'We're disgusted,' says Qulliit council member

Women lambaste MLAs for choosing Barnabas


The Qulliit Nunavut Status of Women Council wants members of the legislative assembly to reconsider their decision to appoint a convicted sexual abuser to cabinet.

"We're disgusted," said Trista Mercer, a Qulliit councillor.

Mercer and fellow councillors say they've been overwhelmed with phone calls from concerned Nunavummiut since Levi Barnabas, MLA for Quttiktuq, won a cabinet seat by acclamation March 13.

"What kind of message does it send to people?" asked Mercer. "Is it that violence against women is tolerated or easily forgotten?"

It's an uncomfortable question. Barnabas was re-elected by his constituents in 2004. They knew he had been convicted of sexual assault four years earlier, and been forced to resign in disgrace, first as speaker of the house, and later as an MLA.

Barnabas's constituents were probably also familiar with the sordid, well-publicized details of the incident that led to his fall. After a night of drinking he climbed atop a woman he knew, who was asleep on a couch. He fondled her breasts, pulled down her underwear and tried to penetrate her.

She woke up and resisted. Soon after, Barnabas was running down the street in his underwear while the woman's angry husband chased him with a baseball bat.

He was still electable. And now he's a cabinet minister.

And Barnabas is no anomaly. James Arvaluk, MLA for Tunnuniq, has resigned as an MLA twice for assaulting women. That didn't stop him from being re-elected in October of 2006.

In August of 2000, while living in Coral Harbour, Arvaluk viciously beat his girlfriend, leaving her with 14 stitches inside her mouth and permanent nerve damage. Three years later, he spent nine months in prison for the assault, and he was forced to resign as an MLA.

Earlier, during the mid-1980s, Arvaluk was forced to resign from the Northwest Territory legislature, while he was education minister, amid allegations of sexual assault.

Later, in the 1990s he spent two and a half years in prison for sexually assaulting a woman he invited to a hot tub party at his Yellowknife home in 1995.

Arvaluk's past is also well known. Yet he, too, remains electable.

Both Barnabas and Arvaluk say they've changed their ways. And both say their constituents have forgiven their pasts. Their electoral successes suggests this may be true.

But Qulliit says apologies aren't enough. The acclamation of Barnabas to cabinet has renewed their calls for tougher rules on the eligibility of sex offenders to sit in the assembly.

Sexual offenders can't teach in a classroom. They can't acquire a passport. They can't even drive a taxi.

So, Qulliit's councillors ask, why is it that sexual offenders are able to help steer the Government of Nunavut as a cabinet minister?

Mary Akpaliakaluk, the women's coordinator for the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, agrees tougher rules are needed.

She worries the acclamation of Barnabas to cabinet "sets a bad example for young people."

But she says change won't happen unless more residents speak up. "Every community should start lobbying," she said.

She also says that, perhaps, voters need to stop being so forgiving.

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