How is it that until recently I knew so little about this vast, sparsely populated, but important Canadian territory?
In the last two weeks, I have chatted with an Inuk woman, Rebecca Kudloo, who heads the Inuit Women’s Organization of Canada (Pauktuuitit), and I have had coffee with Mr. Justice Alan Ingram, the Peterborough family court justice who is spending several weeks a year in court in Nunavut communities.
It has been an education.
Nunavut is made up of 100 large islands and 36,000 smaller ones comprising 2 million square kilometres of land and water - 21% of the total area of Canada. Almost all of it is above 60 degrees, above the tree line, and therefore Arctic tundra.
Winter can bring 24 hours of dark, and summer 24 hours of light.
Nunavut has a population of just under 40,000 people (85% Inuit) in its 26 scattered communities, none of which are connected by road.
It was carved out of the Northwest Territories in 1999, after 16 years of negotiation with the Government of Canada. It has a deep desire to become self-reliant, keeping its languages, customs and way of life.
The capital is Iqaluit, a town of 9,000 on Baffin Island, where the Territorial Legislature has 22 members and a Premier, Paul Quassa. For representation in Ottawa, there is one Nunavut MP and one Nunavut Senator. The hubs are Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet and Baker Lake. (Baker Lake, with 2000 persons, is where Rebecca Kudloo lives.)
What takes Justice Ingram there? Volunteering, and following a passion for indigenous people and the north, first fostered when as a student he spent summers leading tours to the Yukon and NWT, and later lived on the Nipissing Reserve near Sturgeon Falls.
After thirty-one years as a judge in Peterborough, he learned about the opportunity to serve Canada’s north. A few southern judges have been authorized to assist the local judges with their workload.
As more Inuit lawyers are being trained, he expects to see more Inuit judicial appointments in the future. In the north he travels on circuits, on small aircraft with the crown attorney, interpreters, defence lawyers and court staff.
Court may be held in arenas, community centres and school halls.
When in court, he sits with an Inuit elder and two Inuktitut interpreters. The offences are of a criminal nature: drug use, domestic assault. Each community has an RCMP detachment.
Ingram prepared for this assignment by reading northern cases and history, including Peterborough writer Shelagh Grant’s Arctic Justice, and following the daily Nunatsiak News.
There are painful problems in Nunavut: climate change, poverty, unemployment and health. 10% of the people have tuberculosis, and one community, Qikiqtarjuak, was recently closed to outsiders.
But the whole territory has internet, and there is a college providing teaching and nursing training. There is a growing number of Inuit taking leadership positions, southerners who have adopted it as home, and a surprising number of hard-working immigrants.
Ingram tries to deliver sentences that are culturally appropriate. Recently he sentenced a convicted offender to “Go on a seal hunt, kill a seal and distribute the meat to the village elders.” He ordered one offender to regularly take his medication for tuberculosis.
Last year’s Reframe Festival featured a documentary “Angry Inuk” on a successful Inuit designer who uses sealskin for beautiful products.
Alan Ingram loves the land, flying in when the pilot himself turns on the runway lights. He enjoys the hospitality of the people, going out on an ATV or having meals in a home. On off-hours, he walks the community, and always stops at the Food Bank.
It was easy to sense the feeling of enthusiasm in yet another Peterburian giving national service.
As we left the coffee shop, Alan Ingram said to the cashier, “Go north, young man.”
I salute the spirit of the judge.