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Winds of Change in the Arctic: How Nunavut's Youth are Shaping a Resilient Future with UNA-Canada

Located almost entirely above the tree line, Nunavut’s landmass is so vast that it would be the world’s 14th largest country if it were independent. Meanwhile, its population of 38,000 residents could be seated comfortably in Rogers Centre for a Blue Jays game. The territory’s waters boast three quarters of the world’s narwhal population, while its tundra hosts 60% of all polar bears worldwide. Demographically, it is also remarkable. It boasts the youngest population of any Canadian province or territory, with an average age of 29 years old. Despite its large territory, Nunavut’s mere 38,000 residents (of whom 84% identify as Inuit) make it among the most sparsely populated places on Earth.

Nunavut also stands out for some more somber reasons: it has the highest unemployment rate of any Canadian province or territory, the highest cost of living, the highest crime and incarceration rates, the highest number of people per household, and the highest suicide rate. Despite these challenges, the people of Nunavut have shown remarkable resilience, thriving in one of the harshest environments on the planet and maintaining their rich cultural heritage and traditions despite centuries of colonial oppression.

Recognizing that the challenges facing Canada’s Inuit and Northern communities demand local solutions, UNA-Canada established our Generation SDG North and Youth For Water (YFW) programmes in pursuit of four goals: develop leadership and entrepreneurial skills in Northern Canadian youth, enhance youth’s readiness for leadership roles, promote civic engagement through meaningful service opportunities, and raise awareness and support youth action on the SDGs. In these programmes, UNA-Canada offers workshops to participants on project management as well as personal and business mentorship, mental health support, opportunities to develop partnerships with local service providers, and much more, all in the spirit of mobilizing young people to achieve the SDGs with a focus on their local communities.

These initiatives are not just about addressing challenges but are also about empowering youth to take charge of their future. By collaborating with local communities and providing the necessary tools and opportunities, UNA-Canada is encouraging a sense of hope and possibility among the young people of Nunavut. Participants are encouraged to see themselves as agents of change, capable of transforming their communities for the better – building on the strength and resilience that already exists within their culture.

Few of the GenSDG North participants have illustrated the values of our mission better than Kristy Kanayuk, who grew up in Nunavut’s Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik in Inuktitut), home to just 1,300 people - and two grocery stores. It is a community firmly rooted in its heritage – 95% of the population is Inuit – and Kristy remembers square dancing at the community centre growing up while watching folks gear up to go out on the land to hunt, fish, and gather berries in a mix of modern and traditional clothing.

In a recent conversation she noted that while Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital of 7,000, has more opportunities than smaller communities like Pond Inlet, Inuit communities face challenges that many other Canadians don’t: “I find that in Inuit communities, we are a bit isolated from the rest of Canada. Resources are further away, and we have to ship almost everything or travel south to get the opportunities that we want. Growing up, I barely saw any organized programmes in my communities.”

But the winds of change have started to blow, driven by local leaders and ushered on by programmes such as GenSDG North and Youth For Water. Kristy remembers first hearing about UNA-Canada when a project officer presented at her school. She joined GenSDG North as a youth participant, seeking to address a local issue she’d often taken note of: littering. She admits that her engagement with GenSDG North changed her approach to the environment – whereas before she admits to having held a “what’s the harm?” mentality when it came to leaving her trash on the ground, she says that she now takes a more environmental perspective and thinks about how litter “makes the beautiful land we have look messy.”

Her involvement with UNA-Canada didn’t stop there. After her participation with GenSDG North, she attended a UNA-Canada presentation at her college. This inspired her to join as a Project Officer and Youth Consultant as she “saw how helpful UNA-Canada was in trying to solve issues at a grassroots level,” and that she was inspired by the presentation’s emphasis on how “we (as Northern youth) could implement change to help improve our communities in line with the SDGs.”

As a staff member, she had the opportunity to present at her former high school in Iqaluit. Kristy admits that this full-circle moment “was something I didn’t think I would ever do for my future job... it was unreal, and I felt really proud of myself.” Apart from offering a moment of personal fulfillment, she hopes to serve as an inspiration. “I am really glad that the students had someone to look up to who had attended the school before them and is now in a leadership role. I hope that they can feel inspired to follow a similar path to my own and raise awareness in our community.”

These role models are the true drivers of change that we hope to inspire. You can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying goes, and Nunavut’s young population offers the promise of hope for the future. Already, Kristy notes, more groups engage with the North. "Now that the population of Nunavut is growing, Inuit / Nunavummiut are making programmes for youth and adults, and activities for elders.” She admits that many challenges remain, but when Nunavut’s young leaders like Kristy possess the tools for success, “those needs and issues can be met head-on.”

              Kristy’s spirit of determination and resilience is what fosters hope for a brighter future. And what makes Kristy’s story so inspiring is that her drive and grit are hardly exceptional: UNA-Canada has worked alongside countless young people in Nunavut who are determined to build a brighter future. By continuing to support and nurture these young changemakers, UNA-Canada is collaborating with future leaders of Nunavut to address present challenges and lay the foundation for long-term, sustainable progress. The future of Nunavut is in capable hands, and with continued effort and optimism, these communities will thrive.



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