Recently elected Nunavut MLAs to choose premier

IQALUIT, Nunavut – Nunavut’s recently elected members of the legislature are to choose from among several well-known faces today when they pick the territory’s new leader.

The three hopefuls who have indicated their willingness to take the top job include former premier Paul Okalik, longtime northern politician Paul Quassa and Peter Taptuna, deputy premier in the last government.

Eva Aariak, who was Nunavut premier, lost her seat in the election, although she had indicated before the vote that she would not run again for the top job.

More candidates could emerge at the last minute under the rules of the territory’s non-partisan, consensus-style government in which elected members pick the premier, who then chooses a cabinet.

The remaining MLAs serve as a kind of opposition.

As in a municipal election, candidates in territorial elections run as individuals with no party affiliations.

The new premier will take over what might the toughest political job in Canada.

“Nunavut has its very own unique set of tough issues unlike any other jurisdiction,” said Taptuna, a former rig and mine worker who held several posts in Aariak’s cabinet. “There’s a lot of things to do.”

The two other candidates are long familiar to residents of the Eastern Arctic.

Okalik was Nunavut’s first premier and held the post from 1999 to 2008. Quassa is a veteran of almost every aboriginal organization in the region. He was one of the chief negotiators of the Nunavut Land Claim and wants to lead the territory he helped set up.

The 22 newly elected MLAs will first vote for a Speaker, who will call for nominations for premier.

The nominees will give a speech, followed by a question-and-answer period, to convince their colleagues to support them — although in reality quiet canvassing for votes has already been underway.

Whoever wins will face daunting challenges. They include turning Nunavut’s huge resource potential into an environmentally sustainable economy and dealing with social challenges such as Canada’s worst rates of suicide, sexual assault and high-school graduation.

“Education is a key to getting out of poverty,” said Taptuna. It’s a priority that was already part of Aariak’s tenure and is one that Taptuna’s rivals are unlikely to dispute.

Nunavut does have some good news on the horizon.

By 2015, two new mines are expected to be under construction. The Conference Board of Canada predicts the territory could be enjoying an economic growth rate of 3.7 per cent by then.

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