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Wednesday, February 17, 1999 Published at 06:03 GMT

World: Americas

Inuits elect first government

The region has been called a polar desert

Canada's eastern Arctic region has elected a 19-member parliament to rule over a new Inuit territory.

From 1 April, the 25,000 or so Inuits in the country's icy north will in effect run their own affairs.

The territory, crossing three time zones and covering about a fifth of the country, has been named Nunavut, which means "our land" in the Inuit language of Inuktitut.

Voter turnout was high, with around 88% braving temperatures of -30 C to choose from 71 candidates standing in the historic poll.

[ image: Candidates have been campaigning by plane]
Candidates have been campaigning by plane
The new government comprises 15 Inuits and four whites. Only one of the 11 female candidates was elected.

The first item on their agenda is appointing a cabinet and a prime minister by consensus - there are no political parties.

"We're taking over,'' said Jack Anawak, a favourite to head the government. ''Sure, we'll make mistakes, but they'll be our mistakes."

Nunavut will occupy a large part of what is currently known as the North-West Territories, encompassing nearly two million square kilometres.

Its creation is the result of a land-claim settlement signed six years ago between the Canadian Government and the aboriginal Inuit people, who make up 85% of the region's population.

Sky-high unemployment

Nunavut's government will have unique departments such as Elders and Youth, and a distinct justice and education system run more along Inuit lines.

But BBC Correspondent Lee Carter says the immediate social problems facing the new ministers are staggering by Canadian standards.

Unemployment is 60% in some communities, a third of residents receive welfare and the suicide rate is six times the national average.

Inuit politicians point to over a century of being governed by what they regard as a colonial state.

The new land-claim agreement gives Inuits preferential treatment for jobs in business and mining, as well as in the new bureaucracy being created to run the territory.

Campaigning by plane

The birth of Nunavut represents the first change to Canada's map since the entry of Newfoundland in 1949.

Nearly half the territory is on the northern part of Canada's mainland. The rest is made up of hundreds of islands, including Baffin Island.

The region has been called a polar desert. Its population is so dispersed that candidates standing in Monday's election campaigned by plane, sometimes landing to meet communities of just 20 to 30 people.

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