Cone of silence descends upon Hunter Tootoo controversy
Outraged women fear reprisals if they speak out about Nunavut MP’s fall from grace
Imagine a silence as deep as what you hear, far out on the land.
That’s what many Inuit women say they hear from Nunavut’s leaders in response to concerns they’ve raised about MP Hunter Tootoo.
Tootoo resigned in May as minister of Fisheries and Oceans and from the Liberal caucus in the House of Commons to enter addictions treatment— and then nearly two months later admitted to an “inappropriate relationship” with a female staffer in his Ottawa office.
Women on social media and in interviews with Nunatsiaq News now say Tootoo can no longer represent Inuit, especially women, on Parliament Hill.
That’s because Tootoo, by having that “inappropriate relationship,” implicitly condoned Nunavut’s long history of men who abuse their power, most often at the expense of women.
But because the poor treatment of women in Nunavut is such a complicated and widespread problem, and men often hold leadership positions, numerous Inuit women have told Nunatsiaq News recently they cannot speak publicly.
Some women said they fear professional backlash, others said they fear suffering more prejudice, and others said they fear the threat or actual acts of violence.
Nunavut women who may have hoped for leadership from one of the two women’s organizations serving the territory might be disappointed.
Neither Pauktuutiit Inuit Women of Canada nor Qulliit Nunavut Status of Women Council have commented publicly on the Tootoo scandal or on the concerns raised by some of the women they represent.
Qulliit, whose members are appointed by Monica Ell-Kanayuk, the minister responsible for the status of women, told Nunatsiaq News that they would issue a statement next week.
Meanwhile, Ell-Kanayuk is also unavailable for comment, her office said recently.
Pauktuutiit did issue a news release Aug. 12 in response to growing concerns about Tootoo.
“Pauktuutiit… has no additional information regarding Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo… and has no comment on this specific matter,” the release said.
But the release went on to talk about Pauktuutiit’s research in 2013 and 2016 on the discrimination of women in northern workplaces.
That study focused on women and families living around Baker Lake’s Meadowbank gold mine and found that nearly 50 per cent of women surveyed said they were sexually harassed at the mine.
Women at the mine also experienced “significant sexual, verbal and racial harassment and abuse in the workplace.”
“The need to increase the awareness and advancement of women’s rights in the workplace was echoed across the North,” Pauktuutiit said.
But Pauktuutiit stopped short of drawing a direct link between Tootoo’s inappropriate relationship and the mistreatment of women in Nunavut.
“Harassment and abuse in the workplace cannot be tolerated. These situations are even worse in the case of harassment and abuse by an individual’s supervisor,” Pauktuutiit President Rebecca Kudloo said in the release.
There is one Nunavut leader who has consistently been vocal about Tootoo’s obligation to address the concerns raised by women: Iqaluit mayor Madeleine Redfern.
Redfern helped organize a women-only meeting, closed to the media, in Iqaluit Aug. 11 in response to the Tootoo scandal.
“Upon request, another gathering for women to share their experiences, thoughts, concerns and suggestions about what can be done about abuse of power will happen in September,” Redfern wrote on Facebook Aug. 17.
In a written correspondence with Nunatsiaq News, Redfern said the problem goes beyond ethnic lines and spans the territory.
“This issue of men in power abusing their power has no ethnic boundaries,” she said.
And on Facebook, Redfern summarized weeks of conversations she said she had with many people on the topic.
“If we don’t challenge this pervasive problem of people abusing their power, including harassment, sexual harassment, sexual assault, bullying and inappropriate relationships, it means that this behaviour will continue—as it has for decades—and our daughters and granddaughters will be subject to the same.
“…Such behaviour is not just harmful to the individual but to others in the workplace and is a fundamental breach of public trust.”
Tootoo has not responded to requests for more information.
Tootoo, who is on a tour of Nunavut communities, posted a Tweet Aug. 17 that shows him in Arviat in front of a large billboard recognizing Arviat’s acclaimed singer-songwriter Susan Aglukark.