Nunavut turns 20: Reflections on the capital's close ties with the North

Cecile Lyall, Radha Jetty, and Maggie Qillaq all live in Ottawa — and all have their own unique relationship with Canada's youngest territory.

Territory came into existence April 1, 1999

Nunavut Sivuniksavut student Cecile Lyall says the pace of change she's witnessed since her home territory came into existence 20 years ago Monday is hard to fathom. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

As Nunavut marks its 20th anniversary, the significance of today's milestone will be felt particularly strongly here in Ottawa.

Outside of the three territories, Canada's capital is home to the largest Inuit community in the country.

The city is an important hub for Nunavummiut — as residents of the territory are known — with flights between Iqaluit and Ottawa, health services that provide more comprehensive care than what's available up north, and the headquarters of advocacy organizations like Inuit Tapiriit  Kanatami (ITK).

    It's perhaps also no surprise that the Nunavut flag went up at Ottawa City Hall on Friday.

    Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq speaks at Friday's flag-raising at Ottawa City Hall. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

    "It's the directness with transportation. It's the ... social, economic and political structures that are needed to service Inuit," said Alyssa Flaherty-Spence, the president of the board of directors for the Ottawa Inuit Children's Centre (OICC) and a legal policy advisor to ITK.

    "Medical treatment, health care professionals, education — those are some of the things that I would say are not [as available] in the North. And I think that is an important part of where Canada should be … investing."

    Here are the reflections of three people who have one foot in Nunavut and the other in the nation's capital.

    Maggie Qillaq

    Maggie Qillaq doesn't get to return home that often, but when she does, it's visceral.

    "It's the fresh air, the crisp air. There's no trees where I come from. You can see forever," says Qillaq, who moved from Pond Inlet to Ottawa in the early 2000s, a few years after the territory came into being.

    It took some adjusting to get used to life in the city, from handling the hot summers to figuring out public transit.

    But Qillaq says that having a decent-sized Inuit population, with the resulting support networks, certainly helped.

    "[In] Inuit culture, people in general are very close and connected. And when you come here, it can feel so lonely if you don't know anybody," she says.

    Maggie Qillaq moved to Ottawa from Pond Inlet, Nunavut, a few years after the territory came into existence. She's currently working on a project where she records the stories of Inuit elders who also live in the nation's capital. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

    Fluent in both English and Inuktitut, Qillaq is now working on a project with the OICC, recording stories from the predominantly monolingual elders living in the nation's capital so that they can be shared and preserved.

    She says Monday is a "day to celebrate" — and has her own hopes for the territory's next 20 years.

    "I'm hoping for the future of Nunavut  that mental health services and medical services are more available within the territory — that [people] should not have to leave the territory to seek these services," she said.

    "That alone can be traumatizing."

    Radha Jetty

    When Dr. Radha Jetty speaks Inuktitut to her patients, they're sometimes left a bit stunned.

    Jetty is a pediatrician at CHEO, eastern Ontario's children's hospital, and heads up the hospital's Inuit child health program.

    Those responsibilities mean she's spent a fair bit of time in the north — particularly in the capital Iqaluit, where she lived and worked for four years, and in Igloolik, which she visits twice annually to conduct general clinics.

    "They don't expect to see Inuktitut, I think, flowing out of my mouth!" said Jetty.

    "But it's the most effective thing that I think I've done to try to prove myself — to prove that I'm someone to be trusted."

    Dr. Radha Jetty is a pediatrician CHEO and the head of the hospital's Inuit child health program. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

    That lack of trust, Jetty says, stems from Canada's "strong history of colonization" in the North.

    And it can be a hard thing for doctors, especially ones starting their careers, to deal with. 

    Even those with the best of intentions can still face difficult ethical dilemmas, particularly when a child has to be separated from their parents for long-term medical treatment in Ottawa.

    Doctors need to know history, culture 'to do our job well,' pediatrician says

    4 years ago
    Duration 0:59
    Radha Jetty, a pediatrician at CHEO, heads up the hospital's Inuit child health program and says an understanding of history and culture is vital in providing proper care.

    "If you don't invest the time in understanding the history of what the Inuit people of Canada have experienced — especially when it comes to colonization — I think you'll be missing a lot in terms of how to provide care that is safe and culturally sensitive," she said.

    "I can't believe that it's been 20 years already. In some ways, it seems so short. But in other ways it also seems so long."

    Cecile Lyall

    Cecile Lyall always figured that, sooner or later, she'd end up in Ottawa.

    The Taloyoak, Nunavut resident is in her third year of studies with Nunavut Sivuniksavut (NS), which gives young students from the North an academic grounding in Inuit history, culture and politics.

    "Growing up I knew quite a few alumni from NS, so I always knew that I was gearing toward Ottawa," Lyall said.

    "My older sister attended, and she would always talk about how it's really shaped her as a person, and the positive impacts it has had on her life."

    Lyall began the Inuit studies program in 2012, and then — after a few years in Winnipeg — returned to Ottawa to begin the Academic and Career Development Program, a university certificate program run in collaboration with Carleton University.

    Cecile Lyall first came to Ottawa in 2012 to study with Nunavut Sivuniksavut. Now in her third year of studies, she'll be embarking on her second co-op placement with the federal government later in 2019. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

    She said she now experiences a form of "reverse culture shock" when she heads home.

    It's particularly sharp, she said, when it comes to Nunavut's housing crisis and the sense that substandard housing conditions have become "normalized" in the territory.

    "I like to think about it as, you can't see a mountain from the top. You need to walk away and come to the side and really get a clear understanding," Lyall said.

    Even so, with the territory turning 20, Lyall's reflecting on the pace of cultural and political change.

    "In the very recent past, our grandparents, our parents were sent to residential schools. And they had no hunting rights. And then now, we come to today, and my generation [has the] Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. We have boards set up to help co-manage the land with Inuit and different governments and companies," she said.

    "It's kind of amazing to think that it's only been 20 years. The growth of the people and the territory as a whole has come so far."