The Nunavut Devolution – Good Idea?

“The best laid plans of mice men often go awry” - Robbie Burns

Hopes are high as it was announced that Nunavut, the land of the Inuit, officially took over control of the territory’s land, water and natural resources, becoming the equivalent of Canada’s eleventh province. The Prime Minister described it as the largest land transfer in Canada’s history – 2,000,000,000 square kilometres.

 But hopes were just as high when Nunavut was created in 1999, as the northern, Inuit portion of Northwest Territories. The agreement was hailed as something that could improve the lives of Nunavut’s troubled Inuit residents.

Unfortunately, those high hopes have not been realized. The problems facing Nunavut’s mainly Inuit population of 38,000 make it virtually impossible for them to successfully manage and govern their huge territory.

Simply put, Nunavuters are nowhere close to being ready for such an onerous responsibility.  Nunavut has by far the worst social pathology numbers in the country. Teenage pregnancy, infant mortality, addiction, incarceration, suicide and even tuberculosis are all shockingly high, while educational levels are dismally low.

Crucially, there are virtually no qualified Inuit engineers, doctors, entrepreneurs and other professionals and skilled workers needed to run the huge territory. Those people have to be imported from the outside. Meanwhile, unskilled young Inuit often refuse the entry level jobs that would give them experience to move on to better ones. Even Tim Hortons employees often have to be brought in from the south to keep the shops open. Too many Inuit youth are content remaining dependent. The common attitude is that the  “government” gives them money, so they don’t need to work.

This wasn’t always the case. When Inuit hunted to stay alive the work ethic was very strong. But now that hunting has become a hobby only, government largesse, in the form of free housing and assistance cheques has largely killed it.

It is not more legislative powers or semi-independence these people need, it is education, job skills and the reincarnation of the Inuit work ethic.

To make matters much worse, the addiction problem is out of control, and fetal alcohol rates in Nunavut are among the highest in the world – as much as 40 times higher than the general population.

In short, the deeply troubled Inuit population of Nunavut is almost completely dependent on the taxpayers to the south, and revenue from natural resources harvested mostly by non-Inuit. That chronic dependency shows no sign of changing.

There exists a tiny educated Inuit elite, but it is too small, and too poorly educated to effectively occupy the power positions needed to actually run the place. Most of the population cannot even manage their own lives, much less govern a province. Those few Inuit with educations are not even carrying out the responsibilities they now have.

 Maclean’s did a frank assessment of the many problems facing Nunavut in 2018. Things have not improved since then.

This is not a criticism of the Inuit people of Nunavut. They are the last generation of a proud hunting people who survived for thousands of years in an incredibly hostile environment. But the fact is that education is vitally needed to prepare more young Inuit for positions of power.

The western territories of Canada earned their provincial status, and then ownership of their natural resources, by demonstrating that they were capable of managing their own affairs. Nunavut has not demonstrated such competence.

Perhaps this opinion is wrong, and things will turn out well. Let’s hope that will happen. But if not, and there are indeed good reasons to worry, what are some of the things that could go wrong with turning over approximately one fifth of Canada to a few poorly qualified people – no matter how good the intentions of everyone concerned?

One is the possibility that those few people chosen to govern will fall under the influence of external or internal forces that are attracted to Nunavut’s vast natural resources potential, or geopolitical importance. China and Russia, for example. Both are intensely interested in the Arctic. It should be remembered that Nunavut borders on Russia. In fact, some of that northern Russian territory formerly belonged to China (and China hasn’t forgotten). How this will play out in the future is anybody’s guess. But is a tiny, poorly educated governing class able to resist strong forces from the outside? Will these weaknesses cause problems for Canada down the road? Will the weak Nunavut leadership be tempted by clever offers from China that would compromise national security? How will the United States react if they conclude that decisions made in Nunavut are putting their security at risk?

We remember Canada’s embarrassment when Quebec attempted to assert itself on the world stage by attempting to treat independently with France. If China or Russia was determined to make trouble, those embarrassing incidents might look trivial in comparison. Another possible problem is internal. So far, Inuit have not adopted the more aggressive indigenous politics of many of the southern indigenous groups. The semi-separatist “nation to nation” and pan-indigenous ideologies haven’t had much appeal. However, it might be only a matter of time before this type of quasi-independence philosophy- with its “settler anti-colonialism” rhetoric takes hold. Could this be a potential problem for Canada, particularly if foreign actors, like China and Russia insidiously insert themselves as they are almost certain to do? Another possibility – in fact a probability – is that southerners will assume all of the important positions while local Inuit will remain unemployed, or occupy only token positions, and perform token jobs. The increased revenue from exploitation of the natural resources might well make the chronic dependency that now has deep roots even worse.

These are a few only of the many concerns that come to mind. It is not clear that this consequential devolution has been well thought out.

The Nunavut devolution is mainly an exercise in virtue signaling by the current federal government.  It is consistent with their indigenous policy, since taking power in 2015, of massively increasing the money flow into uneconomic indigenous communities, while supporting the quasi-independence “nation to nation” plan of indigenous activists. While this policy has made a privileged few wealthy there is no evidence that it has improved the lives of ordinary indigenous people. In fact, I would argue that it has increased indigenous dependency, and increased indigenous expectations to an unrealistic level, while fuelling indigenous resentment and separatist forces.

The Nunavut devolution appears destined to do the same. Revenue from natural resources will basically be turned into more welfare cheques. The stark truth is that with the Nunavut devolution the current government has created another giant Indian reserve.

The deal has been done. We wish the people of Nunavut the best, and hope that none of these fears come to pass.

But we should keep a close eye on Nunavut – just in case they do.


Brian Giesbrecht, retired judge, is a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy



Featured News


Schools Cannot Function Without Trust

Schools Cannot Function Without Trust

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s parental rights announcement has surely generated a lot of debate. Not only will Alberta require schools to obtain parental consent before changing the names or pronouns of students under the age of 16, but teachers will also have to...