Too many inmates and suicides, too few graduates

Okalik weighs his achievements — and his challenges

By JIM BELL

As the curtain closes upon the year, and also upon Nunavut’s first elected government, Premier Paul Okalik said he’s ready and willing to lead the territory’s next administration.

“There is much that remains to be done, so I would love to continue what I started,” Okalik said in a year-end interview this week in his office.

Like Nunavut, Okalik has grown and developed over the past four and a half years, and he’s optimistic about the future.

“I think things will get better for our territory. We have a lot of social challenges, too many people in jail, too high a suicide rate. I would love to change that. But we’re working on the suicide issues, and hopefully we can turn the tide. In terms of inmates, we have instituted new programs, and there will be more in the coming years.”

At the time of Nunavut’s difficult birth, Okalik was a newly minted lawyer. When he announced himself as a candidate for Iqaluit West in the Feb. 15, 1999, election, he had no idea that fate would soon thrust him into the premier’s job.

With headquarters staffing at only 20 per cent in 1999, Okalik found himself leading a government that had to be built, and sometimes rebuilt, almost from the ground up.

“I must say the beginning was a real challenge, especially when compared with other jurisdictions where you’re just sworn in and then get to work on your programs. But for us, we didn’t have much bureaucratic support, so that added to some of the pressure.”

But he has no regrets about taking on one of the toughest jobs in Nunavut.

“I think our record is pretty good in intergovernmental relations, at premier’s conferences, and in creating an awareness of Nunavut nationally.”

Now Okalik is pleased to point out that the GN is now 81 per cent staffed — it’s highest level ever.

More than a year ago, the GN’s Inuit staffing level, a yardstick used to measure the territorial government’s compliance with Article 23 of the Nunavut land claims agreement, had fallen to 40 per cent.

So Okalik is even more pleased to point out that the proportion of Inuit working at the GN is rising again — it’s now at 43 per cent. But he also said that’s not good enough: “Our Inuit employment numbers are too low.”

To fix that, Okalik said the GN must work harder to promote the education of the young. “In terms of education, I want to see more Inuit students who want to go to a higher education at a post-secondary level,” Okalik said.

Nunavut’s future also depends on better relations with a federal government in Ottawa that is responsive to Nunavut and the northern territories.

With the installation last Friday of Prime Minister Paul Martin and his new cabinet, Okalik believes such a government now exists in Ottawa. And he sheds no tears for Robert Nault, the ex-minister of DIAND, whom Martin dumped in favour of Parry Sound-Muskoka MP Andy Mitchell.

“I’ve never been more optimistic. When I last met with the current prime minister, I encouraged him to find a new minister [of DIAND], and he’s listening.”

At that meeting with Martin, held during a provincial-territorial premier’s gathering in Regina just before the Nov. 16 Grey Cup game, Okalik briefed the new prime minister on Nunavut issues, especially the issues that have been stalled for the past four years.

That includes what policy geeks call “devolution” — the transfer of responsibility for mining, and oil and gas exploration and development from Ottawa to Nunavut. Such a deal would see the GN getting a share of renewable-resource royalties.

“Devolved authority would not cost the federal government any money,” Okalik said.

Another cost-free measure that could boost the territory’s economy would be a larger share of fishing quota in waters adjacent to Nunavut.

One issue that would cost Ottawa some money is to work on an economic development agreement with Nunavut.

Nunavut’s Sivummut Economic Development Group presented Ottawa with a proposal last December to create a new five-year, $66-million EDA. So far, there’s been little response from the federal government.

“We remain the only jurisdiction in the country that doesn’t get any federal money for economic development, even though we have the highest unemployment rate. So I think that file is one we will move on.”

As for accomplishments, Okalik said Nunavut should be proud of two unique new laws that MLAs recently passed — on wildlife management and human rights.

“It has been four productive years. We just recently passed the Wildlife Act…. It creates a special law that assists the management of wildlife issues with elders. There is nothing else like it in the country … or world.

“We also passed a human rights law. It was controversial but we showed that we are not afraid to act, and to respect everyone. We were challenged, but that’s part of government, and we have to respect everyone. So it was a very proud moment.”

And what’s the biggest lesson to be drawn from his four and a half years in office?

“I’ve grown to be a lot more calm,” Okalik said.

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