Women's groups in Nunavut say they are outraged that Levi Barnabas, an MLA convicted eight years ago of sexual assault, was named to cabinet last week.

Barnabas, who represents the High Arctic riding of Quttiktuq, was acclaimed Thursday to fill a cabinet seat vacated by Baker Lake MLA and former finance minister David Simailak.

Premier Paul Okalik has assigned Barnabas the human resources portfolio, as well as made him minister responsible for the Workers' Compensation Board.

The one-time Speaker of the house resigned in 2000 after he pleaded guilty to sexual assault. He was re-elected in 2004.

"I want to see him stepping down and just be a regular MLA," Mary Akpalialuk, the women's co-ordinator with the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, told CBC News on Friday.

"It disgusts me when [an] offender like that becomes a minister."

Akpalialuk said she is tired of seeing some male MLAs out drinking and womanizing in Iqaluit, when they are supposed to be role models.

Okalik defended his newest minister, saying it's a free society and Barnabas deserves another chance.

"Mr. Barnabas has served his time for the crime and also been elected by his constituents, who believe that he had cleaned up his act," Okalik said.

"Since being re-elected, Mr. Barnabas has been a role model within our caucus. He's chaired our caucuses and expressed his regret in his past activities."

Okalik added that the full legislative assembly chose Barnabas to join cabinet. Nunavut has a consensus-based legislative assembly in which MLAs choose the premier and cabinet ministers from among their own ranks.

Status of women council receiving calls, e-mails

But officials with the Qulliit Nunavut Status of Women Council say they have been getting calls, e-mails and comments in person from people not happy with Barnabas's appointment.

"What kind of message does this pass on to Nunavummiut in terms of violence against women?" said Trista Mercer, a board member with the council.

"Are we saying it's tolerated and easily forgotten? I hope not, because we won't forget and the victims don't forget."

Fellow council member Neevee Wilkins said the people of Nunavut need to hear from Barnabas about his past offence.

"I'm expecting for him to … tell us what he's done, what steps he's taken to ensure that he is a changed person, and that he will not reoffend," Wilkins said.

The council plans to lobby this year for legislation barring people convicted of serious offences from running for office.