Constituents will “keep an eye” on Barnabas
Former speaker makes political comeback after sexual assault conviction
Levi Barnabas, the former speaker of the Nunavut legislature who made a remarkable political comeback this week after being forced to resign his seat four years ago over a squalid sexual attack on an Iqaluit woman, has paid his debt to society.
But Barnabas, who defeated five other candidates, including incumbent Rebekah Williams, to recapture the riding of Quttiktuq, has been put on probation by his constituents, including influential elders.
“Don’t make the same mistake. We’re going to keep an eye on you,” they’ve told him.
As he returns to legislative politics after a long, unhappy exile, Barnabas will be the focus of attention from elders, other constituents, his fellow MLAs and people from across Nunavut. What’s more, the pressure is likely to become intense if, as expected, he seeks to regain the speaker’s job. MLAs will select a speaker early next month.
Barnabas’s preparations for a return to political life have been meticulous. Two years ago, he says, he took his last drink.
A pledge of sobriety has become a familiar gesture to voters in the South, who have been treated to the spectacle of first Ralph Klein, premier of Alberta, and then Gordon Campbell, premier of British Columbia, bidding adieu to alcohol – Klein after a sorry incident in which he made a visit to a single men’s shelter in Edmonton after a night of imbibing, first showering the surprised inhabitants with money, and then exhorting them to get jobs.
Campbell stopped drinking after he was charged with driving while impaired and spent a night in jail when he was stopped by police during a holiday in Hawaii.
Barnabas did not say precisely when he gave up alcohol, but two years of sobriety coincides with his defeat by Williams in a by-election held in Quttiktuq in December 2000.
After she won, Williams declared, “My strong point is that I don’t drink and I think [voters] believe they can rely on me. A lot of people talked about how they want somebody who can behave properly. I feel that I fulfill that.”
Observing and benefiting from an opponent’s shortcomings is a lesson Barnabas learned well. “People were concerned that they didn’t get enough visits from their current MLA,” he says. During the campaign, he pledged that he would consult constituents and hamlet officials about Nunavut’s five-year capital plan and get back to them as it changed.
Barnabas’s legal and political troubles began with a few drinks at the Legion in Iqaluit on March 14, 2000. That evening, Barnabas met two women with whom he struck up a conversation outside the building after closing time.
The women accompanied him to his room at the Navigator Inn, where he retrieved a bottle of Crown Royal whiskey. Then they went on to the home of one of the women and her husband. They all had several drinks. One woman fell asleep on the couch and the other went to bed. Her husband was already asleep in another room.
As events were later related in an agreed statement of facts read in court, Barnabas entered the room of the married woman and began fondling her breasts. He also tried to penetrate her with his penis, but the woman resisted.
Awakened by the indignant woman, her husband pursued Barnabas into the street with a baseball bat and struck him three times on the head. Later, Barnabas was questioned by the RCMP and charged with sexual assault.
He resigned as speaker, but in an attempt to hold onto his seat in the legislature, he had his lawyer strike a deal in which the Crown proceeded by way of summary conviction rather than by indictment. Serving MPs convicted of indictable offences automatically forfeit their seat. In return, Barnabas entered a guilty plea.
But the public outcry was such that Barnabas’s fellow MLAs were forced to confront him and issue an ultimatum: quit, or they’d use their statutory powers to remove him. He quit.
During the court proceedings, Barnabas said that the position of speaker had taken a big toll on him and his family, and that he started drinking heavily.
Since then, he’s revised his story. “I had a problem back then,” he said in an interview this week. “My brother passed away that year. There were so many things on my mind.”
Barnabas insists that he’s used his own resources to stay sober, and has not been assisted by Alcoholics Anonymous or any other organization. Still, his advice to others with a drinking problem is that they “be volunteers – be involved with youth and elder activities” or other community events which provide a healthy substitute for alcohol.
Barnabas says the sexual attack has made him more sympathetic to women, but adds, “I’ve always been a supporter of women’s rights.”
In a free, open society, he acknowledges, there will always be the prospect of being tempted by alcohol. Having experienced what can result from giving into temptation, Barnabas now has the opportunity to demonstrate what he can achieve by rising above it.