Nunavut election brings new faces to government amid disappointing voter turnout

October 26, 2021
Nunavut election brings new faces to government amid disappointing voter turnout

Fewer than half of the 14,000 eligible Nunavut voters turned out Monday to elect new members of their legislative assembly, the sixth since the creation of the territory in 1999. 

Unofficial numbers showed turnout at 49.91 per cent territory-wide, down from 63.3 per cent in 2017, but higher than the 34 per cent in the latest federal election. 

The low turnout was what grabbed the attention of former Nunavut government ministers and MLAs Ed Picco and Elisapee Sheutiapik as they watched the election results at the Grind and Brew restaurant in Iqaluit.

“Shocking” is how Sheutiapik described the low turnout.

“Maybe it was due to COVID-19,” suggested Picco.

When Picco first ran for a seat in the Nunavut assembly in 1999, the overall voter turnout in the new territory’s general election reached 88.6 per cent.

“This election I found to be very competitive with lots of signage and candidates hosting events and going door-to-door,” Picco said.

But countering apathy among voters will be a major challenge for the next government, the two veteran elected officials agreed.

WATCH | A look at the key issues in the Nunavut election:

Health care, Inuit culture key issues in Nunavut election

People across Nunavut have voted in the territory’s sixth general election, hoping for action on health care, housing and the protection of Inuit language and culture. 1:47

Back in 1999, the Nunavut legislative assembly had not yet been built. 

As well, there were more dreams for the new territory than harsh realities, like the persistent housing crisis and Iqaluit’s contaminated water system, which dominated political discussion in the run-up to the vote. 

The 1999 election was different in other ways, Picco recalled. It took place during the frigid month of February.

On Monday, the weather remained unseasonably warm in many Nunavut communities. There was only a sprinkling of snow around Iqaluit as voters cast votes in four polling stations. 

But the turnout was lacklustre.

Five women, 6 incumbents re-elected

No premier was elected. That’s because, under Nunavut’s consensus government, all MLAs run as independents. Once elected, they’ll gather in a special forum to elected a Speaker, new cabinet members and a premier, who will then assign portfolios. 

As the last results came in, the territory learned that the 17 newly elected members of the legislative assembly would include 12 men and five women.

Five other MLAs were earlier acclaimed to their seats for a total of 22 in all.

Of the 12 incumbents up for election, six were returned. 

Changes nonetheless included the election of at least four women new to territorial politics: Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster in Iqaluit-Sinaa, Karen Nutarak in Tununiq; Mary Killiktee in Uqqummiut; and Joanna Quassa in Aggu.

Methusalah Kunuk watched the election results at Iqaluit’s Grind and Brew Cafe. Kunuk ran for the seat in Aggu, but lost by 10 votes to Joanna Quassa. (Jane George/CBC)

Brewster had earlier urged voters to support female candidates. She spent election day driving constituents to the polls before going home to watch the returns.

But the turnout in her constituency was poor: 29.27 per cent, with only 264 out of 902 people voting. She won her constituency with just 97 votes. 

Pamela Gross in Cambridge Bay would also be new to the legislature, but with just 224 votes over Jeannie Ehaloak’s 215 and Peter Ohokak’s 209, that race will be subject to a judicial recount. 

A judicial recount, triggered when a candidate wins by a margin under two per cent, will also be required in Amittuq, where there was only a three-vote difference between Joelie Kaernerk, with 170 votes, and Solomon Allurut with 167. 

In Iqaluit-Naiqunnguu P.J. Akeeagok, the former head of the regional Qikiqtani Inuit Association, was the biggest winner of the evening, getting 84.3 per cent of the vote in Iqaluit-Niaqunguu, where 53.36 per cent of the eligible voters cast votes.

Akeeogok told CBC he was overjoyed and humbled by his victory.

Few election surprises

Overall, the evening’s results held few surprises, even for veteran Nunavut political observers like Picco and Sheutiapik.

In Rankin Inlet South, former health minister Lorne Kusugak won over longtime former minister and MLA Taqak Curley.

Picco said he was pleased finance minister George Hickes of Iqaluit-Manirajak was re-elected: getting more money for the territory from Ottawa remains one of the largest challenges for Nunavut, dating back to its division from the Northwest Territories. 

Joe Savikataaq, on left, acclaimed MLA of Arviat South, watches Nunavut election results with family and friends in Arviat. Until the Oct. 25 election call in September, Savikataaq served as the territory’s premier — a job he has said would like to return to. (Submitted by Joe Savikataaq)

“It’s time to determine how much money is needed to run Nunavut. We were never able to get the gross expenditure base,” Picco said.

Western Nunavut’s election results arrived last due to the two-hour time difference from eastern Nunavut.

In Kugluktuk, voters went to the polls for the first time since 2013 because previous MLAs were acclaimed in the last two regular elections and a by-election. Turnout was a robust 61.1 per cent, and a new MLA, Bobby Anivalok, won over the incumbent Calvin Aivgak Pedersen,

Reached at home in Arviat, after most of the results were in, was Joe Savikataaq, Nunavut’s most recent premier, who had been watching the election unfold on CBC North.

Savikataaq was acclaimed in the Arviat-South constituency.

Picco, left, watching the results. (Jane George/CBC)

He said he’d been calling all those who won. And he was not surprised to see roughly half of the incumbents go down in defeat.

As for the low turnout, Savikataaq called it “a sad trend.

“It is a time when people can make a choice.”

Savikataaq has said he would like another term. If that happens he would be the only premier since Paul Okalik — the territory’s first — to serve two terms.

Savikataaq said his task will now be to convince the new group of MLAs that he is the best to lead Nunavut again.

The next step for the new Nunavut MLAs government is an orientation period starting Nov. 8. The Nunavut Leadership Forum takes place Nov. 17. A special one-day sitting of the assembly takes place Nov. 19. 

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