A reality check for NTI
Nunavut Tungavik’s outgoing president, Jose Kusgak, went into this year’s presidential election with all the advantages of an incumbent to run with: a decent record of competence and stability, numerous opportunities to meet beneficiaries face-to-face in the course of performing his duties over the years, and numerous opportunities for exposure in the media.
So why did Kusugak lose so badly?
Perhaps it’s because he and the organization he leads has become increasingly detached from the needs, perceptions, and feelings of its beneficiaries. Perhaps it’s because beneficiaries believe that the promises made during the ratification and signing of the Nunavut land claims agreement have not been kept.
The Nunavut land claims agreement may not be a perfect document, but it still stands as a great achievement. However, it’s obvious that many land claim beneficiaries in Nunavut’s small communities have little reason to believe that yet.
Since 1993, the standard of living for many Nunavut beneficiaries has fallen, and the Nunavut land claims agreement has not protected them from the wrenching economic changes that caused this drop in living standards.
In most communities, rents — for both social housing and government staff housing — have risen to unbearable levels, while the stock of affordable housing has shrunk in almost direct proportion to the increasing numbers of people who need it. The cost of store-bought food has risen to a point where the availability of country food is all that protects many families from serious malnutrition. The cost of airline fares and cargo rates have risen dramatically. At the same time social assistance payments have not kept up with the cost of living, and neither have the wages earned by most employees of territorial and municipal governments.
And although the rate of new job creation in Nunavut exceeded that of any other jurisdiction in Canada over the past five years, the rate of Inuit unemployment — measured by the most conservative means available — still stood at an unnacceptably high 28 per cent last winter.
Most of this has been caused by the federal government’s response to globalization, and by Finance Minister Paul Martin’s successful campaign to eliminate the mountain of federal debt that Ottawa had accumulated over the previous 25 years. While it is grossly unfair, of course, to blame the Nunavut land claims agreement for these economic conditions, it nonetheless represents the hard new world within which the land claim must be implemented.
In his campaign, however, Kusugak said little to acknowledge the new reality. He promised stability, competence and hard work, qualities that he has undoubtedly brought to the job over the past five years. But he showed little compassion for the economic plight that many beneficiaries now find themselves in.
Quassa, on the other hand, dealt directly with the issues that are of concern to large numbers of beneficiaries. His campaign consisted of an open invitation to beneficiaries to join him in an effort to “reform “NTI and deliver more direct benefits to Inuit beneficiaries. This approach worked superbly, especially in the Baffin region.
But now Quassa has a difficult task in front of him, more difficult than the task Kusugak took on in 1994 when he replaced Quassa as NTI president. He now must meet the high expectations that he has raised, and find the money and the means to deliver benefits that beneficiaries are not now receiving.
We wish NTI’s president all the best as he sets out on his tough new job. At the same time, we offer our condolences to Jose Kusugak, and thank him for enriching Nunavut’s public life over the past five years. JB