Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo has been named minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's new cabinet.
He became Canada's second Inuk to be appointed as a senior federal cabinet minister after being sworn in Wednesday morning at Ottawa's Rideau Hall.
In a statement, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed said "having an Inuk in this foundational portfolio is an excellent step for Canada.
"Minister Tootoo and I have a long-standing relationship and I hope to build collaboratively with him to ensure a strong, National Inuit voice so that our communities can thrive."
Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna said the territory is "quite excited" about Tootoo's appointment.
"The second time in a row that we have a northern and an Inuk in the federal cabinet, of course we are quite excited about that," he said.
As for Tootoo's fisheries portfolio, Taptuna said, "I think it's a good fit. He's got experience in that and time will tell.
"Of course we will be helping him along and meeting with him on a constant basis and I'm sure we'll be working very well together."
The Fisheries and Oceans ministry is a diverse one that will take Tootoo from coast to coast to coast. The department also oversees sealing. That's been a contentious issue in the Atlantic provinces and in Nunavut, where Inuit hunters have suffered due to the European Union's ban on seal products.
The ban includes an exemption for seal skins that stem from a sustainable, indigenous hunt, but Nunavut officials say that does little good: the collapse of the overall market has caused prices, and demand, to drop precipitously.
Fishing groups in Nunavut will also be urging Tootoo to bring in changes to the distribution of shrimp and turbot quotas in northern waters.
Right now, Nunavut holds about a third of total quotas in the waters east of Baffin Island. The territory has argued it should have a higher share, based on the principle of adjacency used in the Atlantic provinces.
Several Nunavut communities have also been pushing for small craft harbours, something still missing in all but one community in Nunavut, even though almost all are based on the coast with active fishing and boating communities.
Before the election, outgoing Conservative MP Leona Aglukkaq announced a harbour for Pond Inlet, as well as a port for Iqaluit.
The Liberals, in their election platform, had promised to review changes to the Fisheries Act and restore funding to the federal ocean science and monitoring programs.
They also promised to:
- increase the amount of Canada's marine and coastal areas that are protected, to five percent by 2017, and 10 percent by 2020;
- restore $1.5 million in annual federal funding for freshwater research;
- invest $200 million in technology for the natural resource sector including forestry, fisheries, mining, energy, and agricultural sectors.
'Big learning curve'
Tootoo served in Nunavut's legislative assembly from 1999 until 2013. He defeated Conservative MP Leona Aglukkaq in the federal election last month, one of 184 Liberals elected across the country, and, along with N.W.T. Liberal Michael McLeod, was one of 10 indigenous candidates elected.
Tootoo is also one of 136 Liberal rookie MPs. Carleton University Political Science professor Jonathan Malloy says there's a lot to learn as a new member of parliament.
"Being an MP is a big learning curve. Being a minister is almost a colossal learning curve," he said.
"Suddenly you're in charge of usually a large government department, you're schedule is immediately over taken, a huge number of people want your time and attention, so it's really a double learning curve for rookie MPs."
Nancy Karetak-Lindell, a former Nunavut MP, said she recalls being overwhelmed as a rookie on the hill and offers this advice to Tootoo.
"It is very important which people you have around you to keep you grounded, to keep you in touch with the North especially if he happens to become a cabinet minister that makes it much more difficult to keep travelling to the North."
Many people anticipated Trudeau's cabinet would include a Northerner. The N.W.T.'s McLeod had hoped to be a contender.
Yukon MP Larry Bagnell said he had no expectations of being named to cabinet, given the "really huge, very talented caucus" and Trudeau's commitment to gender parity.