Nunavut MLAs wrap up action-filled spring sitting

Baker Lake MLA Simeon Mikkungwak chosen as legislature’s new speaker

Here is a view into Nunavut’s legislative chamber during the last day of the spring sitting. (Photo by Jane George)

By Emma Tranter

Nunavut MLAs are back home after an eight-day sitting at the legislature that saw the introduction of proposed changes to the territory’s Education Act and the promise of a future motion on whether Nunavummiut should directly elect their premier.

On June 5, the day before the sitting wrapped up, MLAs finally saw the long-awaited amendments to Bill 25, An Act to Amend the Education Act and the Inuit Language Protection Act.

They learned from Education Minister David Joanasie that it will take 20 years longer than originally expected to bring Inuktut instruction into the territory’s schools from kindergarten to Grade 12.

And, on the sitting’s final day, June 6, Aggu MLA and former premier Paul Quassa rose to unexpectedly announce his plans to introduce a motion during the fall sitting for a plebiscite on whether to allow the Nunavut public to directly elect the territory’s premier.

  • Aggu MLA Paul Quassa stands in front of a display of dog team leads in the Nunavut legislature's foyer. On the final day of the spring sitting of the legislature, Quassa spoke about his intent to introduce a motion during the next sitting for a plebiscite on the direct election of the territory's premier. "Many people have told me that a clear choice of visions for our territory needs to be put before the people." (Photo by Jane George)

These were just two of the subjects that set up what is sure to be an eventful fall session when MLAs return to the legislature’s sealskin-upholstered chairs on Oct. 17.

Between May 28 and June 6, MLAs also:

  • Asked 324 oral questions, including supplementary questions
  • Extended question period six times
  • Passed and gave royal assent to four bills (Bill 1, Corrections Act; Bill 22, Supplementary Appropriation (Operations and Maintenance) Act, No. 1, 2019-2020; Bill 24, Write-off of Debts Act, 2018-2019; and Bill 27, An Act to Amend the Senior Citizens Benefits Act)

But their spring sitting started on May 28 on a solemn note: it was the first time MLAs had been back in the chamber since the death of Joe Enook, the legislature’s Speaker, at the end of March.

Enook’s passing meant the first order of business was to select a new Speaker, via secret ballot. MLAs nominated four candidates: Baker Lake MLA and deputy Speaker Simeon Mikkungwak, Iqaluit-Niaqunnguu MLA Pat Angnakak, Aggu MLA Paul Quassa and Gjoa Haven MLA Tony Akoak.

After one ballot, MLAs chose Mikkungwak to be their new Speaker.

Also on May 28, Finance Minister George Hickes announced the Nunavut government’s plan to subsidize Ottawa’s imposed carbon tax when it comes into effect on July 1. This new plan subsidizes half the cost of the federal carbon tax to Nunavummiut.

“We know that Nunavummiut do not face the same options as southern Canadians. Because our options are limited, it will be harder for us to change our habits. It will take longer for our economy to adjust,” Hickes said in the legislature on May 28.

The action continued the next day when John Main, MLA for Arviat North–Whale Cove and chair of the regular members’ caucus, issued a warning to Premier Joe Savikataaq and cabinet members when he tabled a letter of expectation on behalf of his caucus.

The letter said members had identified ongoing performance issues with the executive council and presented a list of specific expectations going forward.

“This letter is intended to encourage corrective action by clearly defining the expectations being placed on the executive,” the letter said.

The premier tabled a response to the letter on May 30.

Then, on June 4, the Office of the Auditor General came to Iqaluit to table the results of a three-year audit of Nunavut’s support for high school students and adult learners.

On World Environment Day, June 5, 100 students from Iqaluit’s Inuksuk High School walked out of class and straight to the legislative assembly to call for action on climate change. The students stood outside the assembly to speak to MLAs, while three students sat inside the chamber that afternoon.

Inspired by what he saw and heard from the students that morning, Iqaluit-Manirajak MLA Adam Arreak Lightstone directed questions later in the afternoon to the premier about the government’s actions on climate change.

“Why are we the only jurisdiction in Canada that does not have an incentive program or offer rebates to encourage Nunavummiut to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels?” he asked.

Savikataaq said the territory has to rely on fossil fuels because “in Nunavut we have very few, limited options.”

“I’m sure the member does his part for climate change. Maybe he has a quick, warm shower instead of a hot shower…. Maybe he doesn’t take unnecessary trips to the south so that he can conserve fuel,” the premier said.

The other 300-plus questions asked during this sitting’s question periods included topics such as bullying in the Government of Nunavut, high rates of child sexual abuse in Nunavut, northern housing needs and support for elder care facilities.

MLAs also gathered together on June 5, some with their children curled up on their laps, to watch Igloolik filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk receive the Order of Nunavut at a ceremony in the chamber.

With a few vacant positions left open after the selection of Mikkungwak as Speaker, members moved motions on the last day of the sitting to appoint Hudson Bay MLA Allan Rumboldt deputy Speaker of the assembly and Iqaluit-Niaqunnguu MLA Pat Angnakak deputy chair of the MLAs’ committee of the whole.

MLAs also passed a motion to recommend the appointment of Marilyn Jane Bates as the territory’s new representative for children and youth, to replace Nunavut’s outgoing representative, Sherry McNeil-Mulak.

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