Nunavut’s new legislators have chosen to go with youth by making P.J. Akeeagok the territory’s next premier.

Akeeagok, 36, was selected during Wednesday’s leadership forum, topping third-term Kivalliq MLAs Lorne Kusugak and Joe Savikataaq, the latter having served as premier during the 5th legislative assembly.

The forum lasted about 5.5 hours to that point and the selection was made by secret ballot.

Having led the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) for seven years, Akeeagok, a newcomer to the legislative assembly as are 10 of his peers, said the territory is in a crisis and youth are crying out to be heard. Some young people in Iqaluit literally did that on Nov. 16, staging a demonstration at the legislative assembly, raising issues such as Nunavut’s high suicide rate.

“Nunavut is ready for new leadership,” Akeeagok said during his introductory speech, adding that the territory “is at a crossroads.”

He acknowledged that much has been accomplished over the past two decades, such as establishing Nunavut Arctic College, which is producing Nunavummiut in professional capacities. Yet he said many systemic challenges remain, like a lack of housing and overcrowded homes. He said tangible solutions are needed for issues such as addictions, trauma and mental health; providing Elder care at home; and accessible and affordable childcare.

During his time as president of the QIA, he helped implement daycare subsidy programs in the Qikiqtani region, released children’s books in Inuktitut, created marine conservation areas, generated employment opportunities, bolstered fisheries and played a role in the creation of the men’s transitional home in Iqaluit.

Akeeagok, MLA for Iqaluit-Niaqunnguu, said it’s necessary to break down silos and build partnerships with other governments to tackle major issues, such as housing.

Many Inuit who are working want to own their own homes and solutions must be found to make that possible, he said.

“Too many people go through hardship due to a lack of housing,” he said.

Speaking primarily in Inuktitut, he emphasized fisheries as a means to create jobs for communities that aren’t benefitting from mining or government occupations.

“We have to focus on other opportunities… each community had the right to be treated equally,” said Akeeagok, who grew up in Grise Fiord.

The Covid-19 pandemic proved that the government can mobilize very quickly and provide support to Nunavummiut. Akeeagok said he views suicide similarly and he thinks the same level of action is needed to make improvements to mental health.

He also addressed food insecurity, noting that the QIA introduced a program to aid in the harvest of traditional foods. He added that Nunavut’s government will have to advocate for the Nutrition North program to be more transparent.

“It’s very unfortunate that some stores do gouge Nunavummiut,” he said.

Cambridge Bay MLA Pamela Gross nominated Akeeagok.

Pangnirtung MLA Margaret Nakashuk nominated Savikataaq.

Gjoa Haven MLA Tony Akoak was named as Speaker by acclaimation.

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