Kitikmeot: Nunavut’s forgotten region
“I think we need to pull a Quebec, threaten separation…”
Terry McCallum, the mayor of Cambridge Bay, had to laugh this past January when the Government of Nunavut announced the opening of a new liquor warehouse in Rankin Inlet, and again when Premier Paul Okalik and Finance Minister Leona Aglukkaq repeated the news to his hamlet council during the Kitikmeot trade show in February.
The liquor warehouse was supposed to allow Nunavummiut to make booze orders without having to buy a special import permit.
But for Cambridge Bay residents, buying booze from Rankin Inlet means paying double the freight costs – to fly the goods first to Yellowknife and then straight north – which costs more than the cost of a permit to import booze directly from Yellowknife.
“There’s absolutely no benefit to this region,” McCallum says.
To McCallum, the announcement was just another instance of politicians in Iqaluit – also known in the West as “the centre of the universe” or the “black hole” – ignoring the needs of Nunavut’s western residents.
Other western leaders say they feel the same way, in stronger words.
“I’ve always maintained that Iqaluit people think the western boundary of Nunavut is the airport runway in Iqaluit,” says Charlie Lyall, president of the Kitikmeot Corp.
Almost six years after the creation of Nunavut, Lyall says his region was better off under the Northwest Territories, when the Kitikmeot at least got “lip service” from Yellowknife. Now, he says he’s disappointed with the Baffin-centric government.
“It seems that when Nunavut came into reality, people forgot about us over here.”
But Lyall has an idea for a solution.
“I think we need to pull a Quebec, threaten separation and go through with the exercise of going through plebiscites and what have you,” Lyall says. “It’s very disappointing to think that our leaders think it’s wise to ignore this region.”
Lyall views the Kitikmeot as Nunavut’s future economic powerhouse, thanks to projects like the Tahera Diamond Corp.’s Jericho mine slated to start production next year.
“It’s by sheer willingness of the private sector to push the issue forward of building the economy for this region,” Lyall says. “Otherwise, there wouldn’t be anything.”
Nunavut’s enormous size – covering almost two million square kilometres – and its lack of roads makes communication challenging, but Lyall says that the five Kitikmeot communities manage to stay connected in spite of the distance between them, while Iqaluit remains almost 2,000 kilometres away.
There are still no direct flights from Iqaluit or Rankin Inlet to Cambridge Bay, and even Cambridge Bay residents are aware that such a route may never be economically viable.
But Lyall remembers when Keewatin Air ran direct flights from Rankin to Cambridge, and says the reason that flight failed was a lack of government support.
“I never saw one government person taking that route,” he says.
Western Nunavut residents who want to deal with the federal or territorial government have to shell out $5,000 to $6,000 and spend one and a half days in transit each way to get to their capital.
That vast distance is one reason, says Cambridge Bay MLA Keith Peterson, that the Kitikmeot region supported Rankin Inlet as Nunavut’s new capital during the capital plebiscite in 1995, when Iqaluit beat Rankin by 2,000 votes.
According to Peterson, the West is underrepresented in the territorial government. The region has just three members out of 19 in the legislative assembly, or three and a half if you count Steve Mapsalak, who represents Repulse Bay in the Kivalliq region and Kugaaruk in the Kitikmeot.
Out of eight cabinet members, only one – Taloyoak MLA Leona Aglukkaq – is from the West.
Turn to the regional centre, Cambridge Bay, and there is a similar lack of representation from the East.
With the exception of the RCMP, and one DIAND employee in Kugluktuk, “the federal government’s got absolutely no representation over here,” Peterson says.
There is also one person working for Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, Peterson says, but that came only after “10 or 15 years of strong lobbying.”
In Peterson’s view, the only GN effort to unite the territory was the single time zone, which, following the birth of Nunavut, put all Nunavummiut on Central Time, and later, to appease Baffin residents, on Eastern Time, which meant that western residents were waking up “when dogs were still sleeping,” two hours earlier than usual.
Leaders in Cambridge Bay, recently commended by DIAND Minister Andy Scott during a rare federal visit to the community, have made great efforts to put their views across to Nunavummiut, but a lack of media presence in the community has made that difficult.
Cambridge Bay is served by a lone CBC correspondent whose reporting only reaches people who listen to CBC Iqaluit, rather than CBC Yellowknife, which many in the Kitikmeot prefer.
“If it wasn’t for organizations like ours, a lot of our voices would not be heard,” says Charlie Evalik, former president of the Kitikmeot Inuit Association.
“I think we shower every day, most of us,” Lyall says. “It can’t be the smell. I don’t know what it is. I think we’re fairly nice folks over here.”