Okalik honoured by his old university
“An important voice for democratic northern development”
OTTAWA – It was a day of praise for Paul Okalik this past Saturday, as Nunavut’s first premier and first Inuk lawyer received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Ottawa’s Carleton University.
Carleton president Richard Van Loon called the award “our highest form of recognition.” Okalik is a former student of Carleton, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science and Canadian studies in the early 1990s.
After Carleton, Okalik earned a law degree from the University of Ottawa, and became Nunavut’s first Inuk lawyer.
Okalik’s award was given as the keynote at Carleton’s spring convocation, as over 200 students received bachelors’ degrees in arts and social work. It recognized “an outstanding contribution to the development of Nunavut.”
Frances Abele, an associate professor of public policy and administration at Carleton, introduced Okalik to the audience.
“In Canadian federal politics, he has been an important voice for democratic northern development, for Inuit and indigenous interests, and for imaginative reform of social, economic and political institutions,” she said.
Abele then praised Okalik for his political ethics and commitment to developing northern Canada.
“Mr.Okalik has stood for consensus building, a principled approach to political life and consistent respect for human rights,” she said. “The government that he dreamt of, and has been leading since 1999, expresses this vision.”
In his acceptance speech, Okalik spoke of education and its importance for all Canadians. He mused that his personal life story “as an Inuk from the small community of Paniqtuuq on Baffin Island” reflected greater issues that affect aboriginal people in the North.
“In my case, I attended Carleton as a mature student and as someone living between two worlds,” Okalik said.
“I am from the first generation of Inuit born and raised in a permanent community rather than our traditional nomadic camps. My generation went from family stories told by the glow of the seal oil lamps to the world of radio and television. Children, myself included, were sent to schools to learn English, a language not understood by many of our parents, to prepare for a world in which they did not live. Personally, it was a confusing time for me.”
Okalik described his years at Carleton as difficult. He recalled living on a diet of instant noodles, which were all he could afford, and thanked his sister Looee for allowing him to live with her during his first year.
“When I started here I struggled both academically and financially,” Okalik said. “Without Looee and other family members and friends who provided academic guidance and emotional support, I wouldn’t be standing before you.”
Despite the hardships, Okalik said his time at Carleton gave him greater self-confidence. “Perhaps as a result of this difficult period I got involved in the Nunavut land claims negotiations and began to find my calling,” he said.
Okalik said this confidence gave him “the ability to engage in passionate debates with lawyers and federal negotiators,” including Carleton president Richard Van Loon, who at the time, was an assistant deputy minister at DIAND, and was heavily involved in the creation of Nunavut.
Okalik urged students to use their education to help others. “The promotion of civil society should be a responsibility of every citizen,” he said.
Wearing a blue and white robe, Okalik was presented his degree by Carleton’s chancellor, Marc Garneau, a former astronaut and current head of the Canadian Space Agency.
Okalik is one of several Canadians recognized by Carleton university this year. Other recipients of honorary degrees include CBC journalist Bob McDonald, classical pianist Marc-André Hamelin, and former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow.