Nunavut: from vision to illusion

For now, though, the current socio-economic plight of Nunavut does not bode well for the future. The vision of a viable Nunavut society by the year 2020, as expressed through the Bathurst Mandate, seems to be, at least for now, an illusion.

So says André Légaré, identified in the article posted below as a “research associate” at the Department of Geography, University of Saskatchewan.

His conclusion is unremarkable, especially for those of us who have endured life in Nunavut since April 1, 1999. Here’s another taste:

“The NLCA and the Nunavut Act gave the Inuit the legal jurisdictional and political tools to confront the social challenges of Inuit society. However, Nunavut’s fiscal dependency on Canada and its weak economy have harmed the successful implementation of the ‘Nunavut Project’. Nunavut today is a financial pariah unable to alleviate its social issues.”

Again, he belabours the obvious. It’s this article’s rare degree of intellectual honesty, though, that makes it valuable, despite some fact errors that, for the most part, aren’t serious enough to affect its conclusion.

He says, for example, that Nunavut has the highest crime rate in Canada. This is incorrect. Of Canada’s 13 territorial and provincial jurisdictions, it’s the Northwest Territories that owns the highest crime rate. Nunavut owns the highest rate of violent crime. Despite all the griping you hear in Nunavut about thefts and break-ins, Nunavut is actually the only jurisdiction in Canada where the rate of violent crime exceeds the rate of property crime, which is low in comparison with the NWT.

The article also contains a big historical inaccuracy: “The residential education system of the 1950s was replaced in 1960 by a community-based education system. The generation of Inuit, who followed the earlier Inuit generation of students assigned to residences, did not have the same education conditions.”

In the Eastern Arctic, no residential school “system” existed in the 1950s. Starting in 1949, the federal government system consisted of day schools. Most people who attended those schools did not live in residences. With some exceptions, most young pupils of these schools lived at home with their parents in the new communities within which they were more or less compelled to live all year round.

Many Inuit suffered enormous trauma during that period, but most of that trauma was produced by stresses that were unrelated to residential schools, which few attended, except for older students who went on to the vocational school at Churchill.

The big exception was Sir Joseph Bernier School at Chesterfield Inlet, a Roman Catholic institution run by Oblate priests and Grey Nuns. Here, Inuit students suffered all the well-documented evils suffered by First Nations people for more than 100 years within a nation-wide network of residential schools that, unlike the system in the Eastern Arctic, can accurately be called a “system.”

Last, he makes a big error in his characterization of Nunavut’s fiscal position:

“In fact, government of Nunavut spending has grown by an average of 6.5 per cent annually since 1999, while Canada’s funding transfers to Nunavut have increased at a rate of 3.5 per cent a year. This situation has contributed to an accumulated deficit of CAD 141 million by the end of the year 2005.”

Well, not quite. The $141-million “accumulated deficit” that he refers to represents long-term debt, not an accumulated deficit. Nunavut inherited most of this long-term debt from the Northwest Terrritories after the two jurisdictions negotiated division of their respective assets and liabilities. Almost all of it comprises Nunavut’s share of borrowing done by the pre-division versions of the Northwest Territories Housing Corp. and the Northwest Territories Power Corp. Very little of it represents borrowing made to cover current year deficits. The Government of Nunavut has, in fact, been slowly reducing this long-term debt.

This past March, the Nunavut finance minister actually forecast a balanced budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year and predicted that the GN would erase a $44-million deficit produced the previous year. This forecast could change of course, especially in light of the $60-million Nunavut Housing Trust overspending fiasco. But the Nunavut government’s fiscal health — for now — is not nearly as dire as Légaré suggests.

There’s weakness in his approach, too, but you know what? It doesn’t bother me all that much. And that’s his use of the Bathurst Mandate as a benchmark for assessing the Nunavut project.

The first version of the Bathurst Mandate was produced in 1999 by Nunavut’s first group of elected MLAs. Like most Nunavut residents, most of those people had little to do with creating the political and legal agreements that gave rise to the land claims agreement and the division of the Northwest Territories. Like most of us, they had no choice by then but to accept those arrangements, which were created by a small group of negotiators, lawyers and consultants based in Ottawa and then presented years earlier as a take-it-or-leave-it fait accompli.

So the MLAs sat around a lovely old tourist lodge in Bathurst Inlet and fantasized about the future, producing a variety of utopian goals for the year 2020. Like this one: “Nunavummiut will benefit from improved health and social conditions equal or better than the Canadian average, while present housing deficiencies will be resolved.”

No one with even a passing knowledge of Nunavut’s realities could possibly take this kind of stuff seriously. So in using the Bathurst Mandate to measure the success or failure of Nunavut, Légaré engages in a form of the straw man fallacy. He’s attacking a thing that could not possibly exist in the real world.

But as I said, this flaw doesn’t bother me all that much. The propensity for fantasy displayed by far too many Nunavut leaders deserves this kind of exposure.

So despite it’s flaws, this article is well-worth reading:

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