John Geddes April 23 2001


John Geddes April 23 2001

From the air, Canada’s smallest, newest capital isn’t much to look at: a cluster of houses and utilitarian commercial buildings scattered up the snow-covered, treeless slopes rising from Koojesse Inlet on Baffin Island’s Frobisher Bay. But a visitor finds the airport bustling. Iqaluit has enjoyed a mini-boom in the two years since Nunavut was created. The road into town is busy with new pickups, four-wheel drives and plenty of taxis (at a flat rate of $4.50 to go anywhere in town). Snowmobiles crisscrossing the community on hard-packed snow paths create a second order of traffic. Fat ravens preside over everything. Checking in at the recently spruced-up Regency Frobisher Inn, an outsider might think this no different from a business hotel in, say, Regina or Fredericton.

Then, an Inuk man strolls through the lobby carrying a two-metre narwhal tusk in one hand as nonchalantly as a briefcase.

This is Paul Okalik’s home base, a place where images uniquely far-northern brush up casually against encroachments from the south. But Nunavut’s first premier, like just about everyone else here, doesn’t seem to notice. One afternoon early this month, he pulled his blue Toyota RAV4 up to the front door of the local library for the launch of his government’s newly revamped Web site. Photo ops don’t get much better for a politician anxious to look current. As he stepped into the building straightening his tie, Okalik, 36, never even looked back to note a snowmobile roaring past, pulling a heavy wooden sled that, only a short generation ago, would have been powered by dog team. Not that the dogs themselves are history: just across the road from the library, as a smiling Okalik double-clicked the ceremonial first hit on the upgraded site, two Inuit kids in parkas played with husky puppies in the snow.

This sort of juxtaposition is more than picturesque local novelty. In a sense, the melding—and sometimes clashing—of the traditional and the modern is the core problem of governing Nunavut. That interaction of old and new is often seen as a competition between things Inuit and qallunaat, as non-Inuit are called in Inuktitut. The question of race is sensitive but unavoidable in any honest appraisal of Nunavut politics. Certain disputes are symbolic. Okalik’s government has been taken to task by some critics for refusing to grant a hunting licence, on safety grounds, to an Inuk traditionalist who wanted to try to kill a polar bear with a spear. Other issues are more substantial. Some Inuit leaders outside government criticize plans to open a French school in Iqaluit before one where Inuktitut would be the sole language of instruction. Okalik admits tensions exist, but says they are far from his main preoccupation. “I’m not concerned,” he says. “I represent Inuit and non-Inuit. Overall, I think we’re very positive about being able to work with everybody.”

That Okalik sees himself as a bridge between his people and those who have come north to share Nunavut is remarkable. His own experiences could easily have made him a more divisive politician. At 17, Okalik went through an all-too-common rite of passage for troubled Inuit teenagers: he was thrown in jail. Okalik was drinking heavily, got kicked out of school, and then was caught trying to break into a post office to steal liquor. The three-month sentence he was given might have marked the start of a dissolute life. Okalik remembers other kids growing up in the isolated Inuit community of Pangnirtung on Baffin Island—classmates he says showed much more promise than he did—whose potential was lost to alcohol and unemployment. “They could have gone a lot further,” he says. “But they found other ways of living their lives that were a little bit easier.”

The harder path Okalik followed has carried him far from the boredom, confusion and everyday tragedy that blights so many small northern communities. In his 20s, he carved out a role as a key negotiator of the historic land-claims settlement that led to Nunavut’s creation. He beat addiction and pursued higher education. In 1999, at 34, he became the first Inuk lawyer in Canada’s eastern Arctic (Inuk is the singular form of Inuit). A few weeks after being called to the bar, he surprised seasoned political rivals in being chosen the new territory’s first premier by a vote of its inaugural legislative assembly.

It’s an uplifting story that was repeated often in the hopeful days that surrounded the dawn of Nunavut. For outsiders susceptible to the enduring romance of Canada’s Arctic, the temptation to run tales of Nunavut and its young premier together was irresistible. If the new jurisdiction carved out of the Northwest Territories was seen as a fresh start for a huge swath of a troubled region, then Okalik’s personal triumph was read as a parable about how rebirths were possible.

There’s something about the North that compels outsiders to squeeze almost everything that happens in the region into the outline of legend. But looked at more dispassionately, the story of Nunavut’s founding might be summed up as a long grind of negotiations over mundane details of money and mineral rights, in which Okalik appears as a character of less than mythic stature. A slight, soft-spoken man, he looks a little beleaguered these days leading a government that, inevitably, sometimes fails to satisfy the overblown expectations stoked by Nunavut’s creation.

Often, those expectations related to the issue of how quickly Inuit people would emerge as true masters of their territory. Okalik stresses that he leads a public government, not an experiment in aboriginal self-rule—but his administration is hardly blind to ethnicity. He was put on the defensive recently when a report from his human resources ministry revealed that out of 2,789 jobs filled so far in the territory’s new public service, 43 per cent have gone to Inuit recruits. That falls short of the stated goal prior to the establishment of Nunavut: 50 per cent. And the government’s performance on its own Inuit hiring targets can only get more contentious. Inuit make up about 85 per cent of Nunavut’s population of about 28,000, and the government’s long-term aim is to see that proportion reflected in its payroll. “We would love to get to 85 per cent,” Okalik says. “But at the same time, we need qualified people to provide the level of services that our people have come to expect, in nursing, law, teaching. So we have created special education programs to try to target those areas.”

His critics are unwilling to wait years for a coterie of young Inuit professionals to be trained. One of those is Paul Quassa, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.—the powerful Inuit corporation set up to collect and spend the $1.1-billion land-claims settlement from Ottawa that was part of the same deal that established the new territory. He says the Nunavut government takes too narrow a view of the abilities of its own people. “This government thinks that when you talk about education, you’re talking about the larger Canadian society’s way of interpreting education,” Quassa complains. “In our territory, that interpretation has to change.” He argues that unilingual Inuktitut-speaking elders steeped in traditional knowledge should be considered for jobs now reserved for college and university-educated applicants.

But Quassa stops well short of accusing Okalik of being personally disrespectful of Inuit culture. “At times, the bureaucracy tends to run the politicians,” he says, when asked about the source of the problem. The two men have worked too closely for too long to fall easily into public feuding. Quassa, now 49, was chief negotiator for the region’s Inuit in land-claims talks with Ottawa from 1985 to the achievement of a final deal in 1992. Okalik was his deputy that whole time, joining the negotiating team when he was 20 years old. Quassa says that they complemented each other. “I’m a bit older,” Quassa notes. “I was born in an igloo, and he was born in a community. We used that. We respected each other and we understood both perspectives.”

Those two perspectives represent the fundamental dividing line in recent Inuit history. Most Inuit over 40 were born in hunting camps. But in the 1950s and ’60s, they were encouraged by Ottawa—and sometimes compelled—to settle in small communities as federal schools and health services were introduced. Okalik represents the first wave of Inuit leaders not born into an essentially nomadic way of life. His home town of Pangnirtung, which now has a population of more than 1,200, got its first teacher in 1956 and a federal administrative post in 1962. When Okalik was a boy, his father worked in the town as a water-truck driver.

Still, older ways and the landscape itself loom large in Okalik’s memories. Pangnirtung perches on one of the dramatic fiords of Cumberland Sound’s deeply serrated coastline, with the imposing 2,200-m peaks of the rugged Cumberland Peninsula as a backdrop. Every summer, Okalik, the youngest of seven children, went to a tent camp about 60 km from Pangnirtung, where his extended family congregated to hunt. He loved those days. He was just eight years old when he brought down his first caribou with a rifle. “Part of our tradition is to hold a feast in honour of a boy’s first big-game kill,” he says. “That’s one of my best memories of growing up.”

But by the time he reached adolescence, things were going wrong. He struggled in school. “It was hard,” he says. “Both my parents didn’t speak English, so they couldn’t relate to what me and my siblings were going through.” When he was 14, his 19-year-old brother, Norman, committed suicide. Norman had been in trouble with the police, and Okalik blames his death at least partly on the insensitivity of the justice system. He thought things would be different if he was a lawyer. “My brother was treated very harshly. It was very hard on my family, and on me personally. I felt that we could do better than that,” he says. “In Grade 9, when the teacher asked what we would like to do, I said, ‘It would be nice to be a lawyer.’ But I just didn’t have the confidence. You never saw an Inuk lawyer.”

After landing in jail at 17, Okalik went to work as a welder at the Nanisivik mine at the north end of Baffin Island. The job bored him. But he followed news of the growing momentum behind negotiations for an Inuit land-claim settlement with the federal government with keen interest. When the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, the organization pushing for the settlement, advertised a research position on the negotiating team, he talked his way into the job. Watching the white lawyers involved in the negotiations at close range, his dream of studying law was rekindled. “In that job,” he says, “I worked with a lot of lawyers, and I thought, ‘I may be brighter than some—maybe I can do it.’ ”

Not while he was still drinking, however. In 1991, Okalik signed himself into an alcohol treatment centre. He credits that program and the influence of his grandmother in Pangnirtung, whom he visited while trying to get sober, with changing his life. That year, he enrolled in political science and Canadian studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, where he already had moved to be close to the offices of federal officials during the final period of land-claim negotiations. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1993, and entered law school at the University of Ottawa several months later. “It wasn’t easy financially. Sometimes I would get food hampers,” he says of his university experience, then adds with a chuckle: “I just paid off my student loan last year.”

Money problems aside, he looks back on those days fondly. “I was the only Inuk, but there was a good mix of different cultures at both Carleton and the University of Ottawa.” He still travels to Ottawa regularly in his work as premier, and also to visit his two children, who live there with their mother. She is of mixed Ojibwa and white descent, and has never been married to Okalik. He does not like to discuss his personal life publicly, and gives few details. Their children, a nine-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son, come to Nunavut for the traditional Inuit games at Christmas, and in the summer for vacations in Pangnirtung.

Okalik can seem a somewhat solitary figure around Iqaluit. Earlier this month, he showed up alone at a free community feast held as part of a spring festival. He lined up with hundreds of others in the high-school cafeteria, sat down at the first empty plastic chair he saw, and chatted quietly while he ate with the young Inuit men who happened to share the table. Then he stood for a while on the fringes of the square dance that followed, before heading into the night. By the time he left, teenagers who had drifted out, away from the music, were standing around the school’s main entrance smoking in the cold. Three snowmobiles were swooping around on the hillside overlooking the town, their headlights bobbing in the darkness.

But Okalik’s lack of a typical politician’s entourage and his generally low-key demeanour may be deceiving. Quassa describes his onetime deputy as “a very sharp man, and a little bit haughty now that he’s a premier.” And Olayuk Akesuk, Nunavut’s minister of sustainable development, says the premier has “got a tough side once you get into a cabinet meeting.” Okalik’s steel shows when he’s pressed on the amount of money Nunavut costs the Canadian taxpayer—$597 million this year, or about $21,622 per person. “All that I ask is that we be treated like Canadians,” he says, bristling. Okalik argues that the costs of air travel to provide services to tiny, far-flung communities make running the territory inherently more expensive than any other part of Canada. Not everyone buys that. “Nunavut right now has the appearance of a sinkhole,” says Walter Robinson, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “Is it a wise use of taxpayers’ money, to fund this separate government?”

Far from backing off in the face of charges that the current cost is too high, Okalik’s government is pressing Ottawa to boost transfers. The premier complains that the lack of road or rail access to the outside world undermines efforts to expand promising industries like mining and tourism. And without development to alleviate crushing unemployment—28 per cent among Inuit, according to 1999 statistics—social problems will be hard to beat. Among the many symptoms of a wounded society: the rate of sexually transmitted disease runs at 15 times the national average, while tuberculosis has recently flared up again at a rate unheard of in most of Canada.

Okalik knows Nunavut’s problems as well as anyone. He has, after all, lived the worst of them. Yet despite the inner fire evident in his climb up from all that, he denies that any burning ambition drives him. “I would see myself continuing on in politics for a little while,” he says with a shrug. “I can’t say how long. It’s really up to the people of Nunavut.” Just two years into his five-year mandate, it’s too early to judge if Okalik is making real progress against the territory’s deep-seated problems. Years from now, when the time comes to sum up his career, the old cliches of the northern yarn would demand the saga end either with triumph in the face of harsh adversity, or crushing defeat. But in the pragmatic spirit of contemporary Iqaluit, maybe just keeping old and new in balance, and getting Nunavut off to a credible start, will have been enough.