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Power struggle looms as Cambridge showdown nears

With less than 800 days to go before division of the Northwest Territories, Nunavut’s leaders have replaced polite language with accusations and frank talk about each other’s perceived shortcomings.



Nunavut MLAs held an emergency meeting last week to react to comments by John Amagoalik, the chief commissioner of the Nunavut Implementation Commission and NTI President Jose Kusugak.

Amagoalik made his comments in Inuktitut during an interview with broadcaster Jonah Kelly on the CBC North radio program Tausunni last week.

MLAs grumbled privately that some of Amagoalik’s comments were racist and demeaning towards non-Inuit MLAs, and some considered launching a public counterattack against him.

They decided instead to opt for a more conciliatory approach, sent Amagoalik a letter, and raised some not too subtle questions about what role, if any, the NIC will play in the future of Nunavut.

John Todd, the lead minister responsible for division, talked in the legislative assembly about the need to cool the “unnecessary rhetoric,” and to “rise above small-minded partisan attitudes,” and to “put aside some of the emotion.”

Cool rhetoric, ease tensions

In an interview outside the assembly, Todd said he was reluctant to comment on what he described as the “rhetoric” that had been aired.

“I think it’s inappropriate,” Todd said. “You’ve got to show statesmanship on this issue. This is not the time to be cranking up any additional tensions that were already there.”

He said Nunavut’s leaders have to work things out through compromise and not confrontation.

“Cool off the rhetoric. Be a little careful what we all say.”

Todd stressed that there are only three groups that now have decision-making power on Nunavut issues – the GNWT, Ottawa and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.

“Those three parties will agree and give direction to the interim commissioner,” Todd said.

“The NIC doesn’t have decision-making capacity. Let’s get that clear,” he said. “It has the ability to provide recommendations to the three parties, which this government appointed three members to. That sometimes is lost in the debate.”

Funny business?

But Amagoalik says he has nothing to apologize for.

“We’ve been hearing a lot of very strange stories coming out of Yellowknife and that the GNWT is up to all kinds of funny business. I was commenting on that,” he said.

Amagoalik says that in the interview he said that many of the top politicians in Yellowknife were behaving like “chickens without heads.”

“I make no apology for making that comment because that’s the way they’ve been behaving.”

Amagoalik said he did make one comment about qallunaat, and suspects that’s what raised the ire of some MLAs.

“I did say that white people tend to have less patience when it comes to this sort of thing. That’s the only comment I made,” Amagoalik said.

Kusugak’s comments questioned

MLAs also scrambled last week to find out what NTI President Jose Kusugak has said about them during an interview with Inuit Broadcasting Corporation.

They say Kusugak has taken cheap shots at the GNWT, and in particular at Deputy Premier Goo Arlooktoo. The Nunavut caucus also sent Kusugak a letter complaining about his comments.

In Yellowknife, Arlooktoo says he’s disappointed by what both Kusugak and Amagoalik have said.

“I really don’t know where Mr. Kusugak and Amagoalik are coming from,” Arlooktoo said. “I have reviewed the transcripts of what they said, and am very disappointed. I am saddened to see two individuals who we thought were objective leaders in Nunavut resorting to personal attacks on MLAs and on ministers rather than dealing with issues we have raised.”

Arlooktoo said the comments directed his way are like “water off a duck’s back” and don’t bother him on a personal level. But some MLAs say they are getting tired of being the sitting duck that other leaders line up to take turns shooting at.

He said a recent “orientation meeting” in Yellowknife with NIC and NTI officials turned out to be “Arlooktoo-bashing.”

Bursting with questions

For his part, Kusugak said NTI officials are eager to debate and discuss key issues about the design of Nunavut’s government with members of the Nunavut caucus. But most of those MLAs didn’t even show up at a recent briefing session in Yellowknife.

“We are bursting at the seams to ask these questions,” Kusugak said. “What are we supposed to do?”

Kusugak says NIC and NTI are talking to each other regularly about issues such as the commission’s Footprints 2 model for the design of Nunavut’s government and other political recommendations, but the GNWT hasn’t taken part in those talks.

Kusugak said he suspects some of those issues will be tackled at an upcoming meeting of Nunavut leaders in Cambridge Bay.

“It will force everybody together, and it will help clear the air,” Kusugak said.

Power struggle

Until the interim commissioner for Nunavut is appointed, leaders say there is a power struggle going on for who will be driving the process of Nunavut.

The interim commissioner isn’t now expected to be appointed until after the leader’s meeting.

“I suspect that’s what’s happening. But they are probably expecting much more from the interim commissioner than what that person will actually be able to deliver,” says Amagoalik.

The battle for control of the process to create the Nunavut territory has been raging behind the scenes for months, but has only now spilled across the public airwaves, and entered the public debate.

The next round in that debate is slated for Feb. 16-17 in Cambridge Bay.

Key meeting in Cambridge Bay

Several leaders say they expect that meeting to be a showdown with nothing less than the future of Nunavut at stake.

“There’s a lot of stuff in the air and we have to clear it out,” Amagoalik says. “I think we are going to probably end up having some very heated debates in Cambridge Bay. I think that’s necessary…”

Todd describes the upcoming meeting as “very important.”

“I would say it’s critical,” Todd said, adding that he hopes to leave that meeting with a clear direction from the leaders on key Nunavut issues so he can then present those ideas to federal finance minister Paul Martin in March.

Ottawa has to agree to pay for any design model the people of Nunavut come up with, he says.

Arlooktoo describes the meeting as a “pivotal point” where the different parties must find consensus, not fight and accomplish nothing, such as what happened at a previous Nunavut leaders meeting in Arviat.

“It will be a very important meeting. I think history will show that will set the tone of what happens down the road.”

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