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Should there be a public inquiry into Iqaluit's water crisis? The GN doesn't think so

The government of Nunavut's review into the Iqaluit water crisis will be an independent investigation behind the scenes. But should that investigation happen in public view?

Iqaluit MLA says public review would reestablish trust in government

Members of the Iqaluit Fire Department assist with flushing the city's water pipes in Iqaluit, Nunavut, on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. (Dustin Patar/The Canadian Press)

On the campaign trail ahead of Nunavut's territorial election, Iqaluit-Manirajak MLA Adam Arreak Lightstone took aim at the territorial government's response to Iqaluit's water crisis.

"I'd like to ask all my fellow Iqalummiut, MLAs, candidates, to join me in supporting the creation of a special standing committee with the objective of reviewing the government's roles and responsibilities and overall response to the water crisis that we're all in," he said at an all-candidates forum at the Qajuqturvik Community Food Centre on Oct. 18.

It was only six days earlier that Iqalummiut were told to stop drinking the city's tap water after hydrocarbons were detected in it, following a week of complaints from residents who reported smelling fuel in the water. The territorial government's order to not consume the water would last for two months.

Arreak Lightstone, who is now a cabinet minister, declined comment for this story. 

Iqaluit-Tasiluk MLA George Hickes was the only of Iqaluit's four MLAs who agreed to an interview about the question of a public inquiry.

Hickes, a former cabinet minister, said having a public inquiry, instead of an independent investigation happening behind the scenes, would help reestablish public trust in government, which has been shaken from the water crisis. 

The military set up a reverse osmosis water treatment plant to provide clean drinking water from the Sylvia Grinnell river during the water crisis. (David Gunn/CBC)

And although Hickes said he sees the value in such an inquiry, he was clear he wasn't leaning one way or the other.

"If nothing else, a public inquiry would give the public the ability to see how things progressed, where some of these breakdowns occurred, and why," Hickes said.

"It takes away that optic of it being potentially biased. And I'm not begrudging any consultant or contractor that would come in. I'm sure they would act with integrity. But with this lack of confidence in the government's response, municipal and territorial, there's too many questions right now."

Third-party review ordered

Although there is a substantial difference between a special standing committee, and a public inquiry under Nunavut's Public Inquiries Act — the latter would happen outside of the confines of the Legislative Assembly — the territorial government isn't keen on either.

Health Minister John Main was unavailable for an interview, and instead deferred comment to Nunavut's health department.

Asked whether the government was considering any sort of special standing committee or public inquiry, the department issued a one-line statement: "No, although the government of Nunavut is employing a third-party review."

There's no word yet on who would be conducting the third-party review.

Justice minister will not call public inquiry

Never in Nunavut's history has there been a public inquiry called under the Public Inquiries Act. The closest thing might be the 2015 suicide inquest, which was called by Nunavut's chief coroner.

Under the Public Inquiries Act, in which the Department of Justice is the lead, such an inquiry can be called when the minister — in this case David Akeeagok — "considers it necessary or in the public interest … any matter relating to the conduct of the public business of Nunavut; or any matter of public concern."

A public inquiry would give an appointed board the power to summon anybody to testify under oath, subpoena documents, and complete its review in full public view.

Akeeagok was also unavailable for an interview. In a statement, he said he won't be calling an inquiry, citing the health department's own review.

Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell wasn't for or against a public inquiry. But top of his mind is who the GN would appoint to oversee any investigation, and who would pay for it.

"We live in a territory where people are afraid to speak because of the government overlords, you know?" Bell said, adding any review — whether an inquiry or not — needs to be made public.

"I want an outside body that has nothing to do with any of us. Nothing to do with the city, nothing to do with the GN, nothing to do with the [federal government]. Just someone that can review everything that actually knows what they're talking about. We don't have those people with that expertise here in Nunavut," Bell said.

"Were there errors on all of our sides? Probably," Bell continued. "Was everyone trying to work together for the better good? Yes. Did it always happen? No."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick Murray is a CBC reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. A graduate from St. Thomas University's journalism program, he's also covered four Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports. You can follow Nick on Twitter at @NickMurray91.

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