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Eva Aariak addressed the Nunavut assembly after MLAs selected her to be the territory's new premier late Friday afternoon. ((CBC))

First-time member of the legislative assembly Eva Aariak defeated incumbent Paul Okalik to become Nunavut's second premier Friday, and the northern territory's first female premier.

Aariak, the MLA for Iqaluit East and Nunavut's former languages commissioner, won more votes than Okalik and veteran politician Tagak Curley in a secret ballot conducted late Friday afternoon among Nunavut's 17 sitting MLAs in the Nunavut leadership forum.

The forum, a characteristic of the territory's consensus style of government, has been a pivotal part of its politics since Nunavut was created in 1999.

The MLAs, who were voted into office in the Oct. 27 territorial election, took part in the forum Friday to choose a premier, speaker and six cabinet members from among their peers.

As soon as the result was announced, Okalik walked over to Aariak to congratulate her. Many in the legislative chamber stood and gave Aariak a standing ovation while she shook hands with her fellow MLAs and hugged her family.

Aariak addressed her fellow MLAs in Inuktitut before members moved on to select six cabinet members:

  • Keith Peterson — Cambridge Bay
  • Hunter Tootoo — Iqaluit Centre
  • Louis Tapardjuk — Amittuq
  • Daniel Shewchuk — Arviat
  • Lorne Kusugak — Rankin Inlet South - Whale Cove
  • Peter Taptuna — Kugluktuk

All but one of the new ministers are new to cabinet; Tapardjuk was finance minister in the last assembly. Furthermore, three of the newly chosen cabinet ministers are first-time MLAs: Shewchuk, Kusugak and Taptuna.

Aariak will assign portfolios to the new cabinet ministers at a later date.

Okalik and Curley declined nominations for the cabinet spots.

New premier only woman in Nunavut assembly

Aariak was first elected to Nunavut's legislative assembly in last month's election, beating two other candidates to succeed retiring MLA Ed Picco in the Iqaluit East constituency.

Aariak was the sole woman elected to Nunavut's third legislative assembly. The second assembly, which ran from 2004 until this year, boasted two female MLAs, Leona Aglukkaq and Levinia Brown. Both were elected to cabinet, with Aglukkaq given the health portfolio and Brown given community and government services.

Aglukkaq moved into federal politics this fall, becoming the Conservatives' new MP in Nunavut. She was then named federal health minister last month. Brown was defeated in the territorial election by Kusugak.

Originally from the northern Baffin Island community of Arctic Bay, Aariak has lived in the Nunavut capital for the past 22 years. The mother of four and grandmother currently owns Malikkaat, an Inuit arts and crafts shop in Iqaluit.

Aariak was the territory's first languages commissioner, serving from 1999 to 2004, then returned to the same post in an acting capacity following the resignation of Johnny Kusugak in December 2007. She left that position, as well as her role as chair of the Baffin Regional Chamber of Commerce, to run for office.

Okalik, who had been premier since 1999, went into Friday's forum seeking a third consecutive mandate. Also running for premier was Curley, a veteran Inuit politician who was acclaimed to his second term as Rankin Inlet North MLA in last month's election.

Aariak promises change; Okalik stresses experience

All three made 20-minute speeches to the assembly in the morning, then answered questions from all remaining MLAs throughout the afternoon before all members, not including the Speaker, voted by secret ballot around 5 p.m. ET.

Aariak pledged to bring change as premier, offering to work with fellow MLAs and people across Nunavut, known as Nunavummiut.

"Many Nunavummiut are moving away from their interests in government. Others are moving away from their personal hopes and dreams. Too many are moving away from their responsibilities," Aariak told MLAs in her speech Friday morning.

"In talking to people during the election campaign, it became clear that many are looking for a change. I share this opinion."

Aariak talked about her experience as a business owner, as a former Nunavut languages commissioner, and as a member of various organizations.

"I know how to make sound decisions, and I know how to listen, how to assess what I'm being told, and how to encourage people to share their ideas, thoughts and recommendations," she said.

"I take pride in being a team player, and will create a cabinet that is open, accountable and willing to learn, a cabinet that can take a stand and be sure of what it is doing."

In his speech, Okalik responded to public criticisms that he did not listen to cabinet ministers and other MLAs during his past term as premier.

"The change in our government comes from the members, who set the agenda. As premier, I am your servant. My direction is set by you," Okalik told MLAs.

"The people of Nunavut and this legislature need strong representation to advance our agenda and defend our interests locally, nationally and internationally."

Arreak selected as Speaker

Earlier at Friday's leadership forum, MLAs unanimously chose Arreak, the MLA for Uqqummiut, as their new Speaker.

Arreak, a two-term MLA, becomes Nunavut's fifth Speaker, succeeding Peter Kilabuk of Pangnirtung. Arreak was deputy speaker for the past two years.

His selection came just as Elections Nunavut completed a recount Thursday in the Uqqummiut constituency. The recount confirmed that Arreak won the election race there by eight votes.

A similar procedure to that used to elect the premier will take place for the MLAs vying for six of seven cabinet spots.

4 in the running in Akulliq byelection

MLAs decided last week to leave one of the seven cabinet spots vacant until early next year, so that the MLA for Akulliq could take part in the race for that position.

The Akulliq MLA is to be elected in a byelection scheduled for Dec. 15. An MLA wasn't chosen in the recent election because of a court challenge by former MLA and former MP Jack Anawak, who had wanted to run there but was deemed ineligible. A judge threw out his challenge on Nov. 6.

Incumbent MLA Steve Mapsalak of Repulse Bay and three challengers are running in the byelection, Elections Nunavut announced late Friday.

The other three candidates are Repulse Bay residents Helena Malliki and Marius Tungilik, and John Ningark of Kugaaruk.

Malliki is the only new face in the Akulliq race. Mapsalak, Tungilik and Ningark were running in that constituency during the general election, before Anawak's court challenge cancelled the contest there.