Okalik campaign insiders revel at invitation-only bash

An exclusive brand of party politics in Iqaluit West

By Arthur Johnson

It was just minutes after the polls closed Monday night when guests began arriving for an exclusive party at a modest apartment in south Iqaluit.

The party, held to mark the end of Paul Okalik's grueling and often bitter election campaign, was exclusive, because Okalik's team had decreed that only invited guests – his closest friends, most devoted associates and campaign workers, would be allowed to cross the threshold.

Journalists were warned late Monday afternoon by a key campaign official that they were not welcome at the gathering. Nor, for that matter, were well-wishers who had not been blessed by Okalik and his team.

Despite their privileged status, the guests were subdued, for they did not know whether they were attending a wake or a celebration.

They were keenly aware of a far more relaxed party being held by Iqaluit Mayor Elisapee Sheutiapik at her Grind and Brew coffee shop in the Iqaluit beach area.

Sheutiapik had thrown the gathering open to anyone who wanted to attend. Every seat was taken and it was standing room only.

At the Okalik party, held in the apartment of his financial agent, Nadia Ciccone, guests chatted quietly and nervously to each other for about two hours while they gathered around a television set to watch poll results slowly trickle in.

The mood changed suddenly and explosively at 10:15 p.m. when Okalik finally emerged as the winner, beating Sheutiapik by a slender margin of 44 votes.

Ciccone's apartment erupted with cheers and whistles, and the floorboards trembled as Okalik's supporters stamped their feet in exultation.

Until that moment, Okalik and those closest to him were braced for a defeat that would have ended a political career that spanned nine years as Nunuvut's first and only premier.

Before the polls closed, an Okalik intermediary offered a face-to-face interview with him to a Nunatsiaq News reporter after the results were in, but asked, "Do you still want to do the interview if he loses?"

When the victory was certain, the promised face-to-face interview changed to a pledge of an interview over the telephone. And that, too, was soon withdrawn. "He'll talk to you tomorrow," the intermediary said.

The contest between Okalik and Sheutiapik was unusually bitter and personal, in large part because of an extraordinarily indiscreet and unguarded comment that has haunted Okalik for more than a year.

In June 2007, he attended a dinner during a the Expo Labrador trade conference in Goose Bay. When he noticed that Lynda Gunn, then the CEO of the Nunavut Association of Municipalities, was also at the dinner, he asked his companions why "that fucking bitch" was in attendance.

He made the comment within earshot of Sheutiapik, who passed it along to Gunn.

His obscenity soon became a political firestorm, which he was forced to dampen down by apologizing in the legislature to both Gunn and Sheutiapik.

He was censured by the legislature and Gunn, who has since stepped down from the NAM, sued him for $600,000, saying her reputation had been damaged by his remark. The lawsuit is before the courts.

In an interview with CBC on election night, Okalik said that between them, he and Sheutiapik had offered voters in Iqaluit West good choices. And that pretty much exhausted his stock of gracious words for his opponent.

Sheutiapik, for her part, had campaigned on a platform of more openness and more honesty, saying that Okalik had centralized power in the premier's office and adopted an increasingly remote governing style.

This criticism reflects similar concerns voiced by some MLAs, which may mean trouble ahead for Okalik.

Sheutiapik lost the election in Iqaluit West, but she's still mayor of Iqaluit and well positioned for her future political career.

Okalik won the election, but given the discontent about his track record, his remaining time as premier may be short indeed.

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