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On the bumpy road to sobriety

Kathleen Lippa
Northern News Services

Iqaluit (Dec 01/03) - Paul Quassa does not remember getting pulled over by police on Oct. 17 while driving late at night in Iqaluit.

NNSL Photo

Paul Quassa, 51, says he is sorry for the pain he has caused. - Kathleen Lippa/NNSL photo

Quassa was so intoxicated, the flashing police lights and the pain of yet another brush with the law did not sink in for the former president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) until he was in the police station being charged with impaired driving.

"I didn't have any feeling," said Quassa last week. "I was blacked out. Alcohol was controlling me. The only time I was thinking was when I was sobering up. 'What have I done?'"

The last 10 years have been hard on Quassa, 51, and his family.

His wife of 24 years, three daughters and three sons have stood by him despite shocking criminal charges that seemed to come during his biggest professional triumphs.

In 1992, Quassa stepped down from his role as president of NTI because he was facing a sexual assault charge.

Then in 1993, he was further disgraced by charges of child abandonment and resisting arrest after leaving one of his children unattended while he went out drinking.

Quassa calls 1993 and 1994 his lowest period.

"We had just signed the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement," he said. "Here was me right at the top at the political level and then something terrible happened there. My poor son Gareth was a little boy, and I did something a sober person wouldn't have done."

Then came 1999. Nunavut finally became its own territory. Quassa took great pride in being part of that historic land claims agreement.

Quassa, who ran a strong campaign, was re-elected to the NTI presidency that year. Things were looking up.

But a year later, Quassa was in trouble again. He was under investigation by NTI for his spending habits with NTI's credit card.

An investigation revealed Quassa spent $36,000 of beneficiary's money on questionable or undocumented expenses. He resigned from the NTI presidency again in June 2001.

Rumours started circulating that Quassa partied wildly and used illegal drugs, including cocaine, while he was president of NTI.

"There were rumours I was using coke," he said last week. "There is no truth in that. Certainly maybe when I was going to school in the early '70s I tried it out, but like any generation, they try things out. And certainly I did."

Quassa was ordered to repay $36,000 to NTI, and he claims he has done that.

"I don't think about that anymore," he said. However, $13,000 of that money, withdrawn from bank machines around Canada, has never been accounted for.

Quassa has spoken openly about his drinking problems before.

In 1999, following his NTI victory, he told a crowd gathered at the Cadet Hall that while he had battled alcohol for years, he was now clean and sober.

Today, he admits that was not the truth.

"I've always been living in denial," he said. "Even in the past when I wanted to change, I don't think I've ever really changed inside me."

During the NTI credit card scandal in 2000 when rumours began swirling about his drug use, sympathetic people in the community wondered whether Quassa -- an Inuit man who grew up on the land and never knew riches or power -- was simply faltering in a modern world that he was not savvy enough to handle.

Quassa totally dismisses that idea.

Born in an iglu in Iglulik, he lived a traditional lifestyle that he is extremely proud of today.

"My generation is probably the last that experienced a real nomadic life," he said. "We travelled from one camp to another. I'm always so proud to say I was born in an iglu."

But Quassa stresses that his traditional upbringing did not leave him ill prepared for the modern world he entered first as a CBC journalist in the 1970s, and later dominated as a political figure.

His resume reads like the story of the birth of Nunavut itself.

Even his troubles ring eerily similar to the social ills that continue to plague Nunavut.

Educated at schools in Chesterfield Inlet and Ottawa, Quassa joined Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC) in the 1970s, and was a member of Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut (TFN) in the 1980s.

"I was there when ITC brought out the first Nunavut proposal which was withdrawn in 1976," he recalled.

Back then he was working with John Amagoalik, considered by many to be one of the "Fathers of Nunavut."

By 1989, Quassa was chief negotiator for TFN.

"My goal was to become a leader of Inuit," he said. "I have reached that goal. I am very proud of that. But I am not proud of what I have been hiding for so many years.

"Alcohol is something I cannot control. It has always brought me down. It wasn't the job or the stress. Not at all. It was always my substance abuse that brought me down."

As a central figure in the Nunavut Land Claims agreement signed in 1993, Quassa is seen in widely published photographs seated next to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney as chief negotiator for Nunavut.

With that big toothy smile, smooth voice, excellent command of English and Inuktitut, and his striking face, it was hard for people to resist Quassa, even when he admitted he had alcohol problems. People voted for him, sincerely wanting him to succeed.

But underneath it all, Quassa was fighting a private battle with alcohol and drugs which he says today was spurred by inner turmoil over having been sexually abused at residential school.

"I've seen myself go down because of substance abuse. I always have," he said.

"I have to admit all these things right from my heart," he said. "I'm half a century old now. I doubt I'm going to live for another half century. I've got to make the best of my life. I've got to be totally open, totally truthful."

Quassa talked about several times in his life when he was close to death, like the time he went hunting for seal and got caught in strong waves out on Frobisher Bay.

He told the story of spending a night in his boat to illustrate that despite all odds, he is a survivor.

"I am still alive because I believe I still have a purpose," he said.

"I am proud to say I have been part of the evolution of Nunavut. It is something I have always believed in, even with all the turmoil I have gone through in my life."

From the credit card scandal to his recent drunk driving conviction, Quassa says it is "all done and finished, I am glad to say. I don't think about those things anymore. All these things have been dealt with. No more debts," he said with a big smile.