Orange is the New Jack: Our Interview with the Nunavut NDP Candidate


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Last night, the Nunavut NDP unveiled their candidate for the Federal Election with a clever hashtag and community event.

The announcement comes almost a year after NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair's visit to Iqaluit with Romeo Saganash (check out the link to get a taste of what the NDP has in mind for Nunavut, should they take the majority in the House), and almost one month after the Liberals announced Hunter Tootoo as their candidate. Now, Nunavut has a choice for MP in all four major political parties, with the incumbent Leona Aglukkaq representing the Conservatives and Spencer Rocchi with the Green Party.

To get Anawak's take on his part in the NDP's "orange wave," I met with him for a brief conversation about political loyalties, public scandals, communication strategies - and photos on the back of a pickup truck.

FTN: Right off the bat, let's talk about your known Liberal affiliation. You were a two-term Liberal MP; you introduced Justin Trudeau at a community event in Iqaluit this year; Nunatsiaq News described you as a Liberal Party loyalist. What's your response to people saying you're jumping ship?

ANAWAK: My first election ever, I voted for Wally Firth who was running as an NDP for the Northwest Territories. He got in. Then the second time I voted was for Peter Ittinuar who was running for the NDP. So the first two times that I ever voted federally was for the NDP and they won. So it's not a jumping [from] the Liberals, it's jumping back to the NDP. I don't have anything against the Liberals, it's just that I think whatever the NDP is doing, there are a lot of things that really resonate with the people of Nunavut. So I don't consider it jumping over to the NDP. It's just coming back home.

What are some of those issues that you're saying are resonating with Nunavummiut?

Well, first of all, when I was in Naujaat, when the Truth and Reconciliation Report came out, and Mr. Mulcair's comment was, "We will put into place all the recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation [Commission]," that was a big thing to people like me who've gone to residential school. And when he was meeting with the First Nations, he told them that he would deal with the First Nations, Inuit, and the Metis on a nation-to-nation basis. Again, that's a big thing. Also the way the NDP have always put forward social issues. Suicide prevention, housing. I visited one family that had 18 people in [Naujaat]. Now I don't remember whether it was four-bedroom, or five-bedroom, but still, 18 people in [the house]. So there's a severe lack of housing. Mental health has always been my [passion]. And then of course, having been a politician for quite some time, having been a Member (of Parliament), I was not in favour of Bill C-51 when it came out, and with the NDP voting against it, I thought that was another notch in the whatever. I don't know how you say, another nail in the...I don't know what the proper term is! [laughs]

Well, it was another checkmark for you for the NDP.

Yeah.

You drew on this already, the fact that you've done politics up here for a long time.

People don't realize that the history of formal governments up here is not very long. I was one of the first members of the Settlement Council in Naujaat in 1975. So formal governments are 40 years old in a place like Naujaat. Others may have had them a couple of years prior, but most communities in Nunavut, their formal governments, other than maybe Iqaluit, are no older than 45 years old. So there I was involved right from the beginning.

So, even if formal governments are quite recent, you've had quite a bit of experience. You were already MP for two terms, so you can obviously draw on that experience if you are re-elected. But which of your other many leadership positions do you think have best prepared you to take on Nunavut's MP position?

From 16 years old, I had my own dog team, and I went out travelling and hunting after I had gone to school in Chesterfield [Inlet] and Churchill. Now when we went to school in Chesterfield, there were negative things. Sexual abuse and other stuff occurred. But at the same time, the education we got, it was the kind of education you'd get anywhere. We could have competed with any southern school. Now in retrospect, we learned about everything but the North. That was part of the problem. But it was a very, very good school and it prepared us. So with that kind of education, and being able to go back out on the land, I think that prepared me to be able to be on my own, as well as move forward further into politics. Being the Mayor of Rankin Inlet, President of the Keewatin Regional Council, President of the Keewatin Chamber of Commerce, and then on to being a Member of Parliament, then Member of the Legislature. And then, being in charge of putting the government together, the bureaucracy for Nunavut. Been there, done that, so I want to do it again.

Those are some really positive experiences you've had leading to your political career, but people are also bringing up some of the less positive experiences you've had as a politician. In 2003, you were voted out of Cabinet. Do you want to explain what you think happened?

I didn't consider that a negative thing at all. I was representing my constituents, and this was supposed to be a government that was different from a government from the South. So when I was championing the rights of people being moved from Rankin Inlet to Baker Lake, as a Minister in the government representing Rankin North, and [then] getting voted out of Cabinet, I didn't consider it negative. It just gave me the will to represent Rankin North even more. To me, it was a bunch of people, including the person who's running for the Liberal Party, who did their best to move me out of the Cabinet. Well, that was their loss. Whether I was in the Cabinet or not, it didn't stop me from representing Rankin North.

There is an expectation from the public that our elected representatives will have spotless pasts. You don't have that spotless past. What is your response to this expectation?

Again I go back to going to residential school, having been abused, having lost two brothers in 1977 to suicide, having lost another brother in the late 1990s to suicide. All that and being abused, and living under colonialism, all that had a traumatic effect. Not just on me, but on other people of my generation. So we did things that we shouldn't have done. Abused alcohol and drugs. And for awhile it, we were on a ride and some of us got into trouble, and in my case, I got into trouble later. Much later! I had the unfortunate experience of driving under the influence charges, which I felt very bad about. But at the same time, just because you fall down, doesn't mean you don't get back up. In my case, I thought, "Okay, that's not a good thing to do at all, but I'm still me. I still have my brains, I still have people out there who depend on me for advice." But yes, I did have some unfortunate experiences, but I don't think that should hold anybody back unless it really stopped you from trying to do anything. To me there's too many judges out there who judge you based on an incident or a couple of incidents, and forget about all the other things that you've tried to do in your life. So yes there are some negative things that I would rather forget about, but they're out there. I'm a public person, so people seem to revel in picking that up, instead of, those two things compared to those forty years, what I've done. Really, no comparison.

In many ways, Nunavut is a territory divided, by geography, by time zones, by regional allegiances, by family allegiances. If you are elected, how will you bridge that gap?

When Nunavut was being negotiated upon, the first mistake we made, I think, was keeping on with those divisions between the Baffin, the Keewatin region, and the Central Arctic. Those were not our divisions. Some bureucrat decided there was going to be the district of Baffin, district of Keewatin, and district of Mackenzie or whatever it was. Inuit don't make those kind of distinctions. We are one. And if we want to go further, we're one with Alaskans, Siberian Inuit, and Greenlanders. It's all one group. And now, because of Nunavut Land Claims, and the Nunavut territory, people from the Baffin are envious of people from the Keewatin region, or people from the Kitikmeot region. That shouldn't be. We're one group! The world is too small for petty clashes about who's going to get this money or who's going to get that money or they're getting more money than we are. But I'm also the type of person who is a unifier, as far as I'm concerned. We have a word in Inuktitut that I can't really, it's hard to translate it into English, but, some people are very selective.

What's the Inuktitut word?

Illainaqsiut. They only serve certain people. Their buddies, you know. They don't care for other people because those people may criticize them or something. When you're in politics, you have to have criticism somehow! Not everybody is going to agree with you. And by the way, politicians up here should have a thick skin like a walrus. Very thick. About this thick [holds up fingers two inches apart]. That's what they should develop. Not like a fish. [laughs]

Going back to my original question, how would you represent all of Nunavut in Ottawa?

By representing them. By going to communities. When I was Member of Parliament, I visited every community at least twice. I don't know if our Member of Parliament has visited all the communities. But if I was in the House of Commons, I'd make sure that I'd visit all the communities, not because there's a reason, but because they're there. When we see the Minister coming in, it's because there's something going on here. Well, why don't we see the MP coming just because she's the MP? That's the way it should be. So that's how you keep the people unified, by paying attention to them and by treating them equally. Not just being selective about who you meet with and who you deal with. To me, that's the way to represent in a territory like Nunavut.

Now, I don't consider myself an elder or anything, but people do call me for advice on certain issues, because I guess you could say, I'm an all around Inuk. I know everything there is about Inuit culture, but I can also fit in in Ottawa quite easily. So I can separate the difference between being an Inuk up here, going out hunting, skinning a seal or skinning a walrus, skinning a polar bear, and then going into a formal event in Ottawa. One day I'm going to put on a tuxedo and skin a seal or something.

And by the way, if I want to speak to somebody in Kugaaruk, I can speak their dialect. If I want to speak to somebody in Naujaat, I can speak their dialect. If I want to speak in Baker Lake, I can do a bit of that, too. The only people I can't really speak with in their own language are the French. I don't speak French.

Too bad it wasn't an orange truck.

Too bad it wasn't an orange truck.

So we're talking about communicating, and my last question is on your communications campaign. It was unveiled last night with the hashtag #OrangeIsTheNewJack. Judging by the social media response, people loved it. There was a lot of orange on Nunavut Facebook and Twitter last night. How did your group come up with this branding?

Having good people like Aaron Watson and my boy Robin Anawak and other people hashing together things. The other thing that I wanted to say is that, when you're in a position like me, where you're running for something, you surround yourself with people who know more than you. You cannot exist as a politician, as a leader, unless you accept the fact that there's people around you who know more than you do on issues. Now you may do the leading, but you can't just say, here's how we're going to do it and no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Leadership is all about listening to other people.

And the other thing that think I can carry out in communications is, if I go to any community, and I'm walking down the road, it's "Hi Jack." I may have never met the person, but they'll say, "Hi Jack." Having been in every community, plus when I was Interim Commissioner, putting the Government of Nunavut together, I went on the TV every Wednesday describing what the Government of Nunavut was going to be, I think I have that respect of the people out there. I don't normally go on and say I can do the job, but in this case, I feel pretty good about being able to do the job better than the other two. Or three, three! I never remember there's a Green Party, too.

Any final comments?

Fortunately, Inuit have never adopted the policy of "best before date." So I'm good 'til I drop dead.

To donate to the Nunavut NDP, click here. To volunteer or find out more about Jack, please call the Nunavut NDP campaign office at 979 6300 and speak to campaign manager Heather Coman. Or drop in the campaign office in the Coman Arctic Building across from the airport!

You can also keep up with the latest from the Nunavut NDP by following them on Facebook or Twitter. And be sure to check out all our Election 2015 coverage - just look for #elxn42 in our tags.