Chrétien’s last visit a feel-good affair

Nunavummiut praise the PM before he leaves office for good


Jean Chrétien enjoyed a nostalgic, feel-good visit to Nunavut last week, while his official hosts heaped praise upon Canada’s departing prime minister every time they got within hailing distance of a microphone.

Chrétien’s past trips to Nunavut, when he acted as tour guide to such visiting luminaries as Queen Elizabeth II, French President Jacques Chirac, and the former German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, were mostly organized with military precision.

But this time around, no one paid much attention to the clock when Chrétien took in a community feast in Pangnirtung, posed for pictures with staff at Iqaluit’s Frobisher Inn, and then ambled his way through a loosely organized Saturday-morning signing ceremony in Iqaluit for Ukkusiksalik National Park.

The Liberal Party of Canada will replace Chrétien with his long-time rival, Paul Martin, at a leadership convention to be held Nov. 12 to 15 in Toronto. Chrétien has said, however, that he wants to stay on as prime minister until February 2004.

Despite his government’s oft-criticized record on many northern issues, it’s clear that many Nunavummiut feel genuine affection for Chrétien and his wife, Aline, and used the occasion to bid a respectful farewell.

Premier Paul Okalik, usually a harsh critic of Chrétien’s government, capped his Saturday-morning speech with a long, gushing tribute to Chrétien’s political career.

“There is also someone else who deserves a round of applause, a man, a leader, who, before I was even born, began a career of public service 40 years ago, someone who had to fight his way up, but whose heart and vision led him to great heights, a politician who began his path to the office of the prime minister as the minister of Indian and northern affairs, a statesman who played a crucial role in negotiating the Canadian constitution, which included section 35 that recognizes our aboriginal rights,” Okalik said.

Six short months ago, Okalik was ready to bury Chrétien, not praise him.

“Yesterday it became clear that perhaps the prime minister will leave a legacy of neglect for the North,” Okalik said Feb. 5 – when Canada’s three territorial premiers were in the midst of a nasty battle with Ottawa over health-care funding.

But this time around, Okalik lauded the prime minister for keeping, not breaking, a promise.

“Mr. Chrétien, you have once again demonstrated your commitment to the environment. Earlier this month you followed through on your promise to push Canada to meet our commitments in reducing greenhouse gases. This is fundamentally important to northern Canada,” Okalik said.

Nancy Karetak-Lindell, who as Nunavut’s Liberal MP has been forced to defend herself and the government against accusations that they’re ignoring the North, made sure that she got in a good word for her boss.

“I’ve always been very comfortable knowing that my prime minister will understand the North and that in a lot of social issues he has helped the people of the Arctic. That is certainly evident in a lot of my discussions with him,” she said.

For Chrétien, his informal trip to Pangnirtung last Friday was a journey back in time, to that long period – from 1968 to 1974 – when he served in Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s cabinet as minister of Indian affairs and northern development.

“Everyone knows I love Canada’s north, and it’s great to be welcomed back to Nunavut, our land,” Chrétien said.

It was in the early 1970s when Chrétien first flew over the mountainous, glacier-covered region between Pangnirtung and Qikiqtarjuaq that was later to become Auyuittuq National Park.

“I said, Aline, I will make a park here for you. When I got back to my office I consulted the minister of Indian Affairs, who was myself; the minister of northern affairs, who was myself; and the minister for parks, who was myself – and they all agreed on the plan,” Chrétien joked.

In reality, it took years for Auyuittuq to legally become a national park – because of the Nunavut land claim. It didn’t happen until the summer of 2001, when Heritage Minister Sheila Copps signed an Inuit impact and benefit agreement for the Baffin region’s three national parks.

Ukkusiksalik Park took almost as long to negotiate. It was first proposed in 1978.

Chrétien reminded his audience on Saturday that the creation of a national park in Wager Bay helps fulfill an agenda that’s important for Canada’s international reputation.

Last fall, he appeared at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg and boasted of his government’s five-year plan to create 10 new national parks and five new marine conservation areas.

But before Chrétien could add Ukkusiksalik Park to his list of accomplishments, the Inuit of the Kivalliq region drove a hard bargain.

“The willingness of the people of the Kivalliq to share such a rare treasure with Canadians and with the world is a blessing,” Chrétien said.

The Kivalliq Inuit will get $3 million in cash, a youth scholarship program and Inuit-preference provisions in the hiring of park staff and the awarding of park-related contracts.

“It has taken time, but it is worth the time to get things right,” Chrétien said.

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