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Liberals relish long campaign
Basic infrastructure that benefits everyday lives top of Hunter Tootoo's list

Michele LeTourneau
Northern News Services
Monday, August 17, 2015

The Liberals in Nunavut admitted in January that any attempt to unseat incumbent MP Leona Aglukkaq would not be easy, but back then Nunavut Liberal riding association president Michel Potvin thought there would be a short election period.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper changed the game when he dropped the writ Aug. 2. What looks to the rest of Canada like an unnecessarily long campaign period looks promising for Nunavut candidates, who might boast the largest electoral district in the world, Potvin said.

"The long campaign will enable Hunter Tootoo to travel to more communities in all three regions of Nunavut," he said. "This means that Hunter will be able to discuss the Liberal platform with more Nunavummiut and reassure them that their voice and concerns will finally be heard in Ottawa."

The Liberals announced Tootoo as their candidate July 27, days before Harper called the election. Old-guard Liberals, such as Tagak Curley and Jack Anawak, were surprised. Both decry the fact that Tootoo is unilingual English and does not converse in Inuktitut.

"Language is the foundation of our culture," said Anawak, who represented Nunatsiaq as a Liberal MP in the House of Commons from 1988 to 1997.

"I'm disappointed in the Liberal candidate's lack of Inuktitut. And I'm disappointed in the Liberal leader allowing a non-Inuktitut-speaking candidate in Nunavut. This is Inuit homeland. If we had language policies as strong as Quebec, that would have never happened."

Tootoo sees his lack as Nunavut's gain, both based on his own experiences.

"I've been thinking about that. I knew that would come up as an issue," he said. "I served the residents of Iqaluit Centre for 14 years. Many of them are unilingual elders. And they all voted for me. I had their confidence. I communicated with them and got their issues across. I had their support."

It also makes him the ideal poster child for language loss.

"One of the things I would like to push for once I'm elected is to have equal funding for Inuktitut as the Government of Nunavut gets for the French language, so that more young Nunavummiut don't end up like me."

Nunavut's priorities

Overall, though, Curley and Anawak just want to see the Conservatives out. Why? Because the greater percentage of average Inuit have not benefitted, they both insist. Curley, who began the Inuit movement and was one of the founders of Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, ran as the Liberal candidate in 1979, but lost to the NDP's Peter Ittinuar. Ittinuar would later cross the floor to the Liberal party in 1982 when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister.

Curley explains it from a regional perspective, saying the Kivalliq has not benefitted from a Conservative government, "in terms of major infrastructure of any sort. Nothing."

He speaks of the most important project for the Kivalliq, tapping into the Manitoba power grid.

"That's something that should be considered by all parties. Power is critical," Curley said.

Anawak explains it in more graphic terms. He was recently in what he calls the centre of his universe, Naujaat, where he visited a family of 18 living in one house.

"That creates problems. That creates tension, that friction, it's unhealthy, it's going to cause problems. And this government, with its hard-on-crime attitude - Harper's not helping if people get frustrated and act out because of overcrowding."

Anawak has nothing but contempt for Harper's expensive pet project - finding the lost ships of the Franklin Expedition.

"Who wants to know about some a-hole that wouldn't acknowledge the existence of people up here that knew how to survive off the land. That's focusing on the wrong priorities up here."

Tootoo, who was born in Rankin Inlet, but until his teenage years lived in various locations in the south, may not be the ideal candidate due to his unilingualism, but he has the political know-how and experience and he's certainly up on the basic issues plaguing the territory, in all three regions, he said. Housing is top of his list. It was in 1999 that he first took the plunge into territorial politics, remaining as an MLA until he retired from public life in 2013.

"I look at Nunavut as a whole. And I believe Justin Trudeau, the Liberal Party as a whole, they recognize the huge infrastructure deficit that we face here in Nunavut - of basic infrastructure," he said.

"I was housing minister (for the Government of Nunavut) and we were always going to Ottawa looking for more money for housing. We explained to them that when they announced a budget we would never know when we would get money. It's impossible for the territorial government to plan. It's always pushing the need for long-term stable funding for housing so that you can adequately plan.

"I will be pushing for funding over the long term. Basic infrastructure is something that Justin Trudeau has said that he believes is needed in the North. I'll be working with him to come up with a long-term housing strategy for Nunavut to deal with that."

Mental health and social services also top Tootoo's list to tackle on the federal level, noting there isn't a federal strategy under Harper.

"Suicide is prevalent in Nunavut and we need to come up with a plan to deal with that and work with the territorial government to help address it. Federal, territorial and municipal governments all need to come to the table and work together.

"And all these things fall in line with Justin and the Liberal Party."

Tootoo also notes poverty reduction and food security as items the Liberal Party wants to address, and that includes the Nutrition North Program.

Not a mouthpiece

"It's always good to have younger leadership come in," said Curley.

"It remains to be seen. Leona has a strong constituency in the Kitikmeot region. Hopefully Hunter will have some good issues he wants to communicate. It's going to come down to what type of policy he would offer to people. They have to offer something concrete, not fantasies."

As for the issue of having a Nunavut MP on cabinet, something Trudeau is not promising at this time, Tootoo said it's always a benefit.

"But I think what we've seen in the last little while is it's also a hindrance. They're not allowed to represent the people that elected them."

Anawak takes it further.

"There is nothing coming out of our member's mouth that is coming from her. It's like every other member of Parliament from that party, I guess, because, to paraphrase from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and obey."

Tootoo has no intention of following in those footsteps, especially in regards to the environment.

"Look at the people of Clyde River, for example. (Mayor) Jerry Natanine and the people of Clyde River had to go to court to be heard, to try and be heard. As an MLA, people knew me as a person who was not afraid to say what needed to be said, whether it was popular or not.

"I brought issues forward, not just for Iqaluit but for the whole territory. I'm not afraid to do that and I will do that. I will raise the issues in Ottawa."

With election day set for Oct. 19, Nunavummiut have two months to ask questions of their candidates and put forward their issues.

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A look back

Negotiations for a separate territory began in 1976 between Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, then called Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, and the federal government under the leadership of then Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

In late 1982, the federal government gave conditional agreement to division of the territories, also under Trudeau.

The land claims agreement was completed under the Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, with the Nunavut Act passed by Parliament in 1993, months before an October election that saw the Liberals take back the reins of power.

Since the Nunatsiaq riding was carved out of the Northwest Territories in 1979, Nunavummiut have leaned more heavily toward the Liberals - 25 years - to the Conservative's 15 years.

Source: Northern News Services files

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