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Peter Taptuna, the newly elected premier of Nunavut, has a long history of seizing opportunity. He'd like to see the troubled territory he now leads do the same.
"We do have take ownership of the problems," he said the day after his fellow MLAs elected him premier under the rules of Nunavut's consensus government system.
"Most of our communities have to be more involved with finding ways of becoming self-reliant — going out there, getting educated, actually making things happen for themselves and their families."
Taptuna, 57, grew up in Kugluktuk, on Nunavut's western edge. He came of age in the 1970s during the North's first great energy boom.
"There was all that activity in the Mackenzie Delta," he recalls. "I was 17 years old and I lied about my age to get some work."
He began as a labourer and worked his way up to roughneck and mechanic, working on shore and off, taking classes in the drilling off-season.
He married his wife Joanne and began a family that was eventually to include five children. Times were good until the Arctic exploration boom went bust.
"I thought I was going to end my career in the oilpatch, but priorities change and the companies moved on," Taptuna said. "I looked at the gold mine just south of Kugluktuk and I thought that was a good opportunity there, too."
Eventually, Taptuna spent 20 years in the resource industry until his back finally gave out. He knew he'd have to reinvent himself again, this time as an office worker. It wasn't easy.
"I was very active in hunting. I just came crashing down when I realized I couldn't do that any more."
But opportunity came again, this time in the form of courses at the local branch of Arctic College in subjects like accounting, management and contract law.
"They were available, so I took them."
Before long, he was Kugluktuk's mayor. He also ran the local Hunter's and Trapper's Organization — both the non-profit and the for-profit side.
That work got him interested in land claim issues, which led to work with Inuit economic development agencies.
Taptuna became an MLA in 2008. He became then-premier Eva Aariak's economic development minister and served as deputy premier.
Now, as premier, all Nunavut's familiar challenges, from addictions to housing to suicide, are his.
Those problems are compounded by the territory's far-flung population. With 25 communities, Nunavut has to build 25 health centres for a total of only 30,000 inhabitants.
And Taptuna knows enough about the resource industry to realize that even Nunavut's rich energy and mineral potential isn't going to provide money to address those problems for years — even decades — down the road.
"At this time, we've got to set the platform and the foundation to make sure we take advantage of these things when they do come."
Nunavut's main financial foundation is the federal government, source of almost the entire territorial budget. Taptuna said that relationship needs some tending.
"We have to be strategic in our approach to Ottawa," he said. In the past, there's been too many priorities."
His emphasis on resource development is also likely to get a friendly reception from the Harper cabinet.
"There has to be more development. Without economic development, there's no potential to increase infrastructure in Nunavut."
Another of the main planks in the foundation Taptuna talks about will be education.
During last month's election, dissatisfaction with Nunavut's school system was a major issue. People said they'd had enough of low standards and so-called "social promotion" of students through grades they hadn't mastered.
"It's not only myself that's frustrated. It's the communities out there. Every politician has said that without education, we're not going anywhere."
A greater emphasis on trades education would be a good shift, said Taptuna, even if it means streaming academically challenged students.
"We have our culture and our traditions, but times have changed. We have to go along with the global world and it's very difficult to go along with these things if our population is not well-educated."
Opportunities are there, he said.
"The younger folks have to take ownership of their situation. There's opportunities that are out there — not necessarily within their communities. They have to take the initiative and move forward and get that training that they're hoping for.
"If you want to move ahead in life, you've got to make a sacrifice. You have to take the initiative to improve your situation in life."
—by Bob Weber in Edmonton
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