Infrastructure gaps for Inuit are critical

Hill Times November 16, 2020

Did you know that infrastructure gaps for Inuit are critical?

As a southerner, I have been honoured to travel to Nunavut numerous times to support Inuit capacity and leadership development. Just like every other southerner, I was wide-eyed and awestruck the first time. The Arctic has that effect on all newcomers. I also experienced an ironic warp of perspective: I was so overwhelmed with the landscape that I overlooked the inequities.

Iqaluit does have land and views and waterscapes and beauty. As a southerner, I realized quickly that Iqaluit doesn’t have Starbucks or a 24-hour Tim Hortons, traffic lights, Costco, Home Depot or pretty much any of the retail choices that southerners take for granted. I admit it is a southerner’s perspective. It turns out that these things are simply niceties when one doesn’t have necessities.

Let’s consider something else missing in Iqaluit: stable electricity. It’s a thing that the city goes dark at about 5 p.m. on some NHL game nights as everybody turns on their stoves at once to cook dinner. Another fun fact: Iqaluit power is diesel-based and the oil has to be shipped in. Iqaluit doesn’t have a stable water source; part of the city is on piped-in water and the pipes routinely freeze up and crack, and the rest of the city is on trucked-in water to residential houses.

Is the gap really that bad across Nunavut? Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., Nunavut’s Inuit political organization, recently released a report titled Nunavut’s Infrastructure Gap: Executive Summary, and it basically shows that, yes, it’s really that bad. Health infrastructure is perhaps about half of southern Canada (human resources, technical equipment, service availability). Nunavut housing includes 41 per cent of home that need major repair, whereas in southern Canada the estimate is seven per cent. Waste management is really just physical dumps on the pristine land, and there is no recycling.

There is no high-speed internet over 25 Mbps. Think about it. The most remote communities in Canada cannot access consistent video conferencing, image-heavy websites, or today’s bandwidth-heavy online learning. There is no hardline connection to the south so the internet is carried over satellite,  often blocked by snowstorms.

Some might argue that low-speed internet is not unknown in rural Canada. That is true, but it certainly is not true in any other provincial/territorial capital, or for a whole province nor territory. Imagine if Edmonton suffered these infrastructure gaps.

Limited water, outdated waste management, aging infrastructure, horrible housing conditions, a health system, which is more easily measured by its gaps than its outcomes, no university close to home, overcrowded jails, high levels of food insecurity, and no dedicated marine rescue units at all. This is the life lived by our neighbours in Nunavut.

The federal government along with the Government of Nunavut have taken steps recently to put a dent in infrastructure gaps. Perhaps bogged down in bureaucracy, things are moving slowly. It seems nothing will be changed in time for Inuit children in kindergarten today: they will live their childhoods restricted by the lack of necessities.

The Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. report gently names the colonial legacy of treating Inuit as wards of the state rather than citizens and partners, as an underlying contribution to these glaring gaps in infrastructure. Is this one of the reasons why investment, urgency, and action are all subdued for Inuit? The fact is that Indigenous communities simply don’t get the attention that any other Canadian community receives, despite all the rhetoric.

Let’s put it another way. If there was another provincial or territorial capital suffering these glaring gaps in infrastructure, it would be considered a serious issue at the next first ministers conference. Alberta becomes a “have-not” province? Quebec complains about its share?

Please. Have you been to Nunavut? Hold the next first ministers conference in Iqaluit, and then we can talk.