Union president takes aim at premier's seat

By Jim Bell, Nunatwiag News, 16 January 2004

Doug Workman, president of the NEU, will duke it out with Paul Okalik in Iqaluit West

Saying it's time to do the job right, Nunavut's best-known labour leader, Doug Workman, president of the Nunavut Employees Union, will try to oust Premier Paul Okalik from his Iqaluit West constituency on Feb. 16.

Over the last few months, I've been hearing comments in this particular riding that Paul has failed in his duty to represent his constituency. So for myself, the suggestion is, why don't I run against him? Workman said in an interview this week.

As of Nunatsiaq News' press-time this past Wednesday, no other candidates had been nominated for Iqaluit West. The nomination period closes today at 2 p.m. (See our next issue, Jan. 23, for a complete list of nominated candidates.)

Workman says his campaign will stress a long list of issues important to Iqaluit residents: housing, education, child care, and the quality of front-line public services.

And he's already talking about the low number of Inuit working in Iqaluit-based Nunavut government jobs.

Inuit employment in Iqaluit is only at 28 per cent, and that to me is a real problem, a real issue. There doesn't seem to be anything in the workplace to increase it. But we hear in the news that there are IQ programs and all this lip-service, things that make it kind of sound that the Government of Nunavut is trying to be a representative workforce, Workman said.

Workman, 49, has served as president of the NEU since it split from the Union of Northern Workers in 1999. The organization represents all GN workers except teachers, and all unionized employees at the Nunavut Power Corp. and Nunavut's municipalities and housing associations.

But he says he's not a labour candidate—just an ordinary resident who happens to come from a labour background.

From my vantage point, I see our community here as being a balanced community. You need the public service, as well as the private sector, to work together to move forward. We all have to work together, he said.

But Workman's job has made him aware of deep-rooted employee morale problems afflicting the GN's workforce.

We've filed almost 400 grievances over the last five years. In the last couple of years we're averaging about 80 grievances a year.... There seems to be a lot of stress in the workplace, Workman said.

For his part, Paul Okalik says he's ready to defend his job and, if elected, to take another run at the premier's job.

I look forward to a vigorous campaign here in Iqaluit West. We've done a lot here in Nunavut, but there is still a lot to be done, Okalik said Jan. 9 at an event held to mark the dissolution of Nunavut's first legislative assembly.

And he rejects the accusation that he's weak on constituency work.

I've returned every phone call I've ever received from a constituent, Okalik told reporters.

Okalik won Iqaluit West on Feb. 15, 1999, with 50.6 per cent of the vote, easily defeating Matthew Spence and the late Ben Siusarnaq Ell. A young law school graduate who had just passed his bar exams, Okalik was admitted to the territorial bar during the election campaign that year.

This time, Okalik says education will be an important issue that he will stress in his campaign.

Education is another issue that ought to be a priority for us, and will continue to be. There are too many students in the classroom with too few teachers.... I would like to see that improved.

But he recites a list of other concerns that he knows are important to Iqaluit West residents.

For us here in Iqaluit we have a number of challenges, such as municipal infrastructure. We have a lot of businesses here in Iqaluit, and they struggle—a lot of that is regulatory issues. Our job is to create employment and to stimulate the economy. Our economy is an ongoing challenge, the housing situation leaves much to be desired, and there is a lot of other social issues to look at, Okalik said.

As for his government's record since April 1, 1999, Okalik points out that unlike newly elected governments in other jurisdictions, Nunavut's first cabinet had to cope with a severely understaffed civil service.

We didn't have much bureaucratic support at first, but I think our record is pretty good, compared to other governments, Okalik said.

He praised the work of Nattilik MLA Uriash Puqiqnaq and Akulliq MLA Ovide Alakannuark, both of whom are retiring from the legislative assembly.

But he said he hopes more young people and more women run for office this time.

We are a young population and I'd like to see young members, a good mix, with more women in the legislature also, Okalik said.