Looking Back
The Early Years
The Road to Nunavut
What Price Nunavut?
The Next Generation
Inuit and The Land As One
Living with Change
Our Language, Our Selves
Inuit Art: The New Reality
Hunters and High Finance
The Subsistence Economy
A Public Government
The First MLAs

The World Looks North
What's In A Name?

Map of Nunavut

Inuktitut - Nunavut 99

"Political control is always a better exercise closer to the people than far away."
— Jack Stagg, chief federal negotiator of the Nunavut political accord


By Mike Vlessides


   The new legislative assembly building in downtown Iqaluit — a government for the people, of the people

  Caribou forage for food outside Canada's newest territorial capital, Iqaluit

[The government and the NLCA] [Consensus politics, and elections]
[Decentraliztion] [A journey into new terrain]

ake 28 communities, spread them over almost two million of the most formidable square kilometres on the Earth's surface, top it off with the daunting task of implementing a new government, and you've got a recipe that would scare off most would-be public servants. Yet this is exactly the task facing the people of Nunavut as April 1, 1999 dawns.

For Inuit, however, a people long renowned for their adaptability, the creation of Nunavut and the administrative government it requires has been well conceived, and owes its roots to more than two decades of vision and dedication.

The government of Nunavut is a public government, not an ethnic form of self-government. Negotiators working on a land claims agreement for Nunavut decided early on to opt for a public government, a pragmatic decision that would aid them in their quest to achieve a territory. Thomas Suluk, one of several former chief negotiators, recalls that the people originally wanted an Inuit government. But negotiators urged them to "eliminate this nativeness, this separateness, because it doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of making it." By supporting a public government, "we can get the same thing."

topThe government and the NLCA

The Nunavut territory comprises the area that roughly corresponds with traditional and contemporary Inuit use, along with the northern portions of the High Arctic islands and the islands of Ungava Bay, Hudson Bay, and James Bay that are not part of adjacent provinces. Like any bureaucratic body, the government of Nunavut will be responsible for the operation and administration of the new territory. It will be following the recommendations set out in Footprints 2, a report prepared by the Nunavut Implementation Commission (NIC), the agency created under federal statute to advise on the design of the new government of Nunavut.

The job of governing will be done in a form both complementary to, and unique from, that which represents the rich political history of Canada. Like all other Canadians, Nunavut residents will enjoy a public government and have their rights and responsibilities ultimately determined by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But unlike other provinces and territories in Canada, Nunavut has a public government and land claim agreement that are linked on several key issues. For example, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA) specifies that the number of Inuit employed in the public service be directly proportional to the number of Inuit in Nunavut society. This figure is set at 50 per cent for April 1, 1999, and will slowly increase to 85 per cent to reflect the fact that Inuit comprise the overwhelming majority of Nunavut residents.

Also unique to the government of Nunavut as a result of the land claim agreement is its ability to make decisions in certain areas of jurisdiction reserved for the federal government in Canada's other territories. For example, along with federal government representatives, Inuit also hold representative positions on institutions of public government that were created by the land claim agreement. As a result, Inuit appointees and Nunavut government representatives sit side by side on such administrative bodies as the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, Nunavut Planning Commission, Nunavut Impact Review Board, the Nunavut Water Board and the Nunavut Surface Rights Tribunal.

With powers approaching those of the Ontario legislative assembly, the government of Nunavut will be a territorial government with a twist.

topConsensus politics, and elections

Nunavut will have no political parties at the territorial level. Instead, the legislative assembly of the new territory will operate on the basis of consensus politics. Like the aboriginal decision-making system it mimics, the legislative assembly's decisions will be made according to the consensus of the majority of its members rather than political party lines. Political parties exist in Nunavut only for the purposes of supporting candidates running in federal elections.

In February 1999, Nunavut elected its first 19-member legislative assembly. (A groundbreaking proposal to elect an equal number of women and men to Nunavut's legislative assembly was defeated in a 1997 Nunavut-wide plebiscite.) The members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) hold a secret ballot to elect a speaker, who oversees operation of the assembly. Also elected in a secret vote by the MLAs is the premier of Nunavut, as well as the executive (cabinet). The regular sittings of the assembly will be open to the public.

Nunavut Implementation Commissioner Meeka Kilabuk shows off some early suggestions for a Nunavut territorial flag. The contest was open to all Canadian citizens, but the Chief Herald of Canada had the last word


Nunavut's government has 10 departments, each headed by a minister; MLAs without ministerial portfolios will perform the role of the opposition. Territorial elections will be held every five years by popular vote. Federally, Nunavut is represented by one member of Parliament, and one senator.

While the government of the Northwest Territories conducts its daily business in English, the government of Nunavut will be dominated by Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit. Other official languages are English and French. Additionally, Nunavut will bear its own flag and coat of arms, as well as other symbols that distinguish it as a government and territory.


Reflecting the diverse nature of the regions it represents, the government of Nunavut will be decentralized, with approximately 700 required headquarters positions divided among Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, and 10 other communities — Igloolik, Rankin Inlet, Cambridge Bay, Cape Dorset, Arviat, Gjoa Haven, Kugluktuk, Pangnirtung, Baker Lake, and Pond Inlet. The government's core machinery functions, including the Department of Executive and Intergovernmental Affairs, the Department of Finance and Administration, the Department of Human Resources, and the Department of Justice, will be situated in Iqaluit, along with the ministerial, policy and planning, financial administration, and personnel-related functions of the government of Nunavut's other departments.

One of the ultimate goals of decentralizing the government is to give Nunavut's three regions decision-making authority, and extend new jobs to as many areas as possible. Regional government centres will be located in Igloolik (Baffin Region), Rankin Inlet (Kivalliq Region), and Cambridge Bay (Kitikmeot Region). Decentralization will also help limit the changes associated with moving too many new people into one community.

Once the government of Nunavut is in place, it will receive the lion's share of funding for its operational and public-service costs from the federal government. This five-year formula financing agreement will account for approximately 95 per cent of Nunavut's governmental revenues; the remainder will be raised through taxation and the sale of goods and services. The 1999-2000 governmental budget is set at $620 million, $580 million of which has been allocated to cover the costs of programs and services. The rest is available to the incoming government to allocate as it sees fit. The federal monies are an unconditional grant.

A journey into new terrain

In traditional Inuit fashion, the government of Nunavut will proceed deliberately into unknown terrain. The government will be implemented over three or four years, beginning with a core government of approximately 200 new headquarters public servants by April 1, 1999. With 1,700 GNWT employees converting over to the government of Nunavut, a total of 1,900 Nunavut government public servants are reporting to work as the territory gets under way.

On April 1, 1999, a dream that was first put forth on paper in 1976 becomes a reality. For the residents of Nunavut, the creation of their own government is the product of many generations of insight, wisdom, and the ability to adapt to a world in constant flux.

A former resident of Nunavut, magazine writer and editor Mike Vlessides of Canmore, Alberta has written extensively about the North, contributing to Up Here and Canadian Geographic magazines.

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