After the Vote in Nunavut: Thinking Big

(Photo by M. Lanteigne)

The citizens of Nunavut (ᓄᓇᕗᑦ) went to the polls on 30 October to elect a new government and a leader to succeed outgoing Premier Peter Taptuna. None of the candidates ran on behalf of political parties, instead campaigning as de facto independents. In one district, Kugluktuk in Nunavut’s far west, there was a win by acclamation, as Mila Adjukak Kamingoak had run unopposed.

The next stage of the leadership transition was completed this week after the Nunavut Leadership Forum chose the next Premier from the four candidates who submitted their names for consideration. Ultimately, Paul Quassa, representing the district of Aggu, was chosen to be the territory’s next leader. As one of three Canadian Arctic territories, Nunavut (population 38,000) is facing challenges both locally and in its relations with the Canadian central government.

Seven cabinet members and a new speaker, Joe Enook (Tununiq), were also appointed after the NLF deliberations. Joe Savikataaq (Arviat South) was chosen as deputy premier, and Elisapee Sheutiapik (Iqaluit-Sinaa) was appointed to the post of House Leader while also holding the portfolios of economics, transportation and the environment. Mr Quassa has a long history in politics which dates from before Nunavut, breaking off from the Northwest Territories in 1999, became a separate territory. He was one of the original negotiators of the 1993 Nunavut Land Claim [pdf], and had run unsuccessfully against Mr Tapuna in the previous territorial election in 2013.

Mr Quassa received congratulations from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who added in his statement that Ottawa would continue to work with indigenous peoples in the areas of reconciliation and development, and that regional leaders would be included in the current drafting of the Trudeau government’s Arctic Policy Framework. In an interview with CBC News, Mr Quassa expressed his interest in making Nunavut a more distinct territory by improving education and including the promotion of the Inuktitut (ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ) language, as well as Inuit values and greater communication between Inuit communities and the federal government. The territory’s capital, Iqaluit (ᐃᖃᓗᐃᑦ), population 7700, which was the site of the April 2015 Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting, is also facing challenges of geographic isolation and, as a recent article by the UK news service The Guardian reported, cultural and political differences between locals and recent arrivals from southern Canada.

Other challenges facing the incoming government include housing shortages, the exorbitant costs of goods, (including the costs of basic food items, which were reported to be up to three times the Canadian national average), health crises as well as high rates of suicide. In November 2015, Premier Taptuna appointed a special associate deputy minister for quality of life, Karen Kilikvak Kabloona, to specifically address the underlying causes of suicides in the territory. After the recent election, Ms Pat Angnakak (Iqaluit-Niaqunnguu) was appointed health minister as well as being assigned the portfolio for suicide prevention.

Economically, the territory is enjoying good news in the form of a revived mining industry, (including the Meadowbank Gold Mine in Kivalliq, with another gold deposit at Meliadine approved for development in May of this year), and financial stability. In a report released by the Conference Board of Canada in September of last year, Nunavut’s GDP growth was predicted to rebound to 4.9 percent, well above the Canadian average, in 2017, and would continue to gain strength as future mines come fully online.

However, the possibility of a renewed resource boom in the region has affected ongoing negotiations between Nunavut and Ottawa over devolution of economic powers, including territorial oversight of public land and natural resources. These negotiations are expected to continue under the Quassa administration. Debate is also expected to continue about the carbon tax proposed by the Trudeau government, which the Nunavut government, along with their counterparts in the Northwest Territories and Yukon, have been critical of, viewing the proposed law as detrimental to their resource-based economies.

The territory is also seeking to become a hub for regional scientific studies with the opening next year of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) at Cambridge Bay. These facilities which, it is hoped, will attract scientists representing a variety of polar studies disciplines from around the world, would place Canada in a better position to follow the lead of other governments such as Iceland and Norway in expanding its Arctic scientific diplomacy. This at a time when concerns are being raised that Canada is being lapped not only by other Arctic states in this area, but also by non-Arctic economies including China, Germany and the United Kingdom. Earlier in November, another Arctic research facility in Nunavut, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Eureka, was given an eleventh-hour reprieve via a C$1.6 million (US$1.26 million) bailout package from the Trudeau government to keep the facilities operating at least until late 2019.

The role of the Canadian North in the country’s overall politics and economy will remain a major issue as the Arctic continues to open to greater development, and the sharing of power between Ottawa and Canada’s territorial governments will reflect these concerns. The incoming government in Nunavut is destined to face crucial policy decisions on three levels, the local, the national, and the Arctic, in its entirety.