'That boy is going to be premier one day': Meet Nunavut's P.J. Akeeagok

·4 min read

IQALUIT, Nunavut — Anne Akeeagok remembers her son P.J. sneaking into the only school in Canada's most northern community before he was old enough to attend.

She said he would try to slip into one of the classrooms so he could sit with the other students and listen to a lesson.

On Friday, more than 30 years later, she watched that same boy sworn in as the legislature member who will be premier of Nunavut.

"Even before he could go to school, he would somehow get into the school," Akeeagok said with a laugh.

One time, she said, her son grabbed onto a classroom desk as a young student in Grise Fiord, Nvt., and refused to let go.

"They would have to bribe him out of school," she said. "He just wanted to learn. It made him happy."

Pauloosie Jamesie Akeeagok — or P.J. as he's best known by Nunavummiut — was chosen to lead the territory this week by his fellow members of the legislative assembly. He beat out incumbent Joe Savikataaq for the top job.

In Nunavut's consensus-style government, there are no political parties and MLAs vote to elect one of their peers as premier in a one-day leadership forum. It was held Wednesday.

The 37-year-old is a first-time Nunavut MLA, representing one of four Iqaluit constituencies in the legislative assembly, but he isn't new to politics. He served for seven years as president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, an organization that represents Inuit in the Baffin Island region.

He moved to Iqaluit more than 10 years ago after spending most of his life in Grise Fiord, a community of just under 200 people on Ellesmere Island in Canada's High Arctic.

The hamlet is known as Aujuittuq in Inuktitut, roughly translating to "the place that never thaws."

His mother said she believes her son's ambition and independence comes from growing up in Grise Fiord. Akeeagok and his friends would play hockey on frozen ponds and hunt and camp on the land, she said.

"It's a small community. There's isn't much to do for kids. I think that's how he became motivated ... doing things on his own," she said. "He was always on the go. Always doing things."

Pat Angnakak, Akeeagok's aunt, once represented the same Iqaluit constituency he now does.

She said it wasn't a surprise that her nephew has become the next premier.

"He's always been politically inclined. It only seemed natural to me that he would take this route," Angnakak said in an interview. "I think it was meant to be."

His uncle, David Akeeagok, is also a sitting member of Nunavut's legislative assembly.

Angnakak can't quite put a finger on why her family is so political.

"I think we just see things and want to change them. There's no exact reason."

Angnakak said she often spends time with her nephew, his wife and his three children on the land near Iqaluit. They stop at each other's cabins to have tea and catch up when they can.

"He loves the outdoors. He's very in tune with the environment," she said.

As premier, Akeeagok will face a long list of issues, including Nunavut's ongoing housing crisis. The territory needs 3,000 additional public housing units.

"People definitely want change. I think all of us Nunavummiut are looking to him to make those changes," Angnakak said.

All 22 members of the territory's sixth legislative assembly were sworn in Friday. They were surrounded by family in the chamber where they will serve for the next four years.

Watching her son take his sealskin upholstered seat in the assembly, Akeeagok's mother remembered something her own late mother told her 25 years ago.

"She said, 'That boy is going to be premier one day,'" Anne Akeeagok said with tears in her eyes.

"It really hit us that her prediction came true."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Emma Tranter, The Canadian Press

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