The Current

Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq on progress, ongoing challenges on territory's 20th anniversary

On the 20th anniversary of Nunavut becoming a Canadian territory, we speak to Premier Joe Savikataaq about the improvements made for the people who live there, and the challenges they still face.

'We need help to be on the same footing as the rest of Canadians,' says premier

Joe Savikataaq on June 14, 2018, after becoming Nunavut's newest premier, following a vote to oust former premier Paul Quassa. (Sara Frizzell/CBC)

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Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq can remember when the first telephones came to the territory, as well as the fact they had two-digit phone numbers.

"Most people didn't have phones, and people just walked over to the house to go tell them what they need to tell them or go visit them," said Savikataaq.

Monday marks 20 years since Nunavut became a Canadian territory, and while the internet has made communication much easier these days, the premier said that people in Canada's far north still face many challenges.

He spoke to The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti about the changes he's seen over the last two decades. Here is part of their conversation.

As premier you have a good view of the whole territory. Has Nunavut lived up to your hopes and expectations?

I think so. Most people were hoping to be further ahead I think than where we are today but we've done — I think we've done very well. Our graduation rates have gone up since we became our own territory. We have official language acts in place and any policies or regulations or acts that are going to be passed have to align with Inuit society values. Mining has picked up … So I think we've done good in some sections and in other areas we still have our challenges.

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

And when it comes to things like housing and mental health, how much power does your government have to push things forward?

We get about 90 or 95 per cent of our funding from the feds, so we're almost completely reliant on the federal government transfer agreements to fund the operation of Nunavut, and part of that is to build houses. And we are falling way behind on the need for housing.

Currently right now we need roughly 3,300 houses to meet today's demands. And the funding that we just got for 2019 to 2020 is enough to build 83 units. If you do the math, we won't even be caught up to today's needs for many, many years. Plus, our construction costs are so high that the money we get doesn't go as far as if it would down south. It costs us half a million dollars to build a basic house and there is nothing fancy about the house being built. It's a one, two or three-bedroom apartment with four walls and a ceiling.

Watch a CBC News report from the day Nunavut became a territory:

Lavish and traditional ceremonies mark Nunavut's birth. 2:40

We have to remember it's such a large territory — it's so spread out and it's hard to get to. What do Canadians need to understand about that in the investment of government in the north?

Well I think Canadians should understand that all 25 Nunavut communities are fly-in and fly-out. When you live in the south you could just take it for granted; you can drive to where you want to go. [In Nunavut] if you want to go visit your relatives in the next town that could be as few as 50 miles away, you have to fly there.

Every product that we use is either flown in or shipped in by the ship in the summer. We can't just get it. All our groceries are flown in. We have the highest cost of living and food insecurity because everything has to be flown in and so therefore it costs so much. As I think most people in southern Canada know, airplanes are one of the most expensive modes of transportation.

Although it's sparsely populated, Savikataaq says the people of Nunavut want the rest of Canada to know that they're occupying the north as strong and proud Canadians. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

So when we talk about the struggles that you still face, I'm wondering what benefits Nunavut has brought. What are the things you want to celebrate on this 20th anniversary?

Nunavummiut are very resilient … I think people are happy that we did get our own territory. We just want the rest of Canada to know that we're up there. It's not just a big hunk of land with nobody there. It's sparsely populated. I think there are 35,000 people living in Nunavut, but it's almost one-third the mass of Canada. And we just want Canadians to know that we're up there, we're proud Canadians and we're happy to be part of Canada. We just are so lacking in infrastructure that we need help to be on the same footing as the rest of Canadians.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation. 

Produced by Jessica Linzey and Danielle Carr. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.