Outgoing Nunavut senator Dennis Patterson reflects on his career

After 14 years as Nunavut’s senator, Dennis Patterson will retire next month when he turns 75. For the territory’s next senator he says, ‘be strong, be loud, be aggressive, and you’ll make things happen.’ (Dennis Patterson)

‘Speak up. You have a duty to make your voice heard,’ Patterson says to successor in senator’s chair

Dennis Patterson will retire next month after 14 years as Nunavut’s senator.

To mark the occasion, he held an event last week at the Nunavut legislature in Iqaluit to thank Nunavummuit who supported him throughout his career in politics.

In an interview later in his visit, Patterson told CBC that it was especially important for him to thank the elders in the community who first encouraged him to run for MLA in 1979.

“[Elders] told me, ‘we will support you to run for election. But remember, you are not the leader, we are the leaders. We’ll tell you what to do. We’re supporting you because we think you know how to work the system, but don’t ever forget we are the leaders.’

“I never forgot that advice,” he said. “I tried to follow that in my career, and I wanted to pay respect to the elders who started me off in my political career, almost 40 years ago.”

Patterson, originally from Vancouver, said he knows that not everyone wanted to see a southerner as senator. He expressed his thanks to everyone in the territory who supported him as their senator during his time in office.

“I have been so gratified by the support, and dare I say the respect, I have received from Nunavummuit,” he said.

Looking back

Patterson started his career in politics in 1979 when he was elected as the MLA for Frobisher Bay — now Iqaluit — back when Nunavut was part of the Northwest Territories.

He served as the MLA for Iqaluit in the Northwest Territories legislature for four terms, ending in 1995. In 1987, during this third term in office, Patterson led the N.W.T. as premier.

In 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed him to represent Nunavut in the senate and he’s served in that role ever since.

Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson, pictured in Iqaluit in April 2023, said he is proud of the work to bring national attention to Nunavut issues, the senate’s arctic committee’s final report and especially contributing to the creation of Nunavut. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

Patterson told CBC that as a senator, he is most proud of the work he did to bring national attention to issues in Nunavut, especially the need for more marine facilities in the territory.

He said that he is glad he was able to serve long enough to see projects like Iqaluit’s deep sea port finished and small-craft harbours for fishing boats built in the smaller Nunavut communities of Pangnirtung and Pond Inlet.

Another point of pride is his work on the senate’s arctic committee, especially its final report.

But he said the highlight of his career was getting to contribute to the creation of Nunavut.

“It was an enormous, decades-long journey that we encountered many challenges and many setbacks,” he said.

“We were small in number. We had to deal with a western population in the Northwest Territories that was apprehensive if not scared about the prospect of the territories divided.”

Going Forward

Patterson said there is still a lot that he would like to see happen for Nunavut in the future, such as road infrastructure in the Kivalliq and fiber optic connectivity throughout the territory.

He encouraged all Nunavummuit who are interested in leadership to apply to become the territory’s next senator, and offered some advice.

“Speak up. You have a duty to make your voice heard. We’re the largest region with the greatest challenges … be strong, be loud, be aggressive, and you’ll make things happen.”

He also said that he hopes that Nunavut’s next senator will be an Inuk.

As for him, he says he is planning to devote the next few years to writing about his time working on the Nunavut Agreement.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Northern premiers say Canada can’t have Arctic security without infrastructure, The Canadian Press

China: Satellite imagery reveals construction progress on new Chinese Antarctic base, Eye on the Arctic

Denmark: Danish policy prioritizes low-conflict Arctic amidst Russian tensions, Eye on the Arctic

Iceland: Icelandic embassy suspends operations in Moscow, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Svalbard’s travails in a changing Arctic, Blog by Marc Lanteigne

Sweden: US bombers land in northern Sweden for first time, Radio Sweden

United States: Biden welcomes Finland to NATO, meets with Nordic leaders, The Associated Press

Sarah Krymalowski, CBC News

Sarah Krymalowski is a reporter with CBC North in Iqaluit. You can reach her at sarah.krymalowski@cbc.ca.

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