For Nunavut, it’s always about capacity

“Nunavut will do what Nunavut has the capacity to do, no more and no less”


Eighteen years after its creation, Canada’s third territory still functions on its worst days like the handicapped child of Confederation, dependent on an indifferent federal government to push its wheelchair.

Going all the way back to the planning period that preceded Nunavut’s birth, the most underappreciated aspect of Nunavut’s struggle to build a decent, functional society can be boiled down to a single word: capacity.

“Capacity” means the power to do or understand something: competence and capability. “Lack of capacity” is often used by technocrats who are too polite to say what they really mean: that you lack the means or the ability to do what you want to do.

Much of Nunavut’s lack of capacity, surely, is linked to its tiny population, which sits at around 37,500 right now. Measured by population, Nunavut is as small as Rimouski, Que., or Spruce Grove, Alta., or Bowmanville, Ont.—small towns many of you have probably never heard of.

These small places don’t enjoy big talent pools from which to recruit people who know how to run things. But for them, it doesn’t really matter.

Unlike Nunavut, they don’t have to recruit and train more than two dozen deputy and assistant deputy ministers, numerous directors and managers, hundreds of nurses, teachers and social workers, and scores of workers able to run 25 municipal administrations or 26 education authorities that some people think should be turned into miniature school boards.

That’s in addition to all the lawyers, accountants, engineers, municipal planners and other professionals that a quasi-provincial jurisdiction spread over two million square kilometres requires to function.

Hardly anyone in Nunavut acknowledges this often enough. Yes, poor educational outcomes are important, too. But a tiny population spread around an enormous expanse of land within 25 widely scattered small towns and villages would likely suffer serious capacity shortfalls no matter how many of its people finish college or university.

It’s also worth noting that Nunavut’s real talent pool is much smaller than 37,500. As of last month, the size of the territory’s labour force—those over the age of 15 who can be counted as part of the work force—stood at only 16,100 persons.

So it’s not a slur to state that the residents of Nunavut suffer from a limited ability to get things done. That lack of capacity is a theme that has dominated every report on the Government of Nunavut that the Auditor General of Canada has ever issued.

For example, the auditor general’s 2013 report, which shone a bright glaring light on the Department of Education, was all about the GN’s lack of capacity.

The auditor general exposed how the GN failed to carry out the hopeless mission it undertook after 2008: extend Inuit language instruction past Grade 3 all the way to Grade 12 by 2019. They found the GN didn’t even possess the capacity to estimate the number of new language teachers they needed to reach that goal.

This is why, this time around, Education Minister Paul Quassa proposed a bill that would have tied the schedule for extending Inuit language instruction to the GN’s capacity to provide it. Naturally, this got lost in all the posturing that emanated from Bill 37’s critics.

That’s just one egregious example. There are many others. There’s also the territory’s infrastructure deficit, which represents another type of capacity shortfall.

And yet another is the territory’s woeful lack of political capacity. This was on full public display at the Nunavut Legislative Assembly all year, when regular MLAs, who form a majority in the house, refused to hold a public debate on Bill 37, which contained the GN’s proposals to amend the Education Act.

In healthy societies, publicly elected officials are expected to openly debate public issues in public and make their positions known to the public. It’s what they’re paid for.

Nunavut’s regular MLAs, however, abandoned that duty. Hiding behind closed doors last spring, they discussed Bill 37 at an in camera session only.

Here’s what Iqaluit-Niaqunnguu MLA Pat Angnakak (total 2016-17 salary, $128,530) had to say about that on CBC radio this past May 5: “We need our own time to really discuss things openly among each other about how we’re really feeling.”

Any MLA who believes that to be a valid excuse is not fit to hold office. If regular MLAs wish to oppose a government bill, fair enough. That’s their privilege.

But they have a duty to get up on their hind legs in public and say why. The legislature is not a venue for group therapy and the exploration of “how we’re really feeling.” It’s about whether this or that government measure is or is not in the public interest.

Later in the year, even after the GN had offered multiple concessions, they refused to move Bill 37 into committee of the whole, where it could have been debated in public.

Here’s what Rankin Inlet North-Chesterfield Inlet MLA Tom Sammurtok (total 2016-17 salary, $128,127) said last week about that continued dereliction of duty: “If we’d agreed on a debate, we would have been seen as not fulfilling our commitment.”

The regular MLAs underscored their irrelevance just a few days later, when they refused to do any work on a badly-needed new Corrections Act that the government had proposed earlier this year.

This brings us to the matter of the Oct. 30 territorial election. It’s actually not a single election, but 22 constituency elections held simultaneously.

When you vote that day, you will not, of course, vote for or against a government. You will choose one member who, together with 21 other members, will choose a government for you at some point in mid-November.

Based on their woeful performance this year, no member of the regular members caucus is worthy of re-election. But where will better ones come from? As we’ve said, Nunavut’s talent pool is pretty small.

Besides, Nunavut’s government is mostly run by its civil servants. No matter who does or doesn’t get elected, or becomes premier, Nunavut will do what Nunavut has the capacity to do, no more and no less. As always, the future will be about capacity—and the lack of it. JB

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