North America's Nunavut


Canada came a step closer Monday toward creating a homeland covering one-fifth of its land mass for some 17,500 Inuit (or Eskimos), who are unhappy with things as they are. The eastern and northern two-thirds of the present Northwest Territories, 770,000 square miles of it, would be hived off to form Nunavut ("Our Land"), a self-governing territory scheduled to come into existence in 1999. It is one-third bigger in area than Alaska (population, 550,000).

By a narrow plebiscite in 1982, the largely Native American peoples of the Northwest Territories agreed to this arrangement. The second plebiscite on Monday merely approved the boundary, by a margin of 53.8 percent of the 15,354 people voting in ten languages. The Inuit were favorable. Indians (we must use that outmoded term to distinguish them from Inuit, since both are Native Americans) were largely opposed. Especially the Dene people, who live in what will be the surviving Northwest Territories but claim sacred lands in Nunavut.

Nunavut citizenship will not be limited to Inuit, but they will have hunting, trapping and fishing rights throughout and ownership of 136,000 square miles and probably jobs in the civil service that will be needed. This is a step forward by federal Canada in coming to terms with the rights and claims of its native peoples. Yet given the colossal size of the barren and currently waste land, and the tiny size of population, the government of Nunavut will probably prove a frail harness to the pressures for commercial exploitation through mining that may arise.

And assuaging the grievances of one culturally important but numerically tiny people only whets the grievances of others among Canada's million Native Americans. Some of these conflict with each other, as the Dene vs. the Inuit land claim, and others with provinces, particularly the hydro-electric schemes of Quebec that would flood huge areas of northern forest.

Still, Nunavut, total population 22,000 (including non-Inuit), is closer to reality, with a claim on federal Canada of $1.4 billion in start-up subsidy, the result of 18 years of negotiation. This leaves all the rest of the competing claims and group rights in the constitutional reconstruction of Canada to be worked out, most of them more difficult, the interests at stake bigger. And almost no time left in which to do it.

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