Nunavut’s own floor-crosser sympathizes with Belinda Stronach
“Nunavut needed to happen at all costs, and this was the cost for me personally”
When Peter Ittinuar watched Belinda Stronach abandon the Conservative party last week to join Paul Martin’s ruling Liberals, he felt like saying “welcome to the club, Belinda.”
That’s because Ittinuar knows what it’s like to be called a traitor.
“It’s incredible how much hostility you get… People did not see the big picture,” Ittinuar said as he reflected upon a flood of memories inspired by the day when he too crossed the floor of the House of Commons to join a governing party.
On Nov. 26, 1982, Ittinuar, Canada’s first Inuk MP, left Ed Broadbent’s New Democratic Party and joined Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals.
In exchange, the Trudeau government agreed, in principle, to support division of the Northwest Territories and the creation of Nunavut. John Munro, Trudeau’s minister of Indian and northern affairs, made the announcement that day, only a few minutes before Ittinuar made his.
Not long after, Nunavut became a viable political idea. A body called the Nunavut Constitutional Forum began talks with a similar group in the western Northwest Territories to work out what two new territories would look like and where the division boundary would lie. Around the same time, the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut replaced the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada’s Nunavut land claims commission and began work on a separate, but parallel, land claims agreement.
From then on, there was no going back for the Nunavut idea. And unlike Stronach, who helped save Paul Martin’s party from defeat on a confidence motion, Ittinuar received no cabinet post or any other reward.
But as he watched Nunavut rise as a viable political idea, Ittinuar, vilified by his former friends in the NDP and rejected by the Nunatsiaq riding’s Liberal association, saw his political career fall into ruins.
“Nunavut needed to happen at all costs, and this was the cost for me personally,” Ittinuar said.
At that time, the federal riding called “Nunatsiaq” was made up of Nunavut’s three administrative regions and the Inuvialuit region of the western Arctic.
By the next federal election, in the summer of 1984, the Nunatsiaq Liberal Association rejected Ittinuar’s candidacy. In a move designed to exclude Ittinuar’s Baffin-based supporters, they held their nomination meeting in Kugluktuk, choosing the little-known Roger Kuptana of Sachs Harbour.
“They didn’t like me and I didn’t like them very much,” Ittinuar says.
He got no help from John Turner, the Liberal leader who replaced Trudeau. “I had supported Jean Chrétien in the leadership and John Turner won. He wasn’t going to anoint me as a candidate.”
Kuptana lost the Sept. 4, 1984 election to Thomas Suluk of the Progressive Conservatives. Running as an Independent, Ittinuar finished in fourth place with about 9 per cent of the vote.
Ittinuar’s glory days were over, and his accomplishments were quickly forgotten.
“It was a tough 10 years for me after that,” Ittinuar says.
First elected as a New Democrat on May 22, 1979 when, at age 28, he defeated Liberal Tagak Curley by 76 votes, Ittinuar was the first person to speak Inuktitut in the House of Commons.
During the constitutional talks of the early 1980s, he became a national figure after lobbying for the recognition of aboriginal rights in the 1982 constitution.
And after crossing the floor of the Commons, he did more than just persuade the ruling Liberals to support the creation of Nunavut. He also persuaded Trudeau to appoint Charlie Watt to the Senate, so that the Inuit of northern Quebec could get a voice in Parliament.
But when he returned to Rankin Inlet with his young family after losing the 1984 election, Ittinuar had a hard time even finding a job.
Their leader, Ed Broadbent, was “very fair,” at the time, Ittinuar says, but the NDP never forgave him. Ittinuar said they never understood that for many Inuit at the time, political parties were incomprehensible, and that Ittinuar’s deepest loyalty was to the creation of Nunavut.
“All I had on my mind was Nunavut,” Ittinuar says.
In 1993, when the Nunatsiaq NDP association chose him as their candidate that year, party leader Audrey McLaughlin refused to sign his nomination papers, and Mike Illnik was chosen to replace him.
Now living near Guelph, Ont., and employed with the Ontario government’s native affairs department, Ittinuar has a lot of sympathy for Belinda Stronach, who he believes made her move for reasons of principle.
“We’re a small club,” Ittinuar says.