By Sara Minogue
Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik won a third term as a member of the territory’s legislature Monday night in one of the most heated races of his political career.
Mr. Okalik beat out popular Iqaluit mayor, Elisapee Sheutiapik, who conceded the race before the final results were tallied.
Ms. Sheutiapik, who as mayor of the territory’s capital had made a habit of challenging Mr. Okalik’s leadership, was widely seen as the first serious contender for Mr. Okalik’s seat in Iqaluit West. She had already declared her intentions to run for premier if elected.
Mr. Okalik has been premier since Nunavut became a territory in 1999 and is the longest-serving leader in the North.
But there were no guarantees he would be returned to the premier’s seat.
Like the Northwest Territories, Nunavut operates under consensus government. Instead of political parties, all candidates run as Independents. Once the 19-seat legislature is elected, members select from among themselves a speaker, premier, and cabinet members by secret ballot.
And as the election results rolled in, it looked as though the legislature could be a sea of new faces.
Just one former cabinet member looked certain to return to the house Monday night — Louis Tapardjuk, Minister of Finance and Minister of Culture, Languages, Elders and Youth.
Deputy Premier Levinia Brown was one of the early casualties.
Ms. Brown lost her Rankin Inlet South/Whale Cove seat to Rankin Inlet Mayor Lorne Kusugak, who won a decisive victory despite the fact he was charged with sexual assault last month. Mr. Kusugak has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which date back to 2001, and his trial will proceed in December.
One of the more controversial members of the previous legislature was roundly defeated by a political neophyte.
Nunavut businessman David Simailak was kicked out of Mr. Okalik’s cabinet last winter, after allegations emerged that he had an undeclared interest in a company that received a million-dollar loan from a government agency. He was reprimanded a second time after further investigation revealed he had repeatedly, over two years, acted on behalf of his business interests while serving as finance minister.
As a condition of running in this election, Nunavut’s integrity commissioner ordered Mr. Simailak to deliver a letter to each household in his constituency acknowledging and apologizing for his actions.
But voters turfed Mr. Simailak in favour of Moses Aupaluktuq.
Two candidates with sexual assault convictions on their recorded faced closely contested races.
Former human resources minister Levi Barnabas, who was forced to resign his seat in 2000 after pleading guilty to a sexual assault, was hoping to be returned to the legislature in the High Arctic riding of Quttiktuq. He appeared headed for defeat late Monday night at the hands of Ron Elliott, an adult educator from Ontario.
In the riding of Tununiq on north Baffin Island, James Arvaluk was re-elected after being forced to resign from both the Northwest Territories and Nunavut legislatures in 1995 and 2003 for two separate sexual assault convictions. The second conviction involved violence and resulted in a nine-month jail sentence. He made his comeback in a by-election in 2006.
Nine women ran in this election — the highest proportion of female candidates yet. But Nunavut’s languages commissioner Eva Aariak was the lone woman to win, taking Iqaluit East.
In a record for the territory, four non-Inuit were elected. All were long-time northerners.
Voters have yet to head to the polls in two constituencies.
The race for the South Baffin seat was postponed by a week because no candidates came forward to run in the general election.
In central Nunavut, the race in Akulliq has been postponed indefinitely while former Nunavut MP Jack Anawak launches a legal challenge over the right to run in the general election without meeting the current residency requirement of 12 months.
Mr. Okalik campaigned on the territory’s improved situation — the economy has improved almost 40 per cent in recent years and the budget has remained balanced.
The mining industry invested $230-million in the territory last year, a big reason why Nunavut’s unemployment rate has steadily dropped from 13 per cent in 2004 to 8.7 per cent in 2007.
Important and long-awaited pieces of social legislation have also become law.
A new Education Act guarantees that students will be taught in Inuktitut, Nunavut’s majority language. A Language Act also ensures that Nunavummiut will be able to receive services in their language.
The territory is also finally implementing a prevention strategy to fight a suicide rate nine times the national average.
But some said Mr. Okalik’s own policies were a big reason why progress was slow until recently.
They argued that his goal of moving government offices out of the capital into even more remote communities to spread the jobs around has made it tough to find qualified workers. Spreading out the bureaucracy over three time zones has also made the business of government vastly more expensive and complicated.
Ms. Sheutiapik, who also owns a bistro in Iqaluit, ran on a message of change saying Mr. Okalik had amassed too much authority in his own office.
She argued Mr. Okalik’s leadership style had been holding Nunavut back, and that all organizations in the territory — communities, land-claims groups and the government — had to start working together.