territorial government — the Government of Nunavut (GN). The GN is a public government representing all residents of the territory regardless of their ethnicity.

Implementation of the NLCA has set the territory on a trajectory towards the development of non-renewable resources — mining, and oil and gas. The land claim entrenched constitutionally how resource development projects will be reviewed and approved, how impact benefit agreements are to be negotiated. The underlying assumption is that there will be mining and other development. The Inuit leadership supported this in principle, and saw the land claim as the way to ensure that it would take place responsibly — and that there would be a sustainable balance between harvesting and development, with guaranteed benefits to Inuit.

Twenty years after the NLCA was signed, and fourteen years after Nunavut was created, it is becoming clear that there are aspects of the territory’s extractivist trajectory which had not been anticipated. Nunavut appears to be on the cusp of large-scale non-renewable development, but with the society experiencing intense social suffering — and the territorial government too overwhelmed and weak to address it.

Dark statistics, with a message

Nunavut’s “bad numbers” are no longer newsworthy in southern Canada. The appalling results of the “Nunavut Community and Personal Wellness” section of the 2007/08 Inuit Health Survey received not a single word of coverage in the southern media when they were released last fall. If research documented that 48 percent of people in Saskatchewan had thought about suicide at some point during their lives, and that 29 percent had attempted suicide at some point during their lives, it would likely make the Globe and Mail. If 41 percent of people in Nova Scotia reported suffering severe sexual abuse as children — 52 percent of all women and 22 percent of all men — it might make the New York Times. And if 13 percent of Torontonians said they felt “serious psychological distress” in the 30 days before they answered the questionnaire, even the federal Minister of Health might feel the need to comment. But these data are for Nunavut, and they do not result in headlines outside the territory.

Other telling indicators:

  • A suicide rate among the Inuit population more than 10 times the national rate, and 40 times higher among young Inuit men.

  • A rate of sexual violations against children more than 10 times the national rate.

  • A homicide rate more than 10 times the national rate.

  • A rate of violence against women nearly 13 times the national rate.

  • In a population of 32,000, 40 percent of whom are under 15 years of age, 1,700 people on probation.

  • High rates of marijuana use from early teenage years through adulthood.

  • A school attendance rate that is low by national standards, and which has actually declined several percentage points over the past decade.

  • 70 percent of Inuit preschoolers living in food-insecure homes.

  • By far the most overcrowded social housing in the country.

There are of course also positive statistics that could be listed, including a high rate of retention and use of the Inuktitut language, a great number of talented artists and musicians, and rising numbers of high school graduates. Community cohesion, collective economic activity and cultural persistence remain strong, despite rapid social and environmental change (brilliantly expressed at www.peopleofafeather. com).

As a worried mother recently wrote in a letter to the editor in the Nunatsiaq News: “There are many Inuit families living together in peace. It does feel like they are outnumbered by rebellious citizens dwelling in anger, although peaceful families are more numerous than dysfunctional ones.”

The source of the Inuit “anger” she referred to? The report of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission, authored by Justice James Igloliorte, found that “levels of suicide, addiction, incarceration and social dysfunction… are in part symptoms of intergenerational trauma caused by historical wrongs.” These historical wrongs include dispossession through coerced relocation into settled communities, abuse at residential and day schools, and the imposition of the values, laws and language of the dominant society.

Social suffering

In a recent article in Northern Public Affairs, Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox wrote that “social suffering” in the Northwest Territories “is the deliberate and sustained policy choices of successive governments that continue to marginalize and dispossess Indigenous peoples of their lands, and so their spirituality, culture and way of life, resulting in profound psychological and material impacts. Those policy choices create circumstances where the root causes of suffering are reinforced rather than removed.

“And when government provides assistance to communities, its policies are directed in ways that do not change the fundamental circumstances that give rise to suffering. Instead the programs and services offered are meant to deal with the symptoms of those policies. Such programs focus on initiatives relating to education, training, addictions treatment and more. While they are needed and necessary, there is also a glaring absence — government does not go beyond providing band-aids to the wounds that its own policies inflict. In this way the state positions itself as a savior while in reality it continues with policies perpetuating suffering. So the expectable outcome is that suffering will continue. It will continue despite land claims agreements, despite self-government deals, despite jobs and training offered by resource extraction projects.” Irlbacher-Fox’s conclusions beg the question of whether the institutions arising out of settlement of the NLCA (including the Government of Nunavut) are part of the problem or part of the solution — and if they are part of the solution, when social suffering among Nunavummiut will begin to decline.

Welcome to the nuclear family

When the Nunavut Inuit leadership flipped its position on uranium mining in 2007, NTI soon received shares “for free” in a uranium junior called Kivalliq Energy Corporation, which some saw less as NTI being “gifted” than NTI being “bought.” The Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) is conducting a review of the French nuclear giant Areva Resources Inc.’s proposed Kiggavik uranium mine, which would open the territory to the nuclear industry. NIRB’s procedures have been repeated challenged by the Baker Lake Hunters and Trappers Organization (HTO) and the environmental NGO Nunavummiut Makitagunarningit (“Makita”).

The Baker Lake HTO has raised a range of issues, starting with NIRB’s failure to translate critical documents into Inuktitut. Makita has also raised a wide range of issues including the possibility of environmental contamination, the location of the proposed mine in post-calving caribou habitat, and the possible cumulative impacts of the other uranium mines likely to follow if this one is approved — something that the NIRB has ruled out of consideration in its review.

Pressed by Makita to call a public inquiry into uranium mining, the GN instead held three carefully constrained public meetings and hired the industry consulting firm Golder and Associates to help it develop its uranium policy. Golder had previously been hired by Areva to write parts of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for their proposed Kiggavik mine. To no one’s surprise, the GN came out in support of uranium mining.

The story of how Nunavut was opened up to the nuclear industry stands as a warning to Indigenous peoples elsewhere: the settlement of Indigenous rights claims can result in the emergence of a managerial and petty bourgeois elite whose class instincts are to cozy up to capital.

Dysfunction on display

Telling moments from the March 2013 sitting of the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut included: Economic Development Minister Peter Taptuna reaffirmed his confidence in the NIRB, and described the GN’s role as “unofficial interveners” (rather than “regulators” or “authorities”). NIRB issued a public letter slamming the GN for having failed to respond to all the information requests submitted to it by organizations participating in the Kiggavik review process. “Although the NIRB is disappointed that the GN failed to respond … within the timeframe it had committed to, the Board has no ability to compel the GN to respond and cannot suspend the review because the GN has not done so.”

Also at the March sitting, the Minister and Deputy Minister of Education were grilled about “social promotion” — the practice (if not formal policy) of allowing students to advance a year even if they had hardly attended or were incapable of doing work at that level — and about the real academic levels of students graduating from high school. The Deputy Minister deflected criticism by noting that, on average, a Nunavut student misses three years of schooling due to absence before graduating. Nunavut’s new Education Act places full responsibility for attendance matters on the shoulders of the community- level education authorities, thereby absolving the Department of Education of responsibility for addressing a serious territory-wide problem.

The Minister of Health and Social Services tabled a lame “draft framework” on family violence which commits the GN to little more than a public awareness campaign. No funding or timelines. Completion of an actual family violence prevention strategy “by the end of this calendar year … is a goal to which the Minister of Health and Social Services and I are fully committed,” Premier Eva Aariak had said — in July 2011.

The Assembly voted to defer a decision on a longawaited Representative for Children and Youth Act, ostensibly to allow additional time for community comment. The bill had already been the subject of extensive consultations across the territory, NTI had expressed its support in writing, and the Cabinet was on board — but most of the regular MLAs (i.e. those Members of the Legislative Assembly not in cabinet) just couldn’t bring themselves to be the ones who created an office which might result in parents being held responsible for not providing adequate care for their children.

Beyond the politics of personalities

Such is the dissociative state of Nunavut as the territory nears its fourth general election this October.

Nunavut’s two Conservative representatives in Ottawa, MP Leona Aglukkaq and Senator Dennis Patterson, orbit serenely above the dysfunction they left behind by escaping territorial politics. They studiously avoid both the territory’s social problems and NTI’s $1 billion lawsuit against the federal government for its failure to fully implement some key provisions of the NLCA.

The prospect of Nunavut obtaining a devolution agreement with the federal government similar to the one that the Northwest Territories just signed seems like a distant dream — the GN simply doesn’t have the capacity to take on the additional responsibilities, even with the additional revenues such a deal would generate.

In hindsight it is not surprising that Nunavut’s first crop of MLAs chose the territory’s first Inuit lawyer, Paul Okalik, to be premier over ineffective former Liberal MP Jack Anawak. It is not surprising that Okalik was elected to a second term, as there was no credible alternative on offer. And it is not surprising that, having wearied of Okalik’s authoritarian style, the third crop of MLAs voted for a much nicer person: the current premier, Eva Aariak. Alas, that hasn’t worked either. Public disenchantment with the Legislative Assembly is such that there could be a big turnover of MLAs come the next election. Almost any outcome is possible — including chaos.

In the absence of political parties, MLAs are elected as individuals. They then select first the premier and then the other members of cabinet. They are not required to hold any common political perspectives, and… they don’t. The result is fractious infighting, especially in the run-up to an election.

There is nothing historically “Inuit” about the non-party system of government that Nunavut inherited from the Northwest Territories. Greenland, Nunavut’s equally Inuit neighbour to the east, developed its own unique mix of political parties in the process of obtaining home rule within the Danish state. There is nothing stopping political parties from forming in Nunavut, nor a slate of candidates from committing to a common set of principles.

The only way out of the current morass may be a movement of younger, educated Nunavummiut willing to challenge, at least to some degree, the neoliberal policies of the current GN and NTI leaderships. The essential task of such a movement would be to end the political dissociation by naming and addressing the collective historical trauma and sense of loss which underlies Nunavut’s present social suffering. The most important priority of the next Legislative Assembly must be the socio-emotional well-being of the children.

Jack Hicks was the Government of Nunavut’s first director of evaluation and statistics, and is a founding member of Nunavummiut Makitagunarningit. The opinions expressed in this article are his own, and are not necessarily held by other members of the organization.

This article appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Battle for Canada’s North).


CUPE 2021 leaderboard

Browse the Archive