Nunavut is not a “social experiment”

Iqaluit, Nunavut, April 1, 1999: Jean Chrétien, prime minister of the Liberal government that bungled the creation of Nunavut, doing what he does best. To be fair, though, the failed jurisdiction known as Nunavut may claim many fathers, most of whom reside in Nunavut. (AFP POOL PHOTO, COURTESY OF NUNATSIAQ NEWS)

This past Friday, Bernadette Calonego, a correspondent for Süeddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s largest circulation newspaper, interviewed me. She said she was working on a follow-up to the splendid long-form feature on crime in Nunavut that Patrick White wrote and the Globe and Mail published this past April 1.

She premised one of her questions with the phrase “social experiment.” On its face, this is unremarkable. In loose talk about Nunavut, people often refer to the new territory as an “experiment” or “social experiment,” as if Canada were using the eastern Arctic as a  laboratory for trying out new forms of government and social organization.

This time I challenged the unspoken assumption contained in that rather sloppy descriptor, an assumption used far too often by those who ought to know better.

The primary meaning of the word “experiment” is a scientific test performed to prove or disprove a theory. A secondary meaning is a course of action chosen by those who are unsure of its eventual outcome.

This implies that if an experiment turns out to be fruitless, you are free to choose another course of action. Such is not the case with the Nunavut project.

So I told her Nunavut’s no “experiment.” It’s not a try-out. It’s for keeps, I said. It’s a done deal and it can’t be undone. Its existence is embedded hopelessly within the Canadian constitution, on account of Article 4 of the Nunavut land claims agreement. Knowing what I know about Canadian law and Canadian politics, the odds of getting that unravelled are infinitesimally small.

Being a realist, I have no choice but to believe that the people of Nunavut and the government of Canada must somehow work with the mess that recent history has inflicted upon them, whether they like it or not, and that they must do their best to mitigate the damage it continues to inflict on the innocent.

April 1, 1999, Iqaluit, Nunavut: A young drum-dancing troupe, performing inside an air force hangar converted into a sound stage for the day, entertains a national audience on television. The couple who trained and inspired these dancers were driven out of Iqaluit some years later over a typical Nunavut identity politics grudge match, but that dreary subject is best deal with, likely, in a future post. (AFP POOL PHOTO, COURTESY OF NUNATSIAQ NEWS)

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