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Inuits Celebrate Nunavut Territory

March 31, 1999 GMT

IQALUIT, Nunavut (AP) _ Dignitaries and foreign TV crews crowded into this small Baffin Island town Wednesday, and Inuit chefs prepared a huge feast featuring caribou, musk ox and raw seal to celebrate the creation of Nunavut, Canada’s newest territory.

Stretching deep into the Arctic, with only 25,000 residents in an area as large as Western Europe, Nunavut (pronounced Noo-nah-voot), is the product of the largest land-claims settlement in Canada’s history and gives its Inuit majority their long-sought chance at self-government.

``This is proof that we are committed to reconciling aboriginal rights in Canada,″ Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart told reporters. ``We aren’t stuck in the past, we are prepared to evolve ... I can’t tell you the sense of pride this gives me as a Canadian.″

The new capital, Iqaluit (pronounced Eee-kah-loo-eet), is normally home to 4,500 people. More than 1,000 visitors were expected for ceremonies starting with a midnight fireworks show to mark Nunavut’s official birth. The festivities run through the day Thursday with speeches, a traditional drum dance, the community feast and an evening rock concert.

With only 150 hotel beds in town, visitors were advised to bring sleeping bags and were being housed in a community college, at military barracks, in private homes, even a drug-and-alcohol treatment center.

Nunavut is being created out of the eastern 60 percent of the Northwest Territories, culminating more than 20 years of lobbying by Inuit leaders. About 85 percent of Nunavut’s 25,000 people are Inuit, as are 15 of the 19 candidates elected in February to the territorial legislature.

The main ceremony, to be attended by Prime Minister Jean Chretien, will be at midday Thursday in a complex of hangers designed to deploy jet fighters in the event of a Soviet military threat during the Cold War. Inuit performers will present a drum dance, and Nunavut’s flag will be raised for the first time.

Over the past few days, several preliminary ceremonies have taken place, including the presentation of a new Canadian 25 cent coin designed by Inuit artists and engraved with an owl and bear.

Nunavut’s new ceremonial mace also was unveiled _ made of the tusk of a narwhal, a walrus-like creature. The mace is encrusted with jewels and tiny figures of seals.

On Tuesday, the still-unfinished legislative building was dedicated at a ceremony attended by many Iqaluit residents.

``This building is for you as you take the dream and vision into the next millennium, with pride in who you are, where you live and what you will accomplish,″ said Tagak Curley, president of the company that constructed the building.

Curley was one of the Inuit activists who began lobbying for an Inuit-governed territory back in the 1970s.

``Our forefathers dreamed of one day regaining responsibility, ownership and accountability,″ he said. ``They dreamed of a leadership that would incorporate Inuit traditional values into a modern style of government.″

The main legislative chamber features sealskin-covered benches instead of desks, and has wooden arches which meet in the center in the shape of an igloo.

Nunavut’s premier-elect is Paul Okalik, a 34-year-old lawyer with no previous experience in political office. At his first press conference, on Tuesday, he prodded the Canadian government for financial help to build roads and complained about the U.S. government’s ban on seal products.

Gesturing to his own sealskin vest, Okalik said, ``We can’t trade with the U.S. in these products,″ and suggested that Canadian authorities should try to persuade Washington to soften the Marine Mammals Protection Act.

For the foreseeable future, Nunavut will rely on federal funds for 90 percent of its budget. Much of that funding is earmarked to address severe social problems _ Nunavut’s rates of unemployment, crime, substance abuse and suicide are among the highest in Canada.

Stewart, the Indian Affairs minister, said she was confident that Inuit self-government would be a positive step in tackling these problems.

``When you bring government closer to the people... it will be more effective than when decisions are made from afar,″ she said.