Nunatsiaq News
EDITORIAL: -none- January 16, 2004 - 12:58 pm

Nunavut’s powerlessness


As the Feb. 16 territorial election approaches, Nunavut voters will once again hear endless talk about the “issues,” from the candidates, from the media, and from each other.

And once again, they’ll elect a group of legislators who will face most of those issues from a position of near total powerlessness.

Based on the territorial department of finance’s projections in the main estimates last March, and on Finance Minister Kelvin Ng’s fiscal update this past fall, Nunavut’s second legislative assembly could find itself in a major cash crunch.

Since 1999, the territorial government has reaped a financial windfall at the end of every year, in the form of unspent salaries and benefits created by its numerous staff vacancies.

It has used that windfall routinely, to balance the operating deficits posted at the end of each fiscal year. Normally, governments that produce operating deficits for several years in a row end up with big long-term debts. Nunavut, despite its financial problems, is fortunate in having avoided that fate.

But by April 1 this year, all that surplus will be spent - most of it on badly needed capital projects, such as new schools and health facilities, and on extra appropriations for its perennially underfunded health department.

The Nunavut government will likely be forced, therefore, to find other, less pleasant ways to balance its budget.

The most obvious place to start is with capital spending - it’s entirely possible that capital spending could shrink to what it was in 1999-2000.

But it may not stop there. If capital spending cuts aren’t enough, then program cuts and even staff layoffs aren’t out of the question either. At the same time, the Nunavut Employees Union has just thrown an expensive set of demands onto the bargaining table for a new collective agreement that would replace the one that expired last April.

For the freshly elected MLAs who will emerge from the Feb. 16 election, all set to find ways of bettering the lives of their constituents, this is bad news.

Take housing for example. It’s a certainty that every candidate in every constituency will tell the voters that if elected, they’ll fight for more housing. The more subtle candidates will hedge a little, saying they’ll make housing “a priority.”

That’s as it should be. Nunavut’s affordable housing shortage is a disgrace. The recent aboriginal people’s survey revealed that overcrowding in Inuit communities is worse than for any other aboriginal people in Canada. In Iqaluit, and, in some small communities, it’s a catastrophe.

And if you think that’s an exaggeration, just spend a few minutes talking to someone who can’t find a place to live - a battered woman with young children, let’s say. For people in that kind of situation, Nunavut’s no promised land. It’s a hell-hole. As for the latest, one-shot-only housing agreement with Ottawa, announced last fall in Rankin Inlet, that will only distribute about two or three units to each community for each of the next two years.

So with no extra social housing money, and no method of raising that money, MLAs are powerless, even if they spend the next four years doing nothing but “fighting” for more housing.

The next assembly, and the next government, then, should not forget to work on the sources of their own powerlessness. The first of those is Nunavut’s relationship with Ottawa, which must be completely re-thought, in both Nunavut and Ottawa.

The land claim agreement that triggered the creation of Nunavut’s public government may be seriously flawed. But the federal government still signed it, and Ottawa must take more than a minimalist approach to supporting the young territory that exists because of it. Their real moral obligation is not to Nunavut Tunngavik or any other organization- it’s to the ordinary people who insist on making Nunavut their home, sometimes against all odds.

The second, of course, is education, education, and more education. In time, and it will take a lot of time, it’s education that will lift the people of Nunavut out of poverty and hopelessness. Sadly, the people of Nunavut will walk over a lot of dead bodies before they get there. JB

Email this story to a friend... Print this page... Bookmark and Share