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Nunavut premier spars with Iqaluit MLA over Inuit employment records

A short statement about an employee training program turned into a long and testy debate about Inuit equality at the Nunavut Legislative Assembly Thursday.

'I'm offended that our premier is questioning if Inuit are well off. We're not even close,' says Paul Okalik

Nunavut's Premier and MLA Paul Okalik both want to see more Inuit employment within the territorial government, but during a heated debate at the Legislative Assembly on Thursday, they couldn't agree on make it happen. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

A short statement about an employee training program turned into a long and testy debate about Inuit equality at the Nunavut Legislative Assembly Thursday. 

Premier Peter Taptuna told MLAs that he's "very proud" of the latest group of Government of Nunavut employees set to participate in the Hivuliqtikhanut Program, which trains staff to become managers. 

But when it was time for regular MLAs to ask questions, Paul Okalik questioned the fact that only 79 per cent of participants taking this month's training are Inuit. 

"We're a public government and we all know that Inuit are in the bottom of the socio-economic ladder," Okalik, the representative for Iqaluit-Sinaa, said. 
'We have to do all we can to allow Inuit to catch up,' MLA Paul Okalik said in a challenge to Premier Peter Taptuna yesterday. (Nunavut Legislative Assembly)

"We have to do all we can to allow Inuit to catch up."

The status of Inuit employment at the territorial government is a perennial Nunavut issue, with the goal of creating a public service that reflects the overall population — which is 85 per cent Inuit — always out of reach.

'We're not even close'

Taptuna conceded that it has been very difficult to get to 85 per cent mark and says the government has "been stalled" at around 50 per cent.

Still he questioned the veracity of Okalik's remarks. 

"For him to say that Inuit are on the social bottom of our society is absolutely wrong," he said. "I don't know where this is coming from." 

Okalik was happy to explain. 
Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna says there are 'many, many' programs aimed at increasing Inuit employment within the public service. (Nunavut Legislative Assembly)

"One need only look at the unfortunate situations that Inuit face today in our own territory, in every level of education and every level of participation in our own government and employment," he said.

"I'm offended that our premier is questioning if Inuit are well off. We're not even close."

As it turned out, there was room in the discussion for both members to take offence. 

"I appreciate the passion of the member," said Taptuna, adding that he has the same passion. 

"I'm offended that 79 per cent in one program — and we have many, many programs — is not enough for the member." 

He added that the program is open to any beneficiary, but "we can't just pluck them out and force them to do it."

Premier says 'many' programs support Inuit

The Government of Nunavut deals with the effects of having the lowest high school graduation rate in the country, pegged at 57 per cent, "on a daily basis," said the premier. 

"Our labour pool is very small," he said.

"This [program] enables our beneficiaries to move up in positions and then these vacated positions can be put to use for an upcoming beneficiary." 

Taptuna said there are "many, many" programs to help train Inuit and help improve education numbers, including ones put in place by Okalik, whom he addressed in his answer as "the former premier of nine years." 

He added that the territory is working together with Nunavut Tunngavik, Inc., on this issue. Last year, the two groups' multi-million-dollar settlement with the federal government allowed them to fill a large training pot for Inuit initiatives.

The premier says there's "no magic solution" for this issue. 

Although, he still ended Thursday's heated debate by challenging Okalik to show him one.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elyse Skura is a reporter based in Tokyo, and a consulting producer for NHK World Japan. She’s also worked for CBC in Iqaluit, Ottawa and Thunder Bay.

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