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Recently elected Nunavut politicians choose Peter Taptuna as next premier

IQALUIT, Nunavut - The newly chosen premier of Nunavut is already promising big changes to the territory's education system.

Minutes after his fellow members of the legislature chose him to lead the eastern Arctic territory under its consensus form of government, Peter Taptuna said test results in Nunavut have to start meaning something again.

"There's always been talk throughout the territory that our graduates are not able to read and write," he said Friday. "We've got to change that."

The practice of social promotion, in which schoolchildren are moved on whether or not they've mastered their current grade, stops as of Friday, Taptuna said.

"It has to. The situation that we're in now is rather dire."

Social promotion was a common concern in last month's territorial election. Although graduation rates have been slowly increasing, parents were concerned that was because standards were deliberately dropped.

Taptuna said education will be a major focus of his government.

The new premier, who represents the western Nunavut riding of Kugluktuk, said resource development will be a priority for him.

"Economic development has to come from exploration and mining."

Taptuna, who was deputy premier under the previous administration of Eva Aariak, said Nunavut will have to focus and narrow down its funding requests to Ottawa.

"In the past, there's been too many priorities that were difficult to manage. It stretched everybody far too thin."

He said housing should be at the top of the list in discussions with the federal government.

Taptuna is a former oil rig and mine worker who held several posts in the previous government.

He's also been involved in municipal politics.

Taptuna beat out Paul Okalik, who was chosen premier when Nunavut became a territory in 1999 and led until 2008, and longtime northern politician Paul Quassa.

Eva Aariak, who was premier in the previous administration, lost her seat in last month's election, although she had indicated before the vote that she would not run again for the top job.

Under the rules of the territory's non-partisan, consensus-style government, elected members pick the premier and who they want to see in cabinet. The premier then assigns portfolios.

The remaining members serve as a kind of opposition.

As in a municipal election, candidates in territorial elections run as individuals with no party affiliations.

Taptuna takes over what might be the toughest political job in Canada.

"Nunavut has its very own unique set of tough issues unlike any other jurisdiction," he said recently. "There's a lot of things to do."

Other daunting challenges include turning Nunavut's huge resource potential into an environmentally sustainable economy and dealing with social challenges such as Canada's worst rates of suicide, sexual assault and high-school graduation.

"Education is a key to getting out of poverty," Taptuna said.

Nunavut does have some good news on the horizon.

By 2015, two new mines are expected to be under construction. The Conference Board of Canada predicts the territory could be enjoying an economic growth rate of 3.7 per cent by then.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the premier picks the cabinet.

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