The NNI — Why should anyone care?


If you think the current dispute between the Government of Nunavut and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. is about Inuit rights, don’t let anyone fool you.

In essence, it’s a power struggle over who should decide public policy for the territorial government.

The GN believes cabinet must hang on to its authority. NTI, on the other hand, believes in a form of “consultation” that would give it an effective veto in many areas of territorial government policy.

Right now, the issue dividing the two organizations has to do with who should benefit from a territorial government procurement policy that gives a 14-per-cent competitive advantage to firms they define as “Nunavut businesses.”

This is not about Inuit ownership, or Inuit rights. It’s about Nunavut-based businesses owned and operated by Nunavut residents, whether they’re Inuit or non-Inuit. It affects 35 companies — some owned by non-Inuit, some owned by Inuit — that were considered to be “northern businesses” under the government of the Northwest Territories. The new procurement policy, called Nunavummi Nangminiqaqtunik Ikajuuti, or “NNI,” removes such preferential treatment from these businesses.

That’s because some, such as the Inuit-owned Norterra, operator of Canadian North and the Northern Transportation Company Ltd., aren’t controlled by a majority of Nunavut shareholders. The policy says that you can’t call yourself a Nunavut business unless 51 per cent of your shares are controlled by Nunavut residents. In Norterra’s case, only 50 per cent of its shares are “owned” by Nunavut residents, through Nunasi Corporation.

Others, such as Montreal-based Tower Arctic, are in a similar position.

To help these firms adjust to the new policy, NTI and the GN agreed that the 35 non-compliant businesses would be considered “Nunavut businesses” for two years, even if they didn’t fit the new definition. That grandfathering period ran out on March 31. A few days later, on April 5, the GN extended the grandfathering arrangement for one more year.

NTI officials reacted with outrage, alleging that the GN, itself a creature of Article 4 of the Nunavut land claims agreement, violated the agreement — by not “consulting” NTI about the decision.

Politically, and perhaps legally, the GN’s decision was clumsy and ill-timed. Only a few weeks before the cabinet decision on the matter, GN and NTI officials finished a lengthy review of the NNI policy. A report containing their findings has been tabled in the legislative assembly — and that report says nothing about extending the grandfathering arrangement for another year.

So the evidence available to the public shows that the GN did not “consult” NTI before making the decision. In doing so, they appear to have handed NTI’s lawyers a strong legal argument that they are sure to use in court.

If the issue gets to trial, there appears to be a strong possibility that a judge may find that the GN indeed violated the Nunavut land claims agreement, and the terms of their own NNI policy. On the other hand, a judge may find that the joint NNI review was an adequate form of consultation, that the government had the authority to make its own decision on the matter, and that the right to be consulted doesn’t give NTI a veto over public policy decisions.

But there’s a much bigger question — why should anyone care? For the ordinary people of Nunavut, this dispute is irrelevant to their lives.

And despite what NTI may claim in its various rhetorical assertions, it’s definitely not about the capacity of Inuit to participate in the Nunavut economy.

For example, through Nunasi Corporation, the Inuit of Nunavut have many tens of millions of dollars invested in the assets of Norterra — a non-compliant company that benefits from the one-year grandfathering extension.

NTI officials appear to be unaware of this reality. And it hasn’t stopped them from pandering to the politics of racial resentment. Here’s what Paul Kaludjak, NTI’s vice-president of finance, told a committee of MLAs in May:

“What we are dealing with is an Iqaluit phenomenon, and an invitation for the Inuit of Nunavut and everyone from other communities to continue to be dominated from Iqaluit by a handful of these companies.”

We’re sure that Kaludjak means well, and that he honestly believes his organization is defending Inuit rights. But this is not a racial issue, it’s a technical issue. Even if NTI’s legal position is correct, that kind of cynical demagoguery simply creates unnecessary confusion.

For one thing, if those 35 companies were truly Iqaluit-based, they would fit the “Nunavut business” definition, and be eligible for its 14-per-cent competitive advantage. And, of course, the fact that many millions of Inuit dollars are invested in Norterra, a company that does not comply with the NNI, makes NTI’s position look like an amusing piece of silliness.

By the same token, there are businesses owned by non-Inuit that do meet the NNI criteria for “Nunavut business” status. Such non-Inuit businesses would benefit if NTI is successful in court, and a lot of those business are in Iqaluit.

Furthermore, we already ought to know that neither the land claims agreement, nor the NNI policy, will by themselves provide what Nunavut needs to build Inuit-owned businesses and create Inuit jobs.

Used the right way, these rather limited tools could help a bit, of course. But real economic development in Nunavut requires much, much more than preferential treatment for certain kinds of businesses bidding for government contracts.

Last year, the Conference Board of Canada, in an extensive report on Nunavut’s economy, set out what Nunavut really needs. That includes investment in the development of Nunavut’s “human capital,” which in plain language means better education, vocational training, health care, and social services. Equally important, the conference board said, is extensive investment in infrastructure — roads, harbours, airports and telecommunications.

If NTI and the GN are truly interested in fostering the growth of Inuit-controlled business and finding jobs for Inuit in those businesses, that’s what they should be focusing on. And rather than fighting each over arcane policies and legal principles, they should be doing it together.


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