As the featured guest at a recent Anchorage press conference, Paul Okalik was asked by a TV reporter to pronounce his name for the camera so the reporter might say it correctly, later, on the air. The first premier of the three-year-old Canadian territory of Nunavut obliged, pleasantly.
“Okalik,” he said, clucking the sound slightly in his eastern Inuit dialect. The non-Native reporter didn’t quite catch it. She asked him to pronounce his name again. And again. “Okalik,” he repeated. “Okalik.” Still she looked uncertain. Afterward, Okalik recalled a time in the former Northwest Territories when the Canadian government in Ottawa didn’t try to pronounce Inuit names.
Now the 38-year-old lawyer presides over a territory that is bigger than all the nations of Western Europe combined. He was asked to deliver the keynote speech later this year to the annual convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives, ostensibly to tell the Nunavut story.
Archaeologists say northern Alaska was the birthplace of the Inuit culture that spread into Arctic Canada and Greenland a few thousand years ago. The Eskimo languages here and there still bear much in common. Invited to Alaska by the AFN and the Association of Village Council Presidents, Okalik was able to compare the languages firsthand in early June with visits to Bethel, where he was addressed in Yup’ik, and Barrow, where elders spoke to him in Inupiaq. “I was very pleasantly surprised to understand a large part of our language being spoken so far from home,” he said afterward.
Nunavut encompasses one-fifth of the Canadian land mass, but its total population is only 28,000. In some ways it’s a troubled population. Three years ago the unemployment rate in Nunavut was 29 percent, the highest in the nation. The suicide rate was six times the national average. Drug and alcohol abuse was rampant. “We’re no different from the Native people in Alaska in terms of high unemployment and a lot of social problems,” Okalik says.