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The Living Edens: The Lost World

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Nunavut's predominantly Inuit population of 26,745 is growing fast -- at nearly 6 times the rate of their fellow Canadians to the south, according to the 2001 Canadian census. It is also Canada's youngest population, with 37 percent under the age of 15. Half of Nunavut's residents live on Baffin Island, site of the territory's capital, Iqaluit, and the center for business. Twenty-eight percent live along the Hudson Bay's coastal areas; another 20 percent or so inhabit the coastline of the Arctic Ocean.

The ancestors of the Inuit, known as the pre-Dorset people, are believed to have crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia to what is now Arctic Canada 4,500 years ago. As temperatures fell and the tree line pushed south, the pre-Dorset people began to move. A successive Inuit group, the Dorset, settled territory as far south as Newfoundland and Labrador. The Dorset would be absorbed by yet another Inuit culture, the Thule, who began moving into modern-day Nunavut territory about 1,200 years ago in search of whales.

They would not live in isolation for long. Norse explorers from Greenland are believed to have ventured into Nunavut 1,000 years ago. European explorers, on a quest for shortcuts to the Pacific Ocean and Asia, began arriving in the 16th and 17th centuries. Whaling ships followed in the 19th century along with Christian missionaries, who succeeded in converting the animist Inuit to Christianity. Today most Inuit in Nunavut are Protestants, with about one-quarter of the population Catholic.

The territory that today makes up Nunavut was only recently formed. In 1999, at the insistence of community leaders, self-rule was granted to the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic and Nunavut ("Our Land") was born. Earlier, administration of this remote territory had been performed from Ottawa as part of Canada's Northwest Territories. The move to establish self-rule for Nunavut began in the 1970s, just as the word "Eskimo" was being abandoned in Canada for "Inuit." (At the time, "Eskimo" was incorrectly thought to be a derogatory word for "raw meat eater.")

But the memory of the psychological upheaval that accompanied the Canadian government's 1950s campaign to move the Inuit away from their igloos and summer tents and into towns lingers. The goal was to provide enhanced access to national healthcare, education, family support, and other social welfare programs by assimilating the Inuit within Canadian society. As families were moved into permanent settlements, their children were sent away to English-language schools. The effect, according to some Inuit, was to denigrate the importance of Inuit language and culture. One of the most notorious programs involved the resettlement of Inuit from Quebec and Baffin Island to the remote islands of Ellesmere (today Quttinirpaaq Island) and Cornwallis as part of an attempt to reinforce Canadian sovereignty in the High Arctic, a region critical to the Cold War strategies of both the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.

"In the span of a few, short decades, Inuit moved from being caretakers to being wards," remembered Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik in a 2001 speech in Washington, D.C. "Inuit no longer determined their destiny, nor had they any legal rights over the use of the land and natural resources they had inhabited for centuries."

Today, the government in Iqaluit is working to restore that sense of sovereignty. Under the agreement establishing Nunavut's autonomy, the government holds title to all mineral deposits found on the territory as well as the right to negotiate for development of non-renewable natural resources such as oil and gas. The territory is estimated to contain 14 percent of Canada's natural gas reserves and 5 percent of its oil. Potential for mining of copper, gold, silver, lead, zinc and diamonds is also said to exist.

Although the Inuit have regained self-governance, traditions and cultural identity continues to diminish. Dogsleds have been replaced by snowmobiles, igloos and tents by brick-and-mortar homes. Many men have no knowledge of the hunting skills that built their culture since the Inuit are now part of a wage-based economy. According to the 2001 census, though 71 percent of Inuit claim Inuktitut as their native language, those numbers are declining.

As one Inuit woman told the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples at Canada's Department of Indian and Northern Affairs in 1996: "We grew up thinking that we should try to be Qallunaat [non-Aboriginal] and that is why we had Qallunaat idols, idols like the Supremes, like Elvis . . . It is even difficult today to change that mentality . . . to . . . think 'I am an Inuk [Inuit] or; I am a good enough person as I am.'"

Many Nunavut observers have indicated the disappearance of the traditional hunting-based Inuit lifestyle as a reason for the decay in their territory's social fabric. High rates of drug and alcohol abuse, crime and unemployment plague the Inuit.

Efforts to reduce unemployment by attracting outside investment in Nunavut's economy have yet to yield huge gains. Publicly funded community education campaigns have been launched to tackle the territory's drug and alcohol problems, yet crime rates continue to rise. In both cases, the challenges faced by Nunavut's government are immense. And ready answers, in this remote land of ice and snow, for now remain out of reach.

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Eco Explorer
Go on adventure to the Arctic.

Arctic Adventure
Discover the animals of the region.

Filming Arctic Oasis
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For Teachers
Students will learn about the Inuit.

Find out more about the Arctic.

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