Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq: 2013 was a year of many milestones
Canada’s Arctic Council chairmanship the biggest highlight
Nunavut’s Conservative MP, Leona Aglukkaq, who has served as a minister in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government since 2008, says 2013 was a year of many milestones for Nunavut and the people of northern Canada.
The year marked the start of Canada’s chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council, and Aglukkaq, Canada’s circumpolar ambassador and minister responsible for the Arctic Council, sees this as the biggest highlight of the year for her and the people of northern Canada.
As “an aboriginal northern person, I’m very proud of taking over that, and working with Arctic Council members as well as the indigenous Inuit Circumpolar Council, as an example of establishing Canada’s chairmanship priorities,” she told Nunatsiaq News.
“I certainly take the opportunity to talk about the importance of putting people first, that there are people in the Arctic,” she said.
In addition to Aglukkaq’s tenure as chair of the Arctic Council, her appointment as Canada’s environment minister in July has given her added opportunity to “put a human face of Canada’s North into policy,” she said.
“When you’re talking about the polar bear or the seal hunt, or the environment — on that front, having been in many international conferences in the Arctic eight, I don’t waste an opportunity to talk about how important it is to remember that there are people that live in the Arctic, when forming policy decisions.”
Aglukkaq won recognition for indigenous knowledge within the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears Dec. 6, when Canada and four other polar bear range states renewed their commitment to the 40-year-old agreement.
“This is very significant for aboriginal people that live in the range states,” said Aglukkaq, who marked the recognition as a milestone for Inuit.
“I am very proud to be part of a government that recognizes our culture and the importance of wildlife, and to actually push for a declaration that puts us into an agreement was a very significant achievement.”
Gaining recognition for indigenous ways of life continues to be an uphill battle, however, when it comes to seal hunting.
A decision by the World Trade Organization in November upheld the European Union’s import ban on seal products on the basis of “public moral concerns.”
The WTO decision was “not made based on any science or wildlife management practices,” Aglukkaq said. “If you start making decisions on ‘moral grounds,’ it’s really going down a slippery slope. What’s next? The farming industry?”
The federal government said it would appeal the ruling.
“The question is, on whose moral grounds did the World Trade Organization decide that this will be upheld? It undermines the indigenous peoples’ way of life, and it’s discriminatory.”
In her 20 years of work in government and politics at the municipal, territorial and federal levels, Aglukkaq said she has never seen a Canadian prime minister “that is more committed to Canada’s North than Stephen Harper.”
“I’ve never seen a prime minister spend more time in Canada’s North every year,” she said. “We’ve also never had a government that had a northern strategy that is very strategic in investing in economic development, in sovereignty and in self-governing models.”
Federal legislation on devolution for the Northwest Territories passed in November. The government’s throne speech in October promised the same for Nunavut, although that process has moved slowly since the appointment of negotiators for each side.
Nunavut received federal funds and funding commitments for several programs in 2013 related to infrastructure, health and education, Aglukkaq said.
Tops among them were $200 million for a High Arctic research station in Cambridge Bay, and $1.4 billion through regular annual transfers to the Government of Nunavut’s budget.
“In addition, we have $100 million for social housing, which is an area that is important to us in the North,” Aglukkaq said.
With the support of Harper and Jim Flaherty, the federal finance minister, Aglukkaq said the government agreed to allocate $400 million over 10 years to infrastructure projects in Nunavut.
“The work is not over,” Aglukkaq said. “We’re starting to make real progress in areas where we were lagging far behind, and the work continues.”
For 2014, Aglukkaq said she hopes to work with the new territorial government on “mutual priorities,” particularly education and infrastructure.
Among these, developing hydroelectric power must be a priority for Nunavut, she said.
“We need to address the energy issue in the North and how to reduce the cost of doing business and the cost of living.”
Asked about the biggest challenge she has faced over the past year, Aglukkaq took pause, and said the toughest part is “always travelling.”
As MP of the country’s largest riding, amounting to 20 per cent of Canada’s landmass, with three time zones, “certainly the hardest part is getting to my communities, weather permitting.”
Not to mention the balance between work and family.
“I have a young son, who’s now five, so that’s always challenging. But in terms of the work, I enjoy it,” she said. “I have a good working relationship with people in the North, and I say look, open door policy, and call any time.”
Even with her heavy travel schedule within Canada and abroad, and a thick portfolio as minister of Environment, minister responsible for the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and minister responsible for the Arctic Council, “ultimately I am the member of parliament for Nunavut, and I will always advocate for Nunavut,” Aglukkaq said.
“If there’s issues that my constituents are concerned about, certainly I will move some of those files forward.”