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Former cabinet minister Manitok Thompson reflects on founding of Nunavut

The first members of Nunavut’s cabinet, pictured in 1999. Front row, from left, Ed Picco, Paul Okalik, and Donald Havioyak. Middle row, from left, Peter Kilabuk, Jack Anawak, Manitok Thompson, James Arvaluk, Dianna Crooks, Anne Crawford and Kelvin Ng. Interpreter Mali Curley stands in the rear. Photo courtesy of Manitok Thompson

Even after 25 years, Manitok Thompson remembers the founding of Nunavut like it was yesterday.

“It was so exciting,” she said from her home in Carleton Place, Ont. “We were very proud that we were finally getting our own territory.

“We had very high expectations – finally our own identity, our own Inuit government, run by Inuit.”

Nunavut became Canada’s newest territory on April 1, 1999, and this year, it celebrates its 25th anniversary on Monday.

At the time of the territory’s legislative founding, Thompson was serving as the NWT’s minister of Municipal and Community Affairs in Yellowknife. When Nunavut finally became a reality, she relocated to Iqaluit to become one of the first members of the new territory’s legislative assembly, representing the electoral district of Rankin Inlet South/Whale Cove, not far from her hometown of Coral Harbour.

“I am very proud to have been part of the first government,” she said.

Despite the excitement and optimism in the air, the first months of Nunavut’s existence were full of “challenges,” according to Thompson.

“The first government did a lot of work,” she said. “The legislative assembly was not ready. We had our first meeting in the parish hall. The ministers had offices all over Iqaluit in different buildings. We had to hire our staff — our headquarters were not staffed at all. For me as a public works minister, I just had three staff in headquarters: my deputy minister, my assistant deputy minister and the secretary. The regional staff became headquarter staff overnight, but we survived it.”

Nunavut still faces many challenges today, the biggest of which is housing, according to Thompson.

“If you have good shelter and you’re secure, it affects your mental health [in a positive way],” she said. “What we said in ‘99 is still being talked about today, 25 years later. We’re still talking about the housing crisis – but we have done good. We have been building homes and houses.”

Thompson also remarked that the territory needs more “economic development” to make sure “local businesspeople have enough resources to be successful.”

She also finds it “disturbing” that some of the health centres in the territory have been forced to limit their services to emergencies only.

Elder care is another issue she believes “should be solved by now.”

“Elders are the ones that survived before colonization,” she said. “They are the ones that brought us to this age, and we have not taken good care of our Elders and made sure they have a place to be secure with interpreters, with all the services they need when they have dementia, or if they need 24-hour care. They should be home in their community for their last days.”

In addition, she pointed to policing as another area that needs improvement.

“The RCMP competency and investigations need to improve,” she said. “There’s too much crime that goes unsolved and people getting buried without proper investigation.”

Thompson contends that the territory “still has a lot to grow,” and that “there has to be a lot more changes.” Many of those changes will require time and effort to implement, but the former MLA is optimistic about the future.

Her optimism stems from her experiences with the territory’s young people.

“My hope and my vision is that we will have a very healthy population because we have lots of our youth [graduating high school] and furthering their education in universities,” she said. “I see [Nunavummiut] doctors, I see nurses. I see lawyers. I see a judge in the future. That’s what I see. I think that with our young people, the way they’re going right now, we’re going full blast ahead with good things to happen in our future.”

An NWT perspective

Charles Dent was the MLA for what was known as Yellowknife-Frame Lake at the time of Nunavut’s founding, and, like Thompson, he recalls plenty of excitement in the air at the time the two territories split.

“I think certainly most of us were happy to see the members of the Nunavut region achieve their goal of having a government that was closer to them,” he recalled from his home in Yellowknife. “Folks from Pond Inlet or Iqaluit didn’t really see Yellowknife as being relevant to their government.

“I think on both sides of the line, there was a sense that this would allow government to more closely represent the residents of each territory.”

However, Dent also called it a “challenging time” for people in both territories as they worked with the federal government to obtain funding “to set both governments up.”

“We had to negotiate the setting up of two different bureaucracies, two different ministers of education, ministers of health, that sort of thing,” he said. “We had to negotiate the power corporation, which was actually one of the things that the two jurisdictions (initially) decided to keep together and share the ownership of.”

Dent recalls life continuing mostly as normal for people in the NWT once Nunavut was founded, though it “made a difference in terms of the numbers in the legislative assembly.”

“It was a little bit of a challenge to make sure that we had things moving forward correctly, but I think overall it worked out pretty well,” he said.

He has enjoyed watching Nunavut grow and progress for the last 25 years. He said he’s been particularly impressed by the territory’s efforts to preserve the Inuktitut language.

“We hear often that Indigenous languages are severely challenged,” he said. “It’s almost a thrill watching the development of governments using languages like Inuktitut.

“I know they’re still far from achieving their goal, but I think that was one of the major reasons that folks wanted to see Nunavut established — it’s one of the best ways to make sure that the Indigenous language is preserved.”

While it’s now been a quarter of a century since the NWT and Nunavut split, Dent feels the two territories are still “very important” to each other, not only because of their shared history, but because of the similarities that remain, from their systems of governance to their natural environments.

“I think we have to make sure that we’re recognizing that we can work together still,” he said. “There are ways that we can still support each other’s jurisdictions and we certainly face some similar challenges compared to other jurisdictions because of the vastness of our territories, the limited population, and of course the environment that we live in.”