A Canadian Bar Association gathering in Iqaluit last week included some frank discussion on the state of affairs in Nunavut. The theme of the meeting was "Nation-Building Under Land Claims Agreements, Treaties and Self-Government Agreements."

Former Auditor General of Canada Sheila Fraser, one of many prominent players who attended, says she was dismayed to learn there still aren't improvements on the implementation of Canadian land claims and treaties, even after several audits she conducted.

“Unfortunately, too many difficulties become the object of litigation now, which takes a very long time, costs of a lot of money and in fact, creates enemies in the process: a winner and a loser.”

Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., which oversees the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, has been embroiled in a $1-billion lawsuit with the federal government over implementation of the agreement since 2006.

Paul Crowley

Paul Crowley is a lawyer based in Iqaluit. `We’re in what is known in international development as a poverty trap. (Courtesy Paul Crowley)

Fraser said the conference included a lot of discussion about the possibility of mediation.

“Unfortunately, I learned that the federal government does not want to participate in that kind of arbitration,” she says.

Iqaluit lawyer Paul Crowley puts it in starker terms.

“From coast to coast to coast we heard the same thing. The federal government signs off on a treaty and they get what they want — certainty on land. But on the aboriginal side, it’s an ongoing obligation and the federal government tends to walk away.”

‘Poverty trap’ leads to tragic conditions

In a panel discussion on governance, Crowley, who served as Premier Eva Aariak’s principal secretary in the last Nunavut government, gave a positive assessment of governance in Nunavut, but said there’s a reason it’s not making people’s lives better.

“What I feel is that we have good decision making, maybe even better than the rest of Canada, because we don’t have rabid partisanship, and yet we’re not able to govern ourselves into a better place and I think that’s because we’re in what is known in international development as a poverty trap.”

Crowley says Nunavut didn’t get proper funding from the beginning.

“We shouldn’t have to choose between a new dump and investment in basic recreation. We shouldn’t have to choose between education and clean water. The pie has to be bigger.”

Crowley says the relationship between aboriginal peoples and governments needs to be renegotiated so communities can thrive and benefit.

John Amagoalik also spoke at the conference. He was one of the negotiators of the Nunavut land claim and is often called the father of Nunavut.

“John was really saying that we haven’t achieved what the vision is yet,” Crowley says. “So many people that live in tragic conditions is not what was envisioned in 1993. That’s not what people wanted, and yet that’s the situation.

“I think he was right to name it. The yoke of colonialism is still here and that’s not how Nunavut can develop for the bulk of the people who live here.”