Nunavut premier talks 1st week on the job

A Q&A with P.J. Akeeagok

Nunavut Premier P.J. Akeeagok and members of cabinet will decide on the new government’s mandate in the coming weeks. (Photo by Mélanie Ritchot)

By Mélanie Ritchot

Wednesday marked the end of P.J. Akeeagok’s first week as the new premier of Nunavut.

He said it’s been a busy time, but one he is thankful for.

“This week has been, to say the least, an experience I won’t ever forget,” he said.

Akeeagok, 37, was named premier on Nov. 17, after his 21 fellow MLAs voted for him over former premier Joe Savikataaq and longtime MLA and minister Lorne Kusugak.

Originally from Grise Fiord, he’s lived in the capital city since 2007 with his wife, daughter, 12, and two sons, who are nine and six years old.

Before his election, Akeeagok was most recently the youngest person to be elected president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, at the age of 30. He’s also worked for Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

After graduating from high school he completed the two-year Nunavut Sivuniksavut program, which covers topics like Inuit history, the land-claims agreement and local community development.

Akeeagok then studied political science and Aboriginal studies at the University of Ottawa, in the city where he met his wife.

The premier sat down with Nunatsiaq News on Thursday to talk about his new job and his vision for the next four years.

Nunatsiaq News: Do you think being from the smallest community in Nunavut will help you understand the smaller communities’ needs when they are asking for something?

P.J. Akeeagok: Absolutely. Having grown up in Grise I realize how they have to be so resourceful because oftentimes, there are very few resources that are brought to smaller communities. Now being the premier, I really think that’s going to be a strong asset to have, that understanding of how strongly a community has to pull together to get what they want. I realize it’s the communities that know best.

NN: How does it feel to be leading Nunavut at a time when we have Lori Idlout, an MP speaking Inuktitut in the House of Commons, and Mary Simon, the first Inuk governor general?

Akeeagok: To have role models like that for my daughter, especially, is something that I’m really proud of. I met with Lori and I’m so proud of her in terms of what she will bring to the table in Ottawa. With Mary Simon delivering the throne speech in Inuktitut, I’m sure many elders who aren’t here now were smiling down. We’re here now.

P.J. Akeeagok spoke with Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal over the phone earlier this week. (Photo courtesy of Sima Sahar Zerehi)

NN: You said in your candidate debate you would consider moving funds from some programs or departments to address the housing crisis faster. Is that still something you think could happen?

Akeeagok:I think housing is at the root of many of the social ills we see. The tuberculosis rates, the suicide crisis we’re in, it all boils down to housing. It’s going to be crucial to put actual steps in [the mandate] that will make a big impact. We know the numbers, we need over 3,500 units now, and we know the cost. At this stage, we have to come in very openly without taking any options off the table.

NN: Every MLA has tabled a petition to get elder care in each community. Is that something people can expect to see in the next four years?

Akeeagok: Without having gone through the mandate session, I can’t say, ‘Here’s what we’ll do,’ but I can quite certainly say that elder care is going to be top of mind when we’re developing that mandate. I value the advice and guidance given to me [by elders] and that’s something I’m always going to hold moving forward. I was the first one to rise in the house to table that petition. As a government, it is now our prerogative to receive that petition and to determine what the next steps are.

NN: You have also said the government should act as quickly to address the mental health and suicide crisis as it did for the COVID-19 pandemic. What will you do to have your government address the issue faster?

Akeeagok: I was very inspired when the youth [in Iqaluit] did the protest and I was right there with them. I think that moment was about listening. I listened to the issues they were bringing up like [the suicide rate being] 10 times the national average and the inability to access services. If anything, COVID taught us that when we unite and when we really put the resources towards issues that are in our face, good things happen. I really see an opportunity where we can learn from that.

NN: What can Nunavummiut expect to see from your government in the first year?

Akeeagok: Over the next few weeks, I’ll work very closely with all the members to establish our mandate. It’s not a P.J. mandate, it’s not a cabinet mandate, it’s a full caucus mandate. I’m really excited and very honoured to serve Nunavummiut. I’m very thankful for the trust that was given to me and it’s something I don’t take lightly at all. I can’t wait to get to work. The four-year clock has started.

The sixth legislative assembly will sit for its first full session starting Feb. 21.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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(14) Comments:

  1. Posted by Mandate No. 1 on

    Direct your Minister of Human Resources to return to the negotiating table and finalize a deal with NEU. Your Government cannot run without staff. You are bleeding staff more than ever, and with inflation at 5%+ per annum the GN needs to show respect to its workers by finalizing the last deal and being fair in the next deal in post-pandemic world where we are now earning less than ever.
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    Tell your Minister to stop being so cheap about an unindexed 12-year old northern allowance figures and wages that are not keeping pace with the Feds, GNWT or Yukon Government. The false austerity narrative can’t possibly be justified when the GN has handed tens of millions of dollars to Canadian North and construction contractors and gives its mediocre management and senior management (including those in HR who has failed to get a deal done) five figure bonuses each and every year.

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    • Posted by Onewhocares aboutinuit on

      Sounds too familiar, our own designated organization, KIA central,has since the beginning made false promises to its beneficiaries that they are in a position to bring great austerity to its beneficiaries over here , what we got in the end is more poverty. Hope this new government works for us all in Nunavut in the coming future .

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      • Posted by S on

        to ‘one who cares’: “… are in a position to bring great austerity…”; did you mean ‘prosperity’?

  2. Posted by No answers on

    You did not answer the questions asked nunatsiaq news please re ask the questions

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  3. Posted by Fact Check on

    It is incorrect to say that “21 of his fellow MLA colleagues” voted him in as Premier. Only takes 12 votes to win that seat. PJ strong armed the new MLAs to vote him in and submit their names as Minister candidates (even if they had no intention on serving) so that it split the votes enough to get him and his people into Cabinet. PJ did wrong by Joe Savikataaq – he didn’t deserve being treated this way.

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    • Posted by too funny on

      Funny that you’re getting thumbs down for what actually happened. Though politics is politics, so fair play to PJ for orchestrating it

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  4. Posted by Joe B on

    I agree with “Fact Check”! It’s so apparent that PJ had the votes in his pocket way before they started the leadership forum. This “Political Comedy” will be fun to watch as it unfolds and the drama that will follow in the next two years. The problem with PJ machavielic plan is that he surrounded himself with people who all drink the same kool-aid. His biggest mistake is not having made space for George Hicks and Joe Savikataaq at the Cabinet Table. There was an absolute direction to pack up the Cabinet with his acolytes to keep the old guard and experienced MLAs from the Cabinet Table. There were 16 MLAs candidates with prepared speeches in advance to accept the challenge and divide the votes. That being said, I’m happy that his plan did not wholly unfold as predicted and that Lorn Kusugak got back in. The Cabinet will be able to benefit from his experience and maybe avoid making some bad mistakes. Yes, we have seen a good share of this in the past! Everyone remembers Paul Quassa as Premier.

    As a Nunavummiut observer, it’s fascinating to see the amount of political naivety from this new group of MLAs. The reality of governing will hit them front and center. If they think they can fix housing, mental health and provide elders with homecare in every hamelets they are collectively dreaming…but again It’s the pipe dream!

    On a different note, If they really want to tackle all these problems they better start to ask more from NTI and the Regional Inuit Associations and make them more accountable for the money they receive from the Federal Governement. Where is NTI’solution to public housing and mental health? I haven’t seen any money being invested in affordable housing and public housing, mental health and elders in the last 20 years. For an organization that is hoping to have their self-government and proclaim that they are the only one defending the right and wellbeing of Inuits they have built a poor business case overtime to justify self-governance. If these new MLAs really want to change something in Nunavut they have to stop being complaisant with NTI and require that they contribute financially to alleviate the housing crisis, and the problems with mental health and elders. The solution is not to shift money from GN programs (they are under funded). The solution is to negotiate successfully an increase of financial investment with the Federal Government and ask that NTI and the Regional Inuit Associations do their part to help their fellow Inuit and Nunavummiut.

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    • Posted by John C on

      I think this Premier is starting off on the right foot, inviting and meeting with NTI and the RIAs and I am sure he will be working closely with them unlike the previous Premier.
      It still amazes me that some of you still look towards NTI and the RIAs to do the GNs job, the GN receives hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government for housing, on top of what the GN budgets for housing each year.
      The GN for whatever reason just cannot get things done with more then 2 billion annual budget it has plus the hundreds of million on top of that for housing.
      PJ time to trim the fat with the GN, please make some changes and actually get the GN to start working better and stop wasting so much money on nothing that does not help Nunavut.
      I think more of us need to voice our concerns and demand accountability from the GN.

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      • Posted by Observer on

        What’s the big deal with meeting NTI and the RIAs? It’s quite common for them to meet.

    • Posted by Prospector’s Beard on

      I agree with Joe B, George has been the mainstay, the lynchpin in the last two assemblies and it is a crying shame he wasn’t given a ministerial portfolio this time. No one brings more experience to the table than George Hickes Jr. He is to the public service what Churchill was to the United Kingdom. A seasoned veteran who has earned his chops time and time again.

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  5. Posted by Mosessi on

    Out with the old and in with the new as something different is only way to advance and movement as a collective society. The way things done past twenty two years it’s ground work as required and sadly it had to take Old Boys Club Ways to begin but now it’s near 2022 NU is ready to try other approaches to society to advance.

    Try and do different approaches and implement various efforts to try new ways to resolve social disorder and handout dependant culture to become educate using free education and maintain cultural values is essential to advancement.

    The past 22 years are ground work. It’s time to move on and resolve handling of Nunavut advocacy needs and basic essential services to be brought up to par to best serve and care for individuals as well as family’s circle to be maintained with dignity and adaption and adoption of other Indigenous Forums to try. Can’t do any worse than tried and true recent past and past lineages or connections. The only way to change is vote out usual suspects and or ties to old regimes. In time, collective and informed and educated Inuit generations will smother and override past failed ways and truly advance. Only time and ousting old ways and practices is truly only way to advance. So simple it’s difficult? Of course it’s difficult if you don’t try. Grow some and seek alternative resolutions to endorse and enact policies and regulations to truly represent and reflect public needs.

    Good luck Nunavut. The pre-adolescent phase is over and it’s now time to use steps as a ladder to higher and brighter society by means of using other approaches.

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    • Posted by Old Boys Club on

      By appointing Joe Kunuk as PJ’s top advisor, its apparent that the “old boys club” is still alive and well. Expect the same outcome (or lack of) with PJ’s leadership as with Quassa’s.

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  6. Posted by Anne Crawford on

    It is always a time of pride and hope to see idealistic people take office and commit to the goals that their constituents support.

    I am a bit concerned that PJs answer on Elder Care is

    NN: Every MLA has tabled a petition to get elder care in each community. Is that something people can expect to see in the next four years?

    Akeeagok: ..[…]…I can’t say, ‘Here’s what we’ll do,’ but I can quite certainly say that elder care is going to be top of mind when we’re developing that mandate. …… I was the first one to rise in the house to table that petition

    THE FIRST GOAL OF THE FIRST “PRIORITY” OF THE SAVIKATAAQ MANDATE STATES:

    Our priorities are:

    Valuing our Elders by listening to them, paying attention to their traditional knowledge, and
    meeting their needs for care in the territory;

    How does this “goal” contrast with the reality elders and communities faced?

    The mandate statement is good, and we look forward to seeing what it says, but we are not falling for that again.

    We need a SPECIAL COMMITTEE ON ELDER CARE made up of Regular Members who will support you and the Minister in achieving this goal.

    Best wishes as you work towards this – ignore the “complex care” arguments of the bureaucracy – read the Petition that asks for Basic 24 hr Care. We can achieve this in every community.

    We have faith that you will not just TRY, but will actually work with LHA and communities to do it!

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  7. Posted by Colin on

    Actually it’s only a half truth that the challenges all boil down to housing. The other half is the terrible deficit in delivering education. Those who are in or preparing for rewarding employment in today’s high-tech economy should expect to provide their own housing. These two challenges go together. Think of Noah Carpenter, born on the trapline, who attended residential school in Inuvik and went on to become a world-renowned doctor (thoracic surgeon).

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