Nunavut at 20 – An Outsider’s Perspective
Last month marked the 20th anniversary of Nunavut. Beyond the fact that Nunavut is one of Canada’s three territories, I only really began to learn about Nunavut when we participated in a couple of projects for the Government of Nunavut in 2015. I am often asked about the work OTUS Group has done in Nunavut and about my limited travels to Iqaluit. Through these questions I have come to learn that a number of Canadians are very curious about Canada’s North and many know little about it. Perhaps this is because news from Nunavut to show up infrequently if at all in our mainstream media.
Nunavut is very different from where I come from in Canada – Cape Breton Island. Yet it strikes me that Cape Breton and Nunavut have some similarities in terms of the challenges each geography is grappling with. Examples of these challenges include: stubbornly high unemployment, addiction issues and out migration. But also common between the two are majestic landscapes and very welcoming people. And coming from Cape Breton, I know there is some “risk” in writing this blog because I have seen the suspicion that can be cast by some toward those who are “from away” when they comment on local issues.
Here are some things I’ve learned about Nunavut over the last few years:
- Lack of housing is a serious problem. Nearly half of Nunavut’s population live in overcrowded housing conditions. On average, eight people share a two bedroom “home”. The president of Nunavut Housing says about 3,000 new housing units are needed, which he estimates could cost between $2.5 and $3.5 billion. That level of funding is beyond the capacity of the territorial government. Since 2017, with federal support, only 48 new homes have been built per year.
- The rate of tuberculosis is about 300 times higher amongst Inuit than among Canadian born non-Indigenous people. The above-mentioned housing crisis is a significant contributor to the tuberculosis problem. It also contributes to elevated mental health challenges and addiction issues.
- According to the Nunavut Food Security Coalition, nearly 70% of Nunavut homes are food insecure, which is a rate about eight times higher than the Canadian average.
- Internet access in Nunavut is expensive and plagued by slow speeds, which is an obvious barrier to economic activity.
- A report from the Government of Nunavut Department of Education stated that fewer than 7 in 10 students in Nunavut attended school in 2016-17, which is not surprising given the housing shortage and food insecurity issues. The challenge is most severe at the high school level and in small communities.
Mining: Boom or Bust
The above paints a gloomy picture, but some see improvement coming from mining activity which is expected to peak over the next three years, contributing to economic expansion and more jobs. But mining can be of questionable benefit. Mining was a significant part of the economy of Cape Breton for over 100 years, largely propped up by government subsidies from the mid-60’s until the industry closed about eighteen years ago. Mining in Cape Breton was “boom and bust” and left behind little after the mines closed except environmental clean-up issues. Let’s hope this is not the case for Nunavut.
The Employment Paradox
There seems to be a disconnect between available jobs and the high rate of unemployment in Nunavut. Nunavut’s deputy minister of economic development recently stated that there are about 9000 unemployed people in Nunavut, but there are also 9000 jobs available between the Government of Nunavut and the mining industry. It not so terribly surprising to see this mismatch because accessing the available jobs requires education. Many jobs are often filled by people from outside Nunavut, especially higher paying positions, leaving many Inuit feeling marginalized. To some extent I think this situation perpetuates the angst from colonialism, exacerbated by the legacy of residential schools.
Gord Downie Wasn’t Wrong
The Tragically Hip gave their last concert on August 20, 2017 in Kingston. During the concert Gord Downie referred to Canada’s north – “…we were trained our entire lives to ignore, trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what’s going on up there. And what’s going on up there ain’t good”. Sure, it’s not all bad, but on the balance, Gord Downie wasn’t wrong. The solutions are not easy, and broader awareness can hopefully only but help.