Profiles in Learning

Profiles in Learning

Premier Paul Okalik—Learning to balance tradition and the modern world

March 8, 2007

Paul Okalik has lived a life of contrasts. An idyllic early childhood living with his Inuit family on the land ended when he began elementary school at age five, an experience he found extraordinarily difficult. Teenage years of drinking and petty crime yielded to an adulthood of higher education and professional excellence. Mr. Okalik has known great pain throughout his life; but he has also known profound love and achieved astonishing success throughout a brilliant career.

Paul Okalik is a lawyer and Premier of Nunavut, an enormous territory with a sparse population, one half of whom are under the age of 25. As recently as 50 years ago, most Inuit in Nunavut—then part of the Northwest Territories—lived on the land as nomads. Much of Mr. Okalik’s challenge as Premier has been to reconcile the old with the new; to enable the next generation of Inuit to benefit from modern resource use, modern institutional education and technology—without sacrificing the traditions, values and morals that have bound the Inuit as a culture for hundreds of years.

“In my early years I grew up on the land with strong Inuit family values,” says Mr. Okalik, one of ten children born to his father Auyaluk, a hunter, and his mother, Annie. “As children we learned by observing our elders and spent most of our time traveling and camping.” Mr. Okalik remembers his mother and grandmother recounting stories about the landmarks they passed on their travels. He remembers how proud he was when he first participated in the caribou hunt—an act so important to his cultural identity.

“After pursuing that lifestyle during the first few years of my life—after learning in that way—it was very hard to start school,” he says. Institutional education at the time was conducted in English, a language the young Paul and his fellow Inuit children did not speak. He has little memory of those years because so little made sense to him. “I struggled the whole time,” he says.

A struggling culture

After moving to cities and towns from outpost camps in the 1950s, most Inuit found it hard to abide by Canadian laws, which they did not understand. Many families were deeply affected by the demands of the Canadian justice system and Mr. Okalik’s was no exception. His brother was sent to jail for a short time for a minor offence and later was ordered to pay a fine or face further jail time. He had no money, but the idea of further confinement filled him with horror. Mr. Okalik’s brother killed himself.

“I admired my brother and his death was deeply disturbing. I said to myself that he should not have died. That it was not just or right in any way.” It was at that low moment that Mr. Okalik resolved one day to become a lawyer. His dream was to help his people in their dealings with the Canadian justice system.

But it would be many years before Mr. Okalik realized that dream. After his brother’s death he turned away from his community and toward alcohol as an escape. “It wasn’t the path I had imagined for myself,” says Mr. Okalik. “I was completely overwhelmed by the changes taking place in my community.”

Discovering his talents

By grade ten, Mr. Okalik had left school. He moved away from Iqaluit and eventually settled in Ottawa, where he got his first big break. Answering an advertisement in the newspaper, Mr. Okalik began working as a researcher and negotiator with the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut, which represented the Nunavut Inuit during the land-claims process. He learned through experience that he had good negotiating skills—and the intelligence to become a lawyer.

“We worked with a lot of lawyers and negotiators. While it took a while for me to gain confidence, I eventually learned that I was just as smart as a lot of these people.” Then, in his mid-twenties, Mr. Okalik went through another transformative experience: his daughter Shasta was born.

“I wanted my daughter to be proud of her father and for that to happen I knew I would have to change.” As Mr. Okalik sought strength to stop drinking he turned to his roots for support and affirmation. “My grandmother reminded me that Inuk didn’t need alcohol or drugs to solve their problems,” says Mr. Okalik. “She also told me that my mother, who had passed away and whom I had been very close to, would have been so proud to see what I was trying to accomplish.”

Mr. Okalik finished high school and enrolled at Carleton University, where he studied political science and Canadian studies. Although he found that first year the most challenging of his educational experience—he says he barely scraped by—he made it through with help from friends and family. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and went on to enrol at the University of Ottawa law school. After graduation he spent a year articling at an Iqaluit law firm and in 1999 became the first Inuk ever called to the Bar.

“It was a challenge to be the only Inuk in the law program—not to have any role model for my experience. I coped by finding the smartest people I could to help me out.”

A career in politics

Rather than practice law after graduation, Mr. Okalik turned his energy to politics, believing he could make the most significant contribution to his people by running for public office. “I knew from experience that the Inuit were rich in culture, but it bothered me that we didn’t have proprietorship over our affairs,” says Mr. Okalik. “Part of my goal has been to change that.”

He was elected as the Nunavut legislature’s member for Iqaluit West in 1999. The legislature, which operates according to consensus rather than as a political party-based system, appointed him premier and then appointed him to a second term in 2004.

Mr. Okalik has made Inuit education a priority of his mandate. He also wants to ensure Inuit are treated fairly before the law. The government of Nunavut operates according to strong traditional values related to social harmony, mutual sharing and assistance, and honesty.

As Mr. Okalik points out, there is no specific training to prepare for the premiership. But his diverse life experience serves as a firm foundation. He has known both success and failure, which makes him a compassionate leader. He understands first-hand the difficulties—education, crime, alcoholism—that he is working as premier to address. Most of all, Mr. Okalik wishes good and happy lives on all Nunavut Inuit. He wants to spare his people’s young the pain he endured coming to terms with a modern society.

“I’m living my dream and I want every young person to have the same opportunity.”

At present, Mr. Okalik is studying French and golf—two critical skills for any Canadian politician, he jokes—as part of what he calls his commitment to lifelong learning.

“The challenge in life is to keep things interesting by continually learning.”

 

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