A colourful man of the people
“It’s about coming up with good solutions and lobbying for them”
In a photo displayed prominently in his office at the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, Keith Peterson sports a bright red and blue Spiderman shirt and a toothy grin as he stands beside Jean Chrétien, clad in a drab grey suit.
Peterson was actually wearing a suit himself when he met with Chrétien, who was prime minister at the time, in Ottawa last year for a meeting of the Nunavut Association of Municipalities.
But for his big photo op, the Cambridge Bay mayor and president of NAM, changed into his Spidey suit to the surprise of the PM, and his fellow Nunavut mayors.
He wasn’t playing a prank or taking up someone on a bet. Instead, Peterson, 48, explained last week, he wanted to show the kids back home in Cambridge Bay that it could have been any one of them in that spot beside Chrétien.
It’s that same mentality he wants to instill in Cambridge Bay voters in the coming weeks as he campaigns to be their next MLA. He wants them to know that if he is elected to sit in Iqaluit, he will represent the ordinary people of the community, the ones whose voices are rarely heard in the capital.
“I’m not going to be a rebel, but we have folks out here who want to have a better life,” he said from his KIA office, where he is on leave from his job as lead negotiator on Inuit impact and benefits agreements.
“We have two to three generations packed into these little houses.”
He wants to be the voice for the part of the territory that is farthest away from the political centre.
“We’re not often heard,” he said. “But the Kitikmeot in the next five years will be the economic engine of Nunavut. It will be what drives Nunavut into the future.
“We have the tourism potential, the resource potential. We need to get control of our economy.”
As president of NAM, he became familiar with the chain of command on Parliament Hill, an important skill for an MLA, he said.
He points to Prime Minister Paul Martin’s infrastructure plan, which promises one per cent of the total new infrastructure cash for every province and territory in Canada and recommends dividing up the rest by population. He said that was actually his recommendation, on behalf of NAM. The plan favours have-not jurisdictions, and means Nunavut will receive an automatic $20 million in infrastructure funds.
“It’s not about whining. It’s about coming up with good solutions and then lobbying for them,” he said.
But while he has experience making deals with Ottawa politicians, he has no plan to become one himself.
“I’d just like to represent the people here in Cambridge Bay,” he said.
He would, however, consider a cabinet post. He is being touted by some as Nunavut’s next finance minister.
“Any MLA must be prepared to serve,” he said. “It will be important for the Kitikmeot to have two key ministers in the Nunavut government. However that all shakes out, I don’t know.”
The lifelong Northerner (he was born in the Yukon) will face three Inuit challengers for the Cambridge Bay seat: Harry Maksagak, David Kaosoni and Harry Aknavigak.
Harry Maksagak, 51, son of the first Nunavut commissioner, Helen Maksagak, said he’s running to continue the work his parents began in building the new territory.
His father, John, died just as Nunavut was created. “I want to have that puzzle that he was working on complete, and have one of his own working on our new Nunavut government,” he said.
A long time employee at the Lupin gold mine, before it shut down last summer, Maksagak said he’s optimistic, but also realistic about the future of mining in the Kitikmeot.
“Mining is a good industry. It provides employment, and has spinoff employment,” he said. “But it has a two-year heyday. Then, all of a sudden, you will start hearing rumours of a shutdown. Once the ore is gone, it’s gone. It’s a non-renewable resource. Once it’s gone, you don’t have a job.”
David Kaosoni, 49, who is on leave from his job as manager of the regional community government and transportation office, said now that his children are grown, he’s ready to take up the challenge of being an elected representative.
“I’ve freed up time for this adventure I’m about to take,” he said.
He, like all the Cambridge Bay candidates, sees housing and economic development as the primary needs of the community, but he is particularly concerned about the Yellowknife-based Norterra Group of Companies.
He was dismayed that the Northern Transportation Company Ltd. lost out on a fuel shipment contract last year, and that Canadian North has been left off the list of Inuit-owned firms that qualify for a GN business incentive policy.
“I’d like to rethink that, revisit that. They’re bringing a lot of benefits to Inuit,” he said.
Harry Aknavigak, 41, is a KitNuna Construction Company employee on contract with Canadian North Cargo.
Aknavigak’s background is primarily in education, having worked as an adult instructor for 12 years. He has also served as a justice of the peace in the community for about the same length of time.
He is concerned about employment in the health care sector. In particular, he wants to make sure that Inuit get jobs at the new health centre being built in Cambridge Bay.
He also sees tourism as a good tool for economic development in the community.
“It could bring big employability in Cambridge Bay,” he said.
But most of all, he said, the GN needs to train more Inuit to work in senior positions.
“The GN needs more people to take over management,” he said.