Nunavut cabinet minister Keith Peterson says no to another term
“Sometimes you just have to step aside”
CAMBRIDGE BAY—When the Nunavut Legislature convenes again in Iqaluit after the Oct. 30 election, a familiar face will be missing from the assembly chamber—that of the veteran cabinet minister and Cambridge Bay MLA, Keith Peterson.
Peterson said he made the hard decision not to put his name forward for re-election after serving nine years in cabinet and 14 years as MLA for the western Nunavut hub.
His length of service makes Peterson the MLA with the greatest number of consecutive years in the Nunavut legislature and the longest-serving finance minister in Canada.
He will continue to serve in cabinet as finance minister and justice minister until the new legislative assembly chooses a new cabinet, likely in mid-November.
“Sometimes you just have to step aside. You just get a feeling that it’s time to move on and let someone else step in with new directions, and ideas and that kind of thing,” said Peterson at his home in Cambridge Bay Sept. 28—a day before the close of the nomination period for the upcoming election.
Looking back at his years in public office, Peterson said he feels he had the best job in Canada, because it allowed him to help his community and the territory.
But it was time to leave “on my own terms,” Peterson said.
As for being finance minister, it’s a serious portfolio, he said.
“It’s not a job for the faint of heart. You have to have a lot of courage and backbone. You have to stand up and say ‘we can’t do this we can’t do that,'” he said, by way of advice to the incoming minister.
“You have to make tough decisions and people aren’t going to like you.”
Peterson laid out a pack of cards on his kitchen table that he had received as a joke gift at a government Christmas party, called the “just say no” cards.
Various cards bear printed messages on them like “it’s just not possible in the current economic situation,” or simply, “no”— a word he had to say often as finance minister.
When Peterson started as finance minister in 2008, the department was not in good shape, he said.
That changed over the nine years he served in that portfolio.
“I’m very proud we got our finances in order and got our public accounts out on time,” he said. “It’s very critical to have a good credit rating, so we can actually do stuff.”
That also allows, for example, the territorial government to find money when disaster strikes, such as when Kugaaruk’s school burned down last February.
Finding the money to replace the Peter Pitseolak School in Cape Dorset school, which burned down in 2015, was more critical, Peterson said, “as we found out it was uninsured, meaning we had to pay 100 per cent of the replacement cost which is roughly $35 million-plus.”
The Government of Nunavut was able to act quickly, he said, which was not the case when the school in Cambridge Bay burned down in 1998 and the construction of a new school took four years.
Peterson, who also served as health minister and, after 2016, as justice minister, faced different challenges in those two departments where the focus was on people, rather than on figures.
As minister of justice, he also experienced some disappointment, too, when the Corrections Act which was not passed before the legislature dissolved, despite changes and additional incorporation of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit.
But Peterson said he always concentrated on the “small victories.”
“I’m the eternal optimist,” he said.
After being involved in public office for years, as a Cambridge Bay hamlet councillor, then mayor in the early 2000s, before becoming a MLA in 2004 and minister in 2009, Peterson said he doesn’t have another job lined up.
“This is uncharted waters for me,” said Peterson, now 61, of his new life. He says he’s worked since he was a boy, starting out delivering papers and collecting beer bottles to return for deposit money.
When asked about his immediate plans, Peterson said he would like to travel a bit, although his home will remain in Cambridge Bay where he has lived, with some breaks for schooling, since 1968.
And he will be ready and able to provide advice, if asked, to the incoming MLA for this community of about 1,700 after Oct. 30.
Peterson said he hopes he has left things a bit better than they were.
“You can look back with pride… [but] the people will be the judge,” he said.
The deadline for candidates to file declarations of candidacy falls at 2 p.m. local time Sept. 29. As of the morning of Sept. 29, Elections Nunavut had accepted Jeannie Ehaloak and Pamela Gross as candidates for MLA in Cambridge Bay.