Hidden issue in Nunavut election is battle for soul of the eastern Arctic
Date: Monday, February 16 2004
Topic: Canadian Politics
Voters in Nunavut go to the polls Monday in an election that, on the surface, has featured issues that are not different from anywhere else in Canada.
But underneath the concerns about jobs, education, health care and housing is a battle for the soul of the eastern Arctic, symbolized by the two men likely to be candidates for the premier's chair after the vote.
Incumbent Paul Okalik, 38, an Ottawa-trained lawyer, seems determined to preserve Inuit culture and language while moving their society toward the secular Canadian mainstream.
Challenger Tagak Curley, 60, who has been acclaimed in his riding of Rankin Inlet North, is a veteran Inuit leader and member of the Order of Canada. He's also strongly associated with Nunavut's burgeoning fundamentalist Christian movement and has acknowledged he's re-entering electoral politics at least partly in protest over the territory's new human rights legislation.
"Curley is definitely a rival and a strong challenger," says Health Minister Ed Picco, who notes the fundamentalist revival in Nunavut has been "obvious" for several years.
"There is a constituency that will agree with what Mr. Curley is saying."
Observers agree religion became a political issue in Nunavut last fall, when Okalik's government pushed through a new Human Rights Act that included issues such as protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The bill barely passed after a bruising, bitter debate - unheard of in Nunavut's consensus-style government, in which legislation normally passes almost unanimously.
Okalik makes no apologies.
"It wasn't broadly accepted by some sectors of our territory, but so what?" he said. "It's legislation that's needed for everyone, not just Inuit but minorities everywhere."
Shortly after the bill was passed, Curley announced his decision to run.
"The special rights that are accorded to others more than ours, that believe in one union between man and woman, is something that is absolutely new to this part of the world," Curley said after announcing his candidacy.
"Now that we know what the law of God is, it really is much more clear that it's not necessarily the best of lifestyles."
Curley said the legislation "could lead to a situation where we become a habitat for that kind of lifestyle."
With the support of southern conservative lobby groups such as REAL Women, Curley said he would seek to amend the human rights bill if he is chosen premier by his fellow members of the legislative assembly.
Under Nunavut's no-party electoral system, candidates run as independents and those elected choose the premier from among themselves. The premier then chooses his cabinet.
Eighty-two candidates are running in 19 ridings in this election. The first one was held six weeks before Nunavut officially became a territory on April 1, 1999.
The premier and cabinet are scheduled to be chosen on March 5. Okalik and Curley are the only candidates who have announced their intention to seek the premiership.
James Arreak, pastor of the Iqaluit Christian Fellowship and one of the leaders of Nunavut's new fundamentalist movement, calls Curley "a strong part of our leadership."
Arreak is one of several Inuit preachers in the process of organizing the fundamentalist congregations in all of Nunavut's 27 communities into a single church. That church, he says, considers the creation of Nunavut to be a sign from God for the Inuit to renew and redefine themselves.
It promotes a conservative interpretation of scripture, as well as Pentecostal practices such as speaking in tongues, faith-healing and exorcism. Curley has attended and spoken at Bible camps held by the movement.
Arreak makes no bones about his desire for political influence.
"If we can do something about bringing an opinion on government policy, I think we have the right to," he says.
At least three of the 19 members of Nunavut's last legislature were associated with Arreak's movement.
And Curley's stand has resonated in other ridings.
In an all-candidates election forum on education held in Iqaluit, one candidate received both boos and cheers when he said that "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."
Curley denies he's a single-issue candidate, saying he's at least as concerned about Rankin Inlet being left out of the territorial government's economic development plans.
He has a long political pedigree, stretching back at least 33 years in both Inuit land claims organizations and the old Northwest Territories legislature.
In 1971 he became a founding member and first president of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada. Curley has also served as the head of the Nunavut Construction Corp., which built the Nunavut legislature building in which he now hopes to serve.
"Tagak is a smart, intelligent, savvy politician with a good business background," says Picco.
Nevertheless, he acknowledges he's concerned about the chance that religious conflict may come to be a fact of life in Nunavut's second legislature.
"As premier, you're elected to represent everyone," he says. "I don't believe there's any room for sectarianism in government."
By Bob Weber | Canadian Press