By David Venn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
One veteran of Nunavut politics is challenging the incumbent for the Qikiqtani Inuit Association’s presidency this month.
Paul Okalik said his return to politics is fueled, in part, by a feeling that he’s capable of doing more for Inuit that way than by what he’s been doing since leaving public service in 2017.
“I’ve been working, doing other projects and doing my part to try to help my fellow Inuit, but at times it was frustrating because I want to do more,” he said in an interview. “I want to do my part to help my fellow Inuit.”
Okalik, who works for the World Wildlife Fund as an Arctic specialist, has a long history of public service in Nunavut.
He was a land claims negotiator, the first premier of Nunavut from 1999 to 2008, a territorial cabinet minister, speaker of the legislative assembly and an Iqaluit-Sinaa MLA. He also ran, unsuccessfully, as a Liberal candidate in the 2011 federal election.
QIA is the regional Inuit association for Qikiqtani region, representing about 51 per cent of Inuit living in the territory.
In the Dec. 12 race for the presidency, Okalik is running against current president Olayuk Akesuk, who took over from Premier P.J.
Akeeagok last fall after Akeeagok was elected to the legislative assembly.
Akesuk did not respond to interview requests from Nunatsiaq News.
Previously, Akesuk served as QIA’s vice-president, MLA for South Baffin, and territorial minister of sustainable development, then economic development when Okalik was the premier.
In 2006, Okalik stripped Akesuk of his portfolio without providing a public explanation other than calling it “an effort to increase financial oversight over key areas of government expenditures.”
Okalik said one of the biggest assets he brings to his run for the presidency is his educational background. He said he has a mix of southern education and Inuit qaujimajatuqangit, or traditional knowledge.
Okalik attended a federal day school, earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, then went to law school at the University of Ottawa.
“Before the classroom, my parents taught me traditional ways and how to survive in the most challenging conditions, so that’s served me well in the long run,” he said.
One way he would like to improve the territory is by having better scholarships available to encourage young people to get educated.
Asked what his priorities will be if he’s elected, Okalik mentioned child care and airline travel as some of the top concerns he’s heard from Inuit.
Another common concern he said he has heard is the language barrier Inuit face, for example, in schools or at the boarding home in Iqaluit.
“Those things should be done by now. Any institution of government should be talking to us in our language,” he said.
Okalik has visited Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay, Sanirajak, Clyde River, Igloolik and Iqaluit during his campaign.
Poor weather left him stranded for a few days in Sanirajak, and he said he has had to cancel a visit to his hometown, Pangnirtung, and won’t be able to make it to the high Arctic communities.
David Venn is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with NUNATSIAQ NEWS. The LJI program is federally funded.