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Can Nunavut succeed in devolution?

Capacity issues already overwhelm the territory, but sometimes you have to take a leap of faith
Stewart Burnett is editor of Kivalliq News. Photo courtesy of Stewart Burnett

Arviat South MLA Joe Savikataaq’s concerns about the Department of Environment filling positions locally are one example of many that can make residents question the territorial government’s ability to achieve its goals in devolution.

Devolution is, no doubt, a moral victory for the territory, a stamp of ownership for Nunavummiut over their lands. But pragmatically, anyone familiar with the Government of Nunavut in the past and present should be questioning whether it has the ability to take on even more responsibility in the future.

This is a government that can’t keep community health centres open, has historically struggled to satisfy access to information requests and can hardly staff itself as it has no available housing. There are no doubt myriad other examples of the government being unable to fulfil basic duties, some simmering beneath the surface, others we’ve heard about.

It’s not for lack of trying, though: the GN is, by and large, staffed by wonderful people doing their best, to the extent any government or organization is. But the capacity of the territory to sustain itself is bursting at the seams already, let alone if it were to grow.

With the disparity between median incomes for Inuit versus non-Inuit in the territory, one has to further question how well the GN is leading Inuit to prosperity. It is certainly leading many southerners to prosperous jobs and careers. With the housing challenges across Canada now, southerners can often find their highest salaries and cheapest housing — either free or subsidized — by moving to Nunavut.

Of course, there are a million intersecting factors at play in this discussion. Prosperity, housing, healthcare and so on cannot be manifested by a wish before bedtime.

Perhaps, sometimes you need to make a decision before you’re entirely ready. Devolution is no doubt a worthy end goal for Nunavut. Achieving its vision will be much more difficult, but that doesn’t mean the dream should be abandoned.

Politicians often speak of the “work” required to turn such dreams into reality. That seems like a euphemism for the truth: what it really requires is hard and sometimes unpopular decisions. Nunavut needs money and capacity. Its population growth is unsustainable. That means either significantly more federal assistance, or significantly more major infrastructure projects. The reality of devolution may be making Nunavut look a lot more like southern Canada, whether that’s everyone’s vision or not.