Law grad Okalik never lost sight of dream
Pangnirtung native returns to Nunavut this summer as one of the first Inuk lawyers in Canada
Paul Okalik was a teenager when his older brother committed suicide to avoid returning to jail.
“It had a devastating impact on me and it still does today,” says Okalik, 33, who earlier this month graduated from the University of Ottawa with a law degree.
When he returns to the North in July, he’ll be Nunavut’s first Inuktitut-speaking lawyer.
Okalik’s brother Norman served time in jail for a criminal offence and found the experience horrifying. But his sentence also carried a stiff fine.
Norman couldn’t pay the fine, but he couldn’t face returning to jail, either.
“I felt the law let him down,” Okalik recalls. “There could have been a better way of dealing with this case. It could have been avoided.”
His tragedy was personal, but when Okalik looked around his community, he saw his neighbors suffering as well. He sensed a desire to help, and the seeds of his professional ambition were sown.
The road that’s finally taking him back home has been difficult. At times, Okalik admits, he has lost sight of his goal. But his will triumphed.
Okalik began his education in his home community of Pangnirtung and moved to Iqaluit to attend high school. As an apathetic student battling many personal problems, including alcoholism. Okalik dropped out.
“I wasn’t really into studying in high school, so I didn’t last too long there,” he said. “I didn’t have much patience.”
His mother, Annie, though, encouraged him to return to his studies. In 1983, he graduated with a welder’s certificate from college in Fort Smith, earning his high school equivalency in the process.
He chuckles now when he thinks about the path his early life took him on.
“It was something to do to get out of town,” he said. “I was trying to figure out what I wanted.”
He was about 19 years old when he headed to Nanisivik Mines to work as a welding trainee and mechanic. But after two years underground, he knew he wasn’t cut out for a career in mining
“I didn’t have the patience to weld. It’s quite monotonous. Mechanics I found interesting, but I found it very dirty,” he laughs. “The dirt I couldn’t really appreciate.
When, two years later, in 1985, Okalik landed a job as a negotiator for the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, “that’s when my life totally changed,” he says.
Over the next few years, Okalik tried hopelessly to reconcile a successful professional career with his tumultuous personal life. Heavy drinking landed him in jail repeatedly in the early 1990s, and his dream of being a lawyer seemed lost.
“I just didn’t have the confidence to pursue it at that stage. I didn’t have anybody to look up to that had done it, so I didn’t take it seriously.
Somewhere along the way doubts and lack of confidence had pushed his dream away. But his first daughter, Shasta, was on the way, and he knew he needed to clean up his act.
“I wanted to divert my energy to something more positive,” he says.
In 1991 Okalik signed himself into a 28-day treatment program, and began what has been an alcohol-free life ever since. Years later, he has difficulty explaining the alcohol dependence.
“When I was growing up and liquor was still allowed in Pangnirtung, I envied people who were drinking. It was just how I grew up.”
He decided to return to his childhood home, seeking strength in his culture. He spent time talking with his grandmother and other elders in the community and learning about the traditional ways of his ancestors.
“My ancestors never drank so I used that as a way of avoiding alcohol and drugs and I’ve been using that ever since. They didn’t need alcohol or drugs and they did well. I thought if they could do it, I could too.”
Renewed, he made plans to attend Carleton University in the fall of 1991 to pursue an undergraduate degree in political science and community studies.
Okalik admits going back to school after a 10-year hiatus was difficult. The mother of his children, Tamara, who majored in English, helped him with his term papers.
“It was a bit of a challenge. Once I got past first year, it got a lot easier.”
He completed his bachelor’s degree during the summer of 1993, and was accepted to the University of Ottawa’s law program in September, a month after his son, Jordan, was born.
“The best part was going to the first day of law school. It was a day I’ll never forget. I worked very hard to try to put my life together and it was a childhood dream to go.
“At times it’s been difficult, particularly around exam time and when papers were due. I found it difficult to make family commitments and deadlines at school. Those times were stressful.”
Okalik chose to study a broad spectrum of subjects instead of specializing in any one field.
“I deliberately wanted to focus on everything, from business to environment to administrative law. My clients will be varied and I want to help as many people as I can. Specializing in one field will deny some assistance to my fellow Inuit who could be helped.”
In July, Okalik moves to Iqaluit to begin a year of articling with both lawyer Anne Crawford and the Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik legal aid clinic.