OTTAWA—As Nunavut marks its 20th anniversary on Monday, the premier of the massive Arctic territory and homeland of Inuit peoples is calling on the federal government to step up with more support and collaboration in the years to come.
In an interview with the Star, Premier Joe Savikataaq outlined a persistent gap in infrastructure, food affordability and basic services that exists between Nunavut and Canada’s provinces to the south. And while he welcomed recent federal investments under the Liberal government, which the budget this month highlighted as $1.7 billion over 12 years for infrastructure in the three territories, on top of the billions each year to support services like health care and education, the Nunavut premier said new federal money hasn’t yet made an impact.
“The money hasn’t been flowing up very quickly,” Savikataaq said, decrying how people in Nunavut need to fly south for serious medical treatment and move out of their home communities if they need seniors’ care in their later years.
“We just want to be on the same footing as the rest of Canada.”
In an emailed statement, Intergovernmental and Northern Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc pointed to the recent announcement of $400 million to promote renewable energy in the North, as well as the government’s commitment to expand high-speed internet to all Canadians by 2030. He added that “more can be done to fix food insecurity” in the North and that consultations are ongoing.
“Our government is committed to working with the Government of Nunavut, Indigenous governments and organizations, and all northerners to improve the lives of those in Nunavut,” he said.
“We will continue to work closely with our partners to ensure that life continues to get better for all people living in the North.”
The sprawling northern territory was created on April 1, 1999, when Nunavut broke off from the Northwest Territories and set up its own consensus-style government in Iqaluit. Since he was named premier last year, Savikataaq has trumpeted mental health and elder care as some of his top priorities, along with garnering economic development and the construction of new infrastructure to tie together the disparate, thinly populated communities of the territory that straddles both shores of Hudson Bay and stretches over 1.9 million square kilometres to the farthest reach of the continent.
The territory has seen significantly higher suicide rates than the rest of Canada in recent years, while Statistics Canada pegged the rate of violent crimes in Nunavut at seven times the national average in 2016.
To help with such issues, Savikataaq said he welcomes an announcement in this year’s federal budget, which indicated that Ottawa is willing to support the construction and operation of a new addictions treatment centre in Nunavut — even if no firm financial commitment has been made. The Liberal government has also said it will start contributing $5 million per year to the national suicide prevention strategy created by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the organization that represents 60,000 Inuit across the Arctic.
But Savikataaq said the territory needs more federal support for things like a seniors centre for aging Nunavut residents so they don’t have to relocate thousands of kilometres south to places like Ottawa when they require assisted living care.
“We just don’t have the resources just to go and build it on our own,” he said.
Savikataaq also questioned the effectiveness of increased funding, announced last fall, to the Nutrition North food subsidy program. Ottawa announced it would pump an additional $63 million into the program, but the Nunavut premier said the funding is spread thin across eligible communities and hasn’t made a real difference on the inflated grocery bills for people in remote northern communities. Government food surveys show people in Nunavut pay higher prices than southern Canadians for food staples like butter, milk, and fruits and vegetables.
Meanwhile, Savikataaq said he believes efforts to create a new Arctic policy framework, which the Liberals promised in 2016 to create a new set of priorities for Canada’s north, are losing steam as Ottawa broadened its consultations to include Manitoba, Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador to the exercise. As part of this, the premier said he hopes Ottawa will review the moratorium on offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic and collaborate closely with the territory in its pledge — announced in the budget this month — to create a new conservation area in the high Arctic basin.
“They took away our oil and gas option … and we had no say in that,” said Savikataaq, arguing the territory shouldn’t be blocked from considering economic development on its own terms.
“I’m proud and honoured to be the premier in the 20-year anniversary of Nunavut,” he added. “It’s a dream that was realized 20 years ago, and we’re still working on people’s hopes and aspirations of what they believe Nunavut should be.”
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga