The federal election and Nunavut

By JIM BELL

Not so long ago it used to be that federal elections were a big deal in Nunavut.

Whoever managed to claw his or her way into Parliament as the member for Nunatsiaq enjoyed much prestige in Nunavut. For many young would-be politicians on the make, to become MP for Nunatsiaq was to find the Holy Grail.

Those were the days before Nunavut Tunngavik grew out of the Tungavik Federation to become a large, well-funded influential voice on behalf of Nunavut’s Inuit. Those were the days before Nunavut’s territorial MLAs enjoyed the power and responsibilities they now have. Those were the days when the powers-that-be in Ottawa mostly ignored Inuit and other Nunavut residents.

Many Nunavut residents therefore believed that the well-being of the eastern Arctic, not to mention the very creation of Nunavut, depended upon the election of a loud, strong representative in Ottawa.

Numerous candidates for the job of Nunatsiaq MP have attempted to seduce the voters with that very slogan ­ a strong voice for Nunavut.

But in the 18 years that have gone by since the federal riding of Nunatsiaq was created in 1979, none of the three people who have held that job have quite lived up to what Nunavut residents expected of them.

Nunatsiaq’s first member, Peter Ittinuar of Rankin Inlet, probably made more things happen for Nunavut than either of the two people who followed him in that job.

In 1982, when he left the NDP to sit as a Liberal in exchange for the Liberal government’s support in principle of the creation of Nunavut, Ittinuar helped set into motion a chain of events that led directly to the creation of the Tungavik Federation and the Nunavut Constitutional Forum.

But his several well publicized brushes with the law made Ittinuar unacceptable to the Nunatsiaq Liberal association’s Rankin Inlet bosses. In 1984 they dumped him in favour of Robert Kuptana, who went on to lose that year to Thomas Suluk of the Progressive Conservatives.

The Tory years were mostly good years for Nunavut. But Nunatsiaq’s Tory MP didn’t fare so well. Suluk’s stint in the House of Commons was undistinguished, marked mostly by unnecessary controversies created by his occasionally unfortunate public remarks.

Meanwhile, Nunavut leaders forged ahead on the land claim agreement and the Nunavut accord in direct negotiations with Ottawa officials, and without much involvement from whomever happened to be sitting as Nunatsiaq’s MP.

Liberal Jack Anawak, who replaced Suluk in 1988, had little influence on the Nunavut process. In 1992, he even campaigned against the land claim agreement that Inuit negotiators had worked out with the Tory government of the day.

In 1993, Anawak did work to help ensure speedy passage of the Nunavut Act and the Nunavut Land Claims Settlement Act in the dying days of Brian Mulroney’s government.

But the fact remains that Nunavut got to where it is today mostly without the involvement of our last two MPs. So much for having a strong voice in Ottawa.

And Anawak’s career since his landslide victory in the 1993 federal election has only provided more evidence to support the idea that the Nunatsiaq MP’s job is becoming increasingly irrelevant. That’s because, on the bread-and-butter issues that have mattered the most to Nunavut residents, Anawak has been almost totally ineffectual.

For example, Anawak stood by helplessly and watched Ottawa’s catastrophic elimination of money for social housing construction in Nunavut. As for his government’s hated gun control bill, he was incapable of even casting a vote against it.

The absurdities of party politics have clearly victimised Anawak as much as they victimised his two predecessors.

And if there’s anything we can learn from observing the performance of all three Nunatsiaq MPs, it’s that sitting as a government member is no advantage, and gives us no guarantee of favourable treatment from Ottawa.

As for the impending federal election, which will likely be held either June 2 or June 9, it will still be important for us to participate. But in doing so, it won’t do us any harm to keep the event in proper perspective.

That’s because the federal election campaign will overlap with another event that promises to have a far greater influence on our lives and the kind of government we’ll get in the future ­ the May 26 plebiscite on gender parity.

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