Early Life and Education
The youngest of ten siblings, Paul Okalik was born to Annie and Auyaluk Okalik. First educated at a local school in Pangnirtung, Northwest Territories (now Nunavut), Okalik was later sent to the residential school in Iqaluit. Okalik’s teen years were troubled; he was expelled from high school in grade 10 for alcohol use, suffered the loss of an older brother to suicide when he was 14 years old, and served a three-month jail sentence for breaking and entering at the age of 17. (See also Suicide among Indigenous Peoples in Canada). After his release, Okalik returned to education, taking a welding course at Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories and earning his high school equivalency at the same time.
Graduating in 1983, Okalik then worked as a welding trainee and mechanic at the Nanisivik mine on Baffin Island. Finding the welding aspect of his job “monotonous,” Okalik switched careers in 1985, landing a position as a researcher and negotiator for the Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut (now Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.), the organization representing the Inuit in the negotiation of their land claim with the Government of Canada. As deputy chief negotiator and special assistant to the president of the federation, he played an important role in achieving the 1993 settlement that resulted in the creation of Canada’s third territory — Nunavut. He subsequently participated in the complex implementation of the settlement.
Although Okalik has stated that his role at the federation “totally changed” his life, he still struggled with alcoholism in the early 1990s. The birth of his first child, Shasta, prompted him to change his ways. In 1991, Okalik entered into a rehabilitation program. He sought strength and guidance from elders, his culture and community to live an alcohol-free life.
Returning to education, he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and Canadian studies from Carleton University in 1994. His son, Jordan, was born shortly after. Okalik also earned a law degree from the University of Ottawa in 1997. He worked at Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik, a legal aid office in Iqaluit, from 1997 to 1999, when he was called to the bar. He was Nunavut’s first Inuk lawyer.
In February 1999, Paul Okalik was elected as the member for Iqaluit West of the first Legislative Assembly of Nunavut, which came into existence in April 1999. As is the case in the Northwest Territories, political parties do not figure in politics at the territorial level in Nunavut. In the absence of the usual partisan mechanism for selecting a first minister in Canada, all the MLAs vote on this selection. In March 1999, his colleagues chose Okalik to be the first premier of Nunavut. In addition to his role as premier, he served as minister of executive and intergovernmental affairs and as minister of justice.
As the first Nunavut premier, Okalik faced extraordinary challenges. These included completing the process of organizing and staffing the Government of Nunavut in a manner that met Inuit expectations that their government would be as decentralized as possible and embody Inuit traditional knowledge and values. At the same time, he faced an urgent need to promote economic development in a region of Canada with very high rates of unemployment and to address the serious social problems of the new territory.
Okalik was easily elected to a second term in 2004, but in 2008, Okalik achieved a narrow victory over Iqaluit mayor Elisapee Sheutiapik for his seat in Iqaluit West. In the election for premier that followed, Okalik’s campaign focused on the following: the territory’s improved economic situation and balanced budget, its reduced unemployment rate (13 per cent in 2004 to under 9 per cent in 2007), the Education Act that ensures students will be taught in Inuktitut and the Language Act guaranteeing that the people of Nunavut (Nunavummiut) will receive essential services in their mother tongue. However, he had previously been taken to task for derogatory comments made to Sheutiapik at a public function, and several MLAs subsequently called for his resignation. On 14 November 2008, the MLA for Iqaluit East, Eva Aariak, was elected Nunavut’s new premier and the second in the territory’s history. From 2008 to 2011, Okalik continued to serve as a Nunavut MLA.
During his time as premier, Okalik’s government brought much positive change to Nunavut, including the enactment of an Official Languages Act (making Inuktitut an official language in Nunavut, in addition to English and French), Inuktitut Language Protection Act, Education Act and a modern Human Rights Act. As a politician, Okalik has also contributed to the creation of the Inuit Heritage Trust, the Nunavut Implementation Training Committee, the Nunavut Social Development Council and the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, one of the critical elements in the settlement because of its role as a focus for balancing the interests of the Government of Canada and the central Inuit concern for the health of the wildlife resources that they harvest. Okalik has maintained a number of government portfolios, including health, justice and suicide prevention.
In March 2016, Okalik resigned as a cabinet minister over Nunavut’s alcohol sale plan. Iqaluit closed its last liquor store in the 1970s and liquor sales are tightly controlled. In his speech to the Legislature, Okalik said: “I cannot support an institution of selling beer and wine in my community, where we don’t have the facilities to support those who may not be able to combat their addictions.” He continues to serve as an MLA.
Awards and Honours
In 2005, Paul Okalik received an honorary doctorate of laws from Carleton University.
In 2009, he was awarded an Indspire award (then called the National Aboriginal Achievement Award) for his work as a community and government leader.
Paul Okalik has three children: Shasta (born in 1991), Jordan (1993) and Béatrice (2005). He is fluent in Inuktitut and English, and currently works and resides in Nunavut.
An active community member, Okalik has volunteered with the Iqaluit Soup Kitchen and Habitat for Humanity. He also continues to support Inuit language and cultural initiatives.