Interview: Leona Aglukkaq Talks Track Records, Being Inuk in Ottawa, and Stephen Harper


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And here we have it - our final interview with a Nunavut MP candidate (read the conversations with Liberal's Hunter Tootoo and the NDP's Jack Anawak). Today, I visited the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum with the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, current MP and Minister of Enviroment, where we chatted about challenges, triumphs, and why she is seeking re-election. It's a bit of a long interview, so let's get right into it. 

FTN: Of the most important issues that you think are facing Nunavut today, which ones do you feel like the Conservatives are best suited to address?

AGLUKKAQ: I would say, when I decided to run federally, I was frustrated in that we weren’t getting the issues addressed that were important to Nunavut and around issues within our Land Claims Agreement. We lost the election shortly after that and for 13 years, we didn’t see any movement on the implementation of the Land Claims Agreement we as Inuit fought so hard for.

So the issues that we’re good at is implementing the Land Claims Agreement in Nunavut, making the North a priority. This Prime Minister has...developed a Northern Strategy for the first time for a government to implement, and within those umbrellas we’ve been able to move on a number of things. Infrastructure, education, training. And I want to continue to do that and to work with Inuit and local organizations, at the cabinet table, as to how do we address going forward.

Can you think of some issues or concerns that affect Nunavut that your party has been less successful at addressing, and how you might change that if you are re-elected?

I want to move on the issues related to how we can do better in addressing the issue of food security. Food security is a big one for the North, and not just in the North but all around. There’s so many things that factor into that food security, whether that be housing...education, good jobs, and so on. The solutions come from here. They come from our communities, and that’s important. And I want to continue to work with organizations in the North, how we go forward in addressing all those issues that contribute to food security.

The other part that I want to continue working on...[is] incorporating Inuit traditional knowledge in science and research in the North. I pushed very hard as Health Minister to see that any research related to the health of Inuit people in Canada’s North be done...with Inuit people. The other areas that if you’re going to do any scientific research on our wildlife, that Inuit traditional knowledge also be incorporated, not a separate component but in parallel with research, so that we make better decisions about conservation, management, and so on in the North using the wealth of knowledge of Inuit.

Other than your experience as an MP and as a member of the Cabinet, what do you think makes you more qualified than your opponents to represent Nunavut?

I’ve dedicated 20-something years of my life to public service and I do this because I want to make a difference for Nunavummiut, and I want to contribute in making a difference to the people in the North. I have a proven track record of accomplishing things for the North. We’ve restored the funding that were cut under the previous government to the territorial government. We’ve developed a long-term strategy for infrastructure in major projects that were lacking in the North for too long, and we're only starting to roll those out. Being able to resolve the dispute between the NTI and the Federal Government on the implementation of our Land Claims Agreement. The seal hunt, the polar bear, and so on, and I have been able to do that and actually produce results for the North.

I’ve also made a priority of on a regular basis to meet with people in the North. There’s only one MP for a region this size. The day you’re elected, you represent anyone; doesn’t matter what party they belong to. You represent them and you do your best to try and address their issues and provide a service to your constituents.

You are also one of only a few women and the only Aboriginal person at your level of government. What has that experience been like for you, being the only Indigenous person and a female at the table?

I speak to a lot of young, you know, Nunavut Sivuniksavut students, or when I go to the college, I say, “I’m born and raised in the same place as you have been, so the door is now open and I’m not going to be here forever. So it’s your turn to pick up and take it from when I leave.”

I didn’t realize the magnitude of that appointment until after, when I started receiving phone calls from people and the feedback. Later I thought, this is big, and I gotta do my part and I gotta prove that I can do this. And I’ve had tough portfolios. I’ve had the Health portfolio the first two terms under a pandemic, a global pandemic. To be able to manage that shortage in medical isotopes and dealing with long-term stable funding arrangements for all the provinces and territories for healthcare that were cut by the previous government. And then I’m dealing with the Environment file as we lead up to the Paris agreement for a new global agreement. So I’ve worked hard.

It’s not easy. I have given it my all, but I also have a husband and a seven-year old boy that I have to try and balance all of this. As women in politics, you have to balance that. And I couldn't do this without [my husband’s] support. And I say to people, I’m there for a short period of time. Use while I'm there as a means to dealing with your issues. What are they? I’ll do my best to help. It’s not easy. It’s tough. But you keep at it, and you’ll eventually get the outcome you want. So it’s been an absolute privilege for me.

We talked about you being one of the few women in Cabinet. On the subject of being a women, you’ve expressed a passion for women’s issues, including domestic violence and violence against women. If you are re-elected as MP, what kind of policies or programs or initiatives would you start or support?

The issue is not talked about enough in my view. We see it in our communities. It’s all around us and nobody talks about it. The role of women in the family is very important, to raising children, so what can we do to provide assistance to the victims and the children, getting through this difficult stage? I think we need to talk to victims. I think victims should have a say in the challenges they face in getting out of difficult situations, through programs, community-based programs, supporting families, supporting men. That’s all important.

Our government put in $100 million over ten years to develop community-based programming in our communities to deal with some of these challenges. We’ve gone forward with human trafficking to try to prevent that. We’ve changed the legislations around house arrest in domestic violence situations. We’ve introduced the legislation on matrimonial rights on property as well as emergency protection orders on First Nations reserves where it did not exist before. I don’t think many women even knew that as a First Nations woman, in dealing with a matrimonial issue, they did not have the same rights as other Canadians. In this day and age, that is unacceptable.

One of the other projects that I’m working on, is I’m dealing with a friend who is going through a very difficult situation. She was stabbed, almost killed by her spouse. She has children in his care. At the moment she’s trying to prove to the courts that she’s the fit mother. Seems to me that that’s a bit off in that she was the victim, but yet she has to prove she’s the fit mother, while the children are with the person that almost killed her. That’s a real story and that’s a friend that I am working with right now. How do I help her? So the conversation around domestic violence, we need to talk about it, we need to take actions now. And we all have a role to play.

Do you think one of those actions would include an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women?

I’ve always said that I want to take action now. We’ve had over 40 studies. Do we wait two, three more years for another report on the situation, or do we take action now? When I’m dealing with people that are in this situation, they don’t want to wait for another report. These are people that pick up the phone and call me for help, and I don’t think they want me to say we’re going to wait for another report. They want help now, immediate support. So I’m supporting taking actions on how to do this in our communities with groups in our communities. How do we help our men and women in difficult situations. And we all have a role to play. And I think leaders in Nunavut need to start talking about it. It’s all around us. Why don’t we talk about it?

Your opponents claim that Nunavut does not have a voice in Ottawa, but Ottawa has a voice in Nunavut. What is your response to that?

I’ve had initiatives that I’ve talked about before where I brought to the table that are supported by the Prime Minister. In doing the work in Ottawa, the approach I have always taken is to consult with my constituents on a regular basis. I’ve met with every Hamlet Council more than once. Inuit organizations, Nunavut associations and municipalities, Nunavut Tunngavik, stakeholders, the business community, on a regular basis. That's the voice I am taking to Ottawa.

Do you have any examples of something that you brought to the table, where your party at first didn't understand or support you?

What I can say is that the initiatives that I have taken to resolve, that in my view we inherited as a party, is the lack of implementation of the Land Claims Agreement, the long-gun registry, the issue related to the seal, Inuit not being represented at the government, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit around conservation. Those are the things that didn’t happen under the previous government. So I would raise the question, why didn’t they do that for Inuit? It was important to Inuit. So when I got elected, those were important to me as a Northerner to start addressing and to fix, and which I've resolved. I think my track record, my proven track record in Ottawa, has been responsive to issues that Nunavummiut have been raising for 13 years that the previous government, the Liberal Party, did not address.

The Prime Minister's last visit to Nunavut was met with a lot of criticism. People felt it was inaccessible, they reacted strongly - and rightly so - to the dump truck barricade. Can you provide some insight or explanation into why the event was planned that way?

The Prime Minister has visited the North every single year, up to Arctic Bay to Pond Inlet to Iqaluit to Paniqtuuq, to Rankin Inlet to Baker Lake to Cambridge Bay to Gjoa Haven. No other Prime Minister has visited the North as much as he has. In terms of the last visit, we had planned an event at a cultural camp with a family. We had some seal meat and bannock and demonstrated how the seal is cleaned and how we eat the meat and what not with a family of Inuit.

In terms of the planning of logistics, there’s a lot that goes into planning when you’re the sitting prime minster. There’s police, security issues, that police are in control of and I don’t have any control of that. So those are factors I think people don't understand, in that there's different processes in place when you are the Prime Minster of a country. But in terms of making the visits to the North and meeting with people, no other Prime Minister in Canadian history has met with more Inuit than this Prime Minister.

Moving on to leadership in the North, there has been a lot of talk recently about leaders and Inuktut proficiency. Both Hunter Tootoo and Natan Obed have been criticized for not speaking Inuktitut. Where do you stand on this issue? Is it necessary for Inuit leaders to be fluent in an Inuit language?

Inuktitut is my first language, English is my second language. And I’ve been very fortunate to have a mother who’s an educator, whose passion is Inuktitut. But I also recognize that there are a number of other people that have lost their language during the residential school system. You know, my sister went to school and came back and didn’t speak Inuktitut. I think we need to be very sensitive to that and be very respectful of the fact that there are circumstances around why our young people may not speak the language, and be respectful of that.

In terms of my self, in doing my work, it does make it easier for me. I get a phone call from a mayor of Pond Inlet who’s unilingual, he can call me and I can have a conversation with him. That’s important to him as well, and I think accessibility is important. So long as you know if you don’t speak the language, you have the means to be accessible to unilingual elders in our communities.

We’ve invested a lot of money into a bilingual education system. We have four official languages and we put lots of money into language training and so on. But I’m also very sensitive and understanding that there are other circumstances where Inuit people were not able to keep their language, not by choice, and that's a very dark history of our country. And I’m sensitive to that.

With all the criticism and backlash you get as a public official - and you've faced a lot of that in the past year - what motivates you to run for re-election? Why do you want to do this all over again?

What motivates me is that I feel that the work is not done. There's been progress in a number of areas, but the work is not done. I feel I’m making a difference, and I want to continue down that path. And it is a challenge, you know, as a woman, as a mother, in a riding that’s twenty percent of Canada's land mass.

But my approach has always been that every community is unique, every community has its own challenges, but also opportunities. Clyde River cultural school. Paniqtuuq fishing industry. Pond Inlet, possible mine there, Baker Lake mining industry. The discovery of the Erebus in Gjoa Haven. All those present opportunities for Nunavummiut, whether it be in jobs and so on.

Do you like being a politician?

It’s my whole life [laughs]. I’ve been in politics for a long time; council member, the DEA. We've come a long way. I've been in public service since the eighties, and there were very few Inuit in the public service, very few women in politics. I never thought I’d ever get into Federal politics, but through the work that I’ve done over the years, it's just kind of built up to that. When I was in the territorial government as Health and Finance and Status of Women Minister, there’s certain things that we can take so far. And out of frustration, I said I’ll give it a try and try federally and address some of those.

I’m a workaholic. I like the challenge. But it would not be possible without the Inuit people in the North. And you need to check your base on a regular basis and how you’re moving. And I think we’ve come a long way, but it’s never done. Work is never over and I want to continue to be a part of that.

Our Nunavut MP candidate interviews are done, but the election is still a ways away. Keep checking out our Election 2015 section for more coverage as we inch ever closer to October 19th.