Nunavut to elect new government Monday as former premier steps down

A total of 72 candidates in Nunavut’s general election will be nervously watching the returns in Monday’s vote, but the territory’s sitting premier won’t be one of them.

Peter Taptuna became the first premier in the young territory’s history to voluntarily step aside after a single term.

“I’m 2,300 kilometres away from home,” said Taptuna, whose commute from the capital of Iqaluit to his house in Kugluktuk takes two days.

“Our 40th anniversary is coming up in January and (my wife and I) decided there’s many, many things we want to do as a couple.”

No matter who ultimately winds up in his chair, Taptuna has a pretty good idea of the main challenge the next government will face.

“Infrastructure,” he said.

Ports, roads, decent Internet — all of these will cut the cost of doing business in Nunavut and developing its rich resource base. That’s how the territory will fund the rest of the development it so badly needs.

“If anything like that is going to be developed, it’s going to create jobs,” said Taptuna. ”It’s infrastructure that generates revenue for all levels of government.”

Taptuna can point to some achievements in that area — ports are being built in Iqaluit and Pond Inlet and the capital’s airport has been rebuilt. But more is needed.

A road and port along the central Arctic coast, a link from Manitoba to communities along Hudson Bay, a highway from Yellowknife up to the Nunavut coast — all these would unlock tens of billions of dollars in development, Nunavut argues.

“That’s something we’ve got to focus on, that revenue-generating infrastructure gets built so we can build more social infrastructure,” said Taptuna.

By many measures, Taptuna hands off a territory in improved shape.

The books remain balanced. Three mines are now producing and several others are moving forward. The Conference Board of Canada predicted 4.9 per cent growth for Nunavut this year, outpacing the Canadian average.

Taptuna’s government also passed Inuktitut language legislation to ensure services are available in the language most people speak.

Still, familiar problems remain. Nunavut is short about 3,000 homes and overcrowding is one reason tuberculosis rates are 50 times the southern average.

Suicide is also an epidemic. Taptuna declared it a crisis and appointed a high-ranking bureaucrat to oversee a new prevention strategy that includes a social media focus.

The territory’s education system remains stuck between English and Inuktitut, producing graduates that many say function well in neither. Failure to pass an Education Act that would create Inuktitut schools is one of Taptuna’s regrets.

“There was a lot of passionate discussions on that,” he said. ”At the end of the day, I’m hoping we’ll be able to have Inuktitut-speaking teachers, qualified educators teaching that in all our schools.”

And tough negotiations with Ottawa over a carbon tax that Taptuna argues is unfair to northerners will remain for the next government.

Taptuna’s successor won’t be known right away.

Under the consensus form of government used in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, the premier and cabinet is selected by the successful candidates to the territory’s 22-seat legislature from among themselves. The vote usually takes place a few days after the general election.

There are no political parties in the Nunavut legislature.

Taptuna said whoever takes over for him will inherit a jurisdiction that, while troubled, remains proud and culturally vibrant despite the gradual expansion of a modern economy.

“A lot of people have this attitude that our culture and language and our traditions will be eroded by the modern way of living,” he said. ”We’re stronger than that.

“We’ve seen our way of life changing. But we’re still strong enough to maintain our culture and our traditions and our language.”