Nunavut MLAs have chosen Iqaluit MLA Hunter Tootoo as their new Speaker at the start of the territorial legislature's spring session.

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Hunter Tootoo takes his place in the Speaker's chair inside the Nunavut legislature, after MLAs elected him to the position on Tuesday. ((CBC))

Tootoo, the MLA for Iqaluit Centre, garnered more votes than Akulliq MLA John Ningark for the Speaker's position during a leadership forum held on Tuesday.

Tootoo was a regular MLA from 1999 to 2008, then was named to cabinet after the last territorial election in 2008.

Tootoo had to step down as education minister to get the Speaker's job, which had been held by Iqaluit West MLA Paul Okalik until April.

"I think anyone knows how busy a job being a minister and a member of the executive council is, and for myself and my family I just needed to have things slowed down a little bit," Tootoo told reporters outside the assembly chamber.

With Tootoo now Speaker, there are seven cabinet ministers and eight regular MLAs in the legislative assembly.

3 seats vacant

The assembly usually has 19 MLAs, but there is a record three empty seats in the chamber during the spring session.

Okalik, who had represented Iqaluit West since Nunavut was created in 1999, resigned his seat in April to run for the Liberals in the federal election. He lost to Conservative incumbent Leona Aglukkaq on May 2.

Adamee Komoartok resigned as the MLA for Pangnirtung in March amid controversy about an assault charge he faced at the time. Prosecutors later withdrew the charge against him.

And the Tununiq constituency in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, has been without an MLA since James Arvaluk resigned earlier this month due to illness.

Byelections will be held on Sept. 12 to fill all three vacant seats. In the meantime, it's business as usual at the Nunavut legislature, said government house leader Lorne Kusugak.

"I think as a government, we represent the territory as a whole," Kusugak told CBC News on Monday.

Premier Eva Aariak told the assembly that she will take over Tootoo's education portfolio for the time being, while Daniel Shewchuk will become minister of human resources and Tagak Curley will be the minister responsible for the Workers' Safety and Compensation Commission.

A leadership forum to elect a new cabinet minister will take place after the September byelections, Aariak said.

Nutrition North hearings

There are five bills on the order paper during the spring session, including three finance bills, a proposed amendment to the Child and Family Services Act, and possible changes to allow for more oversight at the Nunavut Housing Corp.

But for most of this week, MLAs will be holding hearings about the Nutrition North Canada program, which replaced the federal government's Food Mail subsidy program in April.

The changes came into effect despite widespread concerns from Nunavummiut about rising grocery prices and subsidy rates for shipping food to Nunavut's remote communities.

MLAs will begin their hearings on Wednesday afternoon. Executives from major northern retailers are being called as witnesses, and federal representatives have not yet confirmed if they will attend.

"There are lots of questions we need to ask because I feel there are very serious questions out there about the program," Kusugak said.

Meanwhile, the Nutrition North Advisory Panel will hold a public meeting Tuesday evening at Inuksuk High School starting at 6:30 p.m.