Opinion Politics

Nunavut’s Progress Paradox: Analyzing the Results of the Land Referendum

On May 9, Nunavummiut voted on the controversial issue of whether or not municipalities should have the ability to sell land. The results showed a resounding “no”. This decision means that things will be kept as they are – for now – and Nunavut lands can still only be leased, rather than bought or sold.

Although the full implications of a “yes” vote were unclear, in practical terms, it would likely not have been the cause of any extreme or immediate changes to life in Nunavut. It would, however, have been a philosophical divergence in political will, moving the territory further toward a ‘southern’ approach to land ownership.

Strong opposition

In the lead-up to the referendum, vocal opposition began to emerge over the vote amid confusion as to what the choice represented.

Politicians, organizations, and academics began to speak out; Inuit Organizations denounced the “yes” vote as not beneficial to Nunavummiut, and the mayor of Iqaluit, Madeleine Redford, announced her opposition (even though the city remained neutral, officially).

On social media, memes began to circulate, thought-leaders wrote articles and recorded videos, and artists began to oppose the vote through their work. Among these was Kelly Fraser, a well-known singer from Sanikiluaq. Her song “Fight for the Rights”, released three days before the vote, was an anthem rallying Nunavummiut to vote. It was shared on social media, played on local community radio stations, and even made it onto the national radio news.

One of the memes circulating social media in Nunavut opposing the sale of municipal lands

One of the memes circulating social media opposing the sale of municipal lands. Credit: Franco Buscemi

Passive support and apathy

There was little noise from the other camp, with no strong voice for a “yes” vote. Apart from a few individuals in the news, support seemed scarce and scattered.

A common reaction of many Iqaluimmiut seemed to be one of oblivion, confusion, or cautious apathy. Many complained that the subject was too complex to take a firm stance on, and many non-Inuit individuals claimed that the vote was “not theirs” to make.

Strange Results

On May 9, Nunavummiut made a clear choice. Despite the low voter turnout – a common problem in Nunavut politics – it was a landslide victory for the opposition, with all communities unanimously voting “no” by an overwhelming majority.

At first – to many people’s surprise – the most northerly community of Grise Fiord appeared to have voted “yes”. With an impressive 60 per cent voter turnout, 29 voted “yes” and 4 voted “no”. This seemed strange, and was in stark contrast to the rest of Nunavut.

In a humorous twist, it was discovered that human error had led the tallies to be confused, and the opposite result was true. Grise Fiord had indeed also voted “no”.

An interesting point about Grise Fiord was the fact that four people voted “yes”. Grise Fiord is a very small community with few houses. Of the roughly 150 inhabitants, only a handful of people in the community are homeowners – about four people.

Even though these two numbers were purely corollary, it felt like more than just a coincidence. It would make sense that homeowners – the people who stood to benefit from a “yes” vote – would vote for the privatization of land ownership, while non-homeowners would be against it.

Nunavummiut self-interest

If the results in Grise Fiord can be seen as representative of rest of the territory, then it seems safe to assume that many homeowners (not surprisingly) voted in their own self-interest. This is not a bad thing. It’s natural for people to act in a manner which supports their end goals.

As a homeowner, myself, I recognize the potential benefits of owning land. I do not claim to be above the lure of self interest. In fact, it is because of my self interest that I personally chose to support a “no” vote.

Due to the unique circumstances that make Nunavut unlike any other place in the world, I saw the “no” vote as more beneficial to my self-interest in the long run, whereas the immediate benefits of private land ownership are short-sighted.

Had the vote been “yes”, it would have permanently changed the way the territory deals with property rights. Over time, I believe this would have lowered the feeling of control and pride Nunavummiut felt governing their land.

A loss of this nature is difficult to quantify, but I believe the quality of life for the average Nunavummiut would have suffered. This would have made the territory a less attractive place to live and invest in, lowering the value of the land, regardless.

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A message on social media highlights an Inuit view on land ownership in response to the referendum. Credit: Matthew Nuqingaq

Other routes to progress

As an opponent of the vote, I was relieved when I saw that the vote had been “no”. But I wasn’t ecstatic. I’m not so naïve as to think that land ownership will never happen in Nunavut.

I’m happy to see the slowing down of “progress” – a controversial idea, when viewing public policy through a southern, capitalist lens.

There is a strong local sentiment that Nunavummiut don’t need more “growth” in the territory.

Instead, the focus should return to fixing things that currently aren’t working, like strengthening Nunavut’s social, cultural, and economic foundation. There are plenty of other problems to tackle: suicide, addiction, and crime, to name only a few.

Housing is one of the most vital of all these issues, but as other Nunavummiut have stated, there are many more effective ways, to deal with these issues rather than trying to determine who owns the land on which we live.

Fortunately for those on the “no” side, it doesn’t seem like there will be another referendum for some time.◉


Photo credit: Franco Buscemi

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  • rkaslak .

    During the evening when the results were announced in Grise Fiord, some people started to notice on the local FB page that people who identified themselves in the “No” camp outnumbered what the preliminary results showed. A “Yes” vote would have burdened the municipalities with an extra layer of bureaucracy in land management.