North

From racism to resource development, here are the political stories Inuit watched in 2016

Two resignations, an accusation of racism and the launch of an inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls made headlines in Inuit political circles in 2016.

Resignations, indignation and recommendations: Nunavut politicians spoke out on some major issues this year

Protesters in Ottawa and parts of Nunavut looked to Canada's highest court last year, when Clyde River argued a case that could better define the country's constitutional duty to consult with Indigenous groups. (Jordan Konek/CBC)

From violence against women to the extremely high rates of suicide, last year Nunavut politicians and Inuit leaders spoke out about some of the North's most significant issues.

But as the major announcements of pan-Northern or national strategies were made, Northern political circles were also abuzz with news of resignations and indignation. 

Here's a round up of some of the political news that had some politically minded Northerners talking in 2016.

'We have to do a better job of taking care of our children'

'Each one of us is personally affected by suicide and this comes from a very early age and it affects our entire life course,' says ITK president Natan Obed. The National Inuit organization released its suicide prevention strategy last summer. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

In 2016, the issue of suicide in Indigenous communities has made national headlines — especially after a number of young girls in Northern Saskatchewan took their own lives in the same month. Earlier in the year, parliamentarians held an emergency debate on the suicide crisis in Attawapikat, where Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo spoke about his personal experiences. 

"This rampant crisis has an impact on all aspects of life in Nunavut, on the wellbeing of the family, of students in schools who have lost a classmate, a friend, on the spirit of a community and on society as a whole," said Tootoo at the time.

That sentiment was echoed by Natan Obed, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, both when he spoke to parliamentarians for their study on suicide and when he announced ITK's new suicide prevention strategy. 

"We have to do a better job of taking care of our children," Obed told hundreds of delegates at the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention's annual conference in Iqaluit.

'My name is Paul and I'm an alcoholic'

Paul Okalik resigned from the Nunavut cabinet in 2016, saying 'I cannot support an institution of selling beer and wine in my community, while we don't have the facilities to support those who may not be able to combat their addictions.' (Elyse Skura/CBC)

One of the most surprising moments in Nunavut politics last year began with a simple declaration from former premier Paul Okalik in the legislature: "My name is Paul and I'm an alcoholic." 

What followed was an emotional resignation from the territory's cabinet, where Okalik explained that he doesn't think there should be a beer and wine store in Iqaluit unless an alcohol treatment centre is opened in Nunavut. 

"I have won and lost many issues in cabinet," he told CBC the following day. "But on this one it was very difficult because it impacted on my work in terms of trying to provide more programming support for those who are living with addictions in our territory."

Months later, Finance Minister Keith Peterson confirmed Nunavut plans to open a beer and wine store this year. 

Since his sudden resignation, Okalik has spoken out on a number of controversial issues as a regular MLA, including racist comments made by Ottawa police, the government's strategy to hire more Inuit and the use of Inuktitut in schools.

'I am ashamed and I apologize to all involved'

'No, I'm not resigning,' Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo told CBC, after explaining that he left Liberal caucus after engaging in a 'consensual, but inappropriate relationship' with a staffer. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shocked Nunavut residents when he announced MP Hunter Tootoo's abrupt resignation from cabinet and the Liberal caucus because of "addictions issues." 

Reaction to the news was swift — and mixed — as many applauded Tootoo for seeking treatment, while other wondered why Trudeau seemed to be treating Tootoo differently than Seamus O'Regan, the Liberal MP for St. John's South-Mount Pearl.

After two months of relative silence on the issue, Tootoo made an impromptu stop at the CBC Iqaluit station late one Wednesday afternoon to make an admission. 

"I made a mistake and regrettably engaged in a consensual but inappropriate relationship, and that is why I resigned," he said, reading from a prepared statement.

"I am ashamed, and I apologize to all involved, especially the people of Nunavut. I am deeply sorry."

Since that time, many Nunavut residents have called for the former federal minister of fisheries and oceans to resign.

'We don't want to be lost in the mix'

Prior to the announcement of the commissioners for the federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, Inuit leaders made it clear that they want to be fully included. (CBC)

In what Obed described as a "make or break moment," Inuit groups from across the country called on the federal government to ensure the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls includes Inuit. 

"We don't want to be lost in the mix," said Rebecca Kudloo, president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada. "A lot of times we're lumped in with First Nations and we constantly have to tell the government that up North is different."

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett met with families in Iqaluit during the pre-inquiry process, acknowledging that the situation for Inuit is unique. 

"When we come here we know a pan-Canadian, pan-aboriginal approach is not going to work," said Bennett at the time.

But when the commissioner for the inquiry were announced, some Inuit leaders said they were again "forgotten."

Qajaq Robinson, one of the commissioners, grew up in Nunavut and speaks Inuktitut, but is not Inuk. 

'They cannot look past the colour of my skin'

When Inuit womens' groups called for the federal government to be add an Inuit commissioner to its inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson suggested they were motivated by racism. (Vincent Robinet/CBC)

At least one Nunavut politician was unhappy with the continued calls for an Inuk commissioner. 

Senator Dennis Patterson ruffled feathers when he wrote an op-ed equating the reaction to Robinson's appointment to his own experience as a senator.

"They cannot look past the colour of my skin," said Patterson of his political critics.

Patterson says the Inuit womens' associations were motivated by "racism" when they said having Robinson represent Inuit was not good enough. 

Representatives from Pauktuutit and the Qulliit Nunavut Status of Women Council bristled at the suggestion, saying they never questioned Robinson's credentials, and simply would like a sixth Inuk commissioner to be added.

"Shame on him as a senator to make this a race issue — it's not," said Elisapee Sheutiapik, the president of Qulliit.

'It wasn't a consultation'

After more than two years of legal battles, Jerry Natanine was at the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa when Clyde River argued it wasn't properly consulted on plans for seismic testing. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

Last year, a small Nunavut hamlet took its fight against big oil all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in a case that has the potential to redefine the way Canada fulfills its constitutional duty to consult Indigenous groups. 

"When they were going up there telling us what they were going to do, it wasn't a consultation," said Jerry Natanine, the former mayor of Clyde River. "They just told us what they were going to do and didn't answer our questions."

Clyde River, Nunavut, is trying to overturn a decision by the National Energy Board to allow seismic testing in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait. 

Local hunters say the tests, which involve using sound from an underwater airgun to check for oil and gas reserves, could harm wildlife. 

"We believe that it's a danger to our lives because it's going to destroy the ecology and kill off the animals," said Natanine.

After the hamlet joined forces with Greenpeace, the battle gained worldwide attention — including from celebrities

The Supreme Court likely won't make its decision until well into 2017.

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