Nunavut Legal Services Study



Nunavut is a new territory, whose evolution has been characterized by rapid change. The Inuit, who make up 85 per cent of the population of Nunavut, are not more than a generation or two removed from their ancestral ways of life. Moving into permanent settlements deprived the Inuit of many of the social, economic and spiritual touchstones that gave their lives meaning. In their own homelands, proud hunters and their families were marginalized and made wards of the state. Residential schools, built by church and government, assimilated Aboriginal children and estranged them from their families and communities.

Now the Aboriginal people of Nunavut have a unique opportunity - the new territory, established alongside the settlement of the largest land claim in North America, has given the Inuit majority the tools to regain their cultural identity and regain control over their own lives. But the new territory is only in its first few years of political empowerment.

The new government faces formidable physical and demographic challenges. Nunavut is located in the most geographically remote area of Canada, characterized by extreme weather conditions, including harsh and dark winters. Nunavut has the smallest, fastest growing population in the largest area of Canada and the highest proportion of Aboriginal people in any jurisdiction. Nunavut also reflects daunting social and economic challenges compared to the rest of Canada, including: the highest number of people per household, the highest cost of living, the highest proportion of people living in rental public housing, and the highest crime rate. Nunavut leads the nation in many alarming social indicators: teenage pregnancy rates, infant mortality rates, incarceration rates and an extremely high suicide rate - six times the national average. The new territory's rapidly growing Aboriginal population is also coping with high unemployment rates in Nunavut's developing economy, and staggering costs of living.

In many ways, the challenges of Nunavut are focused on the justice system - an area of high visibility and high priority for reform. Here, again, the new territory is coping with rapid change and innovation. A new single level high court was created on April 1, 1999, along with the new territory, a legislated change that consolidated the previous Territorial Court and Supreme Court and placed new expectations on community Justice of the Peace courts. At the same time, the new Government of Nunavut was established with high expectations that Aboriginal cabinet ministers and legislators and the provisions of the Inuit land claim agreement, aimed at involving Inuit in program development and delivery, would result in a justice system more responsive to Inuit and reflective of Inuit values and traditions.

In order to better understand the context in which legal services are provided in Nunavut, the following sub-sections provide information on:

  • The social and economic situation in Nunavut - demographic information and other statistics with respect to the population of Nunavut.
  • The legal system - Nunavut's unique "unified court" system
  • The Nunavut Legal Services Board (NLSB) - its responsibilities and current resources


The population of Nunavut is distinct from that of the rest of Canada in many ways. These distinctions form the context in which legal services are provided. They have an impact on the demand for legal services, the types of legal services required, and the ways in which those services can be best provided. These impacts are discussed in greater detail in Section 3.0.

"Where it really cuts is that there is really nothing being done … to address the social crises that engender these crimes. We see it in suicide, drinking offences, domestic disagreements. The impact of western civilization on Inuit culture is wreaking havoc, ripping it apart… The impact of two different cultures has left the Inuit culture subordinate."

This sub-section provides information on the following issues:1

  • Population size and distribution by age group
  • Family structure
  • Housing and living arrangements
  • Education
  • Language and ancestry
  • Crime and policing
  • Employment
  • Incidence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and/or Effect

2.1.1 Population size and distribution by age group

Nunavut has the smallest population of any province or territory in Canada, with a total of 28,159 inhabitants (Census 2001). This population lives primarily in 28 communities, some of which are extremely remote. Some people live in outpost camps.

Figure 2.1: Map of Nunavut Showing Communities and Regions2

Map of Nunavut Showing Communities and Regions
[Figure 2.1 Description]

Nunavut's population is also very young in comparison with that of other provinces and territories. As is shown in the figure below, the majority of Nunavut's population is in the age group 1-14, while the number of people aged over 44 in Nunavut is very small. The age of the population has a bearing on the demand for legal services, as younger people are generally more likely to require legal services than older people. As the bulge in Nunavut's population moves up into the age group where young offender charges can be laid, it is expected that the demand for legal services will also rise.

Figure 2.2: Population of Nunavut by Age Group (1996)

Population of Nunavut by Age Group
[Figure 2.2 Description]

2.1.2 Family structure

Family structure (i.e., married couple, common-law couple, or lone parent) in Nunavut is more diverse than in other parts of Canada, as demonstrated in Figure 2.3 below. Only half of the families in Nunavut are based on a married couple; 31 percent of families are common-law; and 19 percent are headed by a lone parent. Nunavut has the highest rate of common-law and lone parent families in Canada.

Figure 2.3: Family Structure by Province or Territory (1996)

Family Structure by Province or Territory (1996)
[Figure 2.3 Description]

2.1.3 Housing and living arrangements

The majority of Nunavut's families live in rental housing (57 percent). The remainder live in homes that are owned by one of the occupants. As can be seen in Figure 2.4, below, the average number of people per household is higher in Nunavut than in any other Canadian province or territory, at 3.9 people per household.

Figure 2.4: Average Number of Persons Per Household by Province or Territory (1996)

Average Number of Persons Per Household by Province or Territory (1996)
[Figure 2.4 Description]

A factor contributing to the number of people per household in Nunavut is the number of individuals who are living apart from their nuclear family. In 1996, 71 percent of individuals living apart from their nuclear families in the Northwest Territories (which, at that point, included what is now Nunavut) reported that they were living with other relatives, while 29 percent reported living with non-relatives.

2.1.4 Education

Statistics Canada information on the level of education in Nunavut has not been updated since 1996, when Nunavut was still part of the NWT. At that time, 48 percent of the population of the NWT over 15 years of age had no degree, certificate or diploma, and only 13 percent had a high school graduation certificate. Figure 2.5 compares those figures with the Canadian average.

Figure 2.5: Level of Education, NWT (incl. NU) vs. Canada (1996)

Level of Education, NWT (incl. NU) vs. Canada (1996)
[Figure 2.5 Description]

2.1.5 Language and ancestry

The population of Nunavut differs significantly from that of the rest of Canada in terms of ancestry and mother tongue. Again, the statistical information on these characteristics dates from 1996, prior to the establishment of Nunavut as a territory separate from the NWT. At that time, people of Inuit ancestry slightly outnumbered people of non-Aboriginal ancestry in the NWT (24,600 Inuit to 24,430 non-Aboriginal). The two groups together made up 76 percent of the population of the NWT, followed by North American Indians (18 percent) and Metis (6 percent).

As is to be expected, given the ancestry of the population, the mother tongue of the majority of the population of the NWT (including Nunavut) was Inuktitut (49 percent of the population). English as mother tongue followed at 40 percent. The remainder of the population had another Aboriginal language as mother tongue (the two most common were South Slave at 6 percent and Dogrib at 5 percent).

2.1.6 Crime and policing

Since the establishment of Nunavut in 1999, the number of police officers has been increasing relative to the overall population. As can be seen in Figure 2.6, Nunavut has one of the lowest ratios of population to police officers in Canada and the three northern territories have a far lower ratio of population to police officers than anywhere else in the country.

Figure 2.6: Ratio of Population to Police Officers by Province or Territory (2001)

Ratio of Population to Police Officers by Province or Territory (2001)
[Figure 2.6 Description]

Nunavut also has one of the highest crime rates in Canada, at 25,000 crimes per 100,000 people in 2001. Only the NWT had a higher rate (the Yukon had the same crime rate as Nunavut).3 Nunavut's violent crime rate was the highest in the country (6573 violent crimes per 100,000 people), followed by the NWT and the Yukon at 5000 violent crimes per 100,000 people and 3751 violent crimes per 100,000 people respectively.

2.1.7 Employment4

The employment opportunities available in Nunavut are limited, particularly in the smaller communities. As shown in Figure 2.7, below, the average unemployment rate across all of Nunavut's communities is 17.4 percent. The main sources of employment are the territorial government, local government (for example, the Hamlet office), construction, and tourism (in some communities). Many people from smaller communities list their main source of employment as traditional activities (hunting, fishing, trapping, and arts and crafts), and consider themselves to be self-employed when engaged in these activities.

Figure 2.7: Unemployment Rates in Nunavut Communities (1996)

Unemployment Rates in Nunavut Communities (1996)
[Figure 2.7 Description]

2.1.8 Incidence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and/or Effect

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effect (FAS/E) are caused by a mother drinking while she is pregnant. Children with FAS/E experience a number of physical and mental disabilities. The most relevant, for the purposes of this discussion on legal services, are difficulty recognizing the consequences of their actions, and a tendency to lack the capacity to make decisions about right and wrong or solve problems effectively.5 Therefore, the incidence of FAS/E in Nunavut may have an effect on the demand for legal services, as individuals affected often come into conflict with the law, either as youth or as adults.

Several workshop participants identified FAS/E as a significant problem in Nunavut. Unfortunately, there are no statistics available on the incidence of FAS/E in Canada, due to the lack of accepted, standardized diagnostic instruments. However, it is believed that the incidence rate is quite high, particularly in communities where alcohol abuse, combined with lack of education and information, is a concern.6

There are, however, statistics available (from the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Surveillance Network) on the incidence of FAS in Alaska, a state which has many demographic and geographic characteristics in common with Nunavut and the other northern territories. These statistics indicate that, from 1995 to 1997, the incidence rate for FAS in Alaska was 1.5 cases per 1000 population. In comparison, the rate for the other three states studied (Arizona, Colorado, and New York) ranged from 0.3 to 0.4 cases per 1000 population. The study also shows that, among Alaska Natives, the incidence rate was much higher: 5.6 cases per 1000 population.7