One of the North’s political titans stepped out of the spotlight earlier this year. Nellie Cournoyea, the first female premier of the Northwest Territories, retired from her role as chair of the Inuvialuit land claim beneficiary organization, which she held for 20 years. But don’t expect her to just walk away—that’s not her style.
Born in 1940, outside of Aklavik, Cournoyea grew up on the land and brought her old-school work ethic into every boardroom, legislative assembly meeting and onto every job site she visited. When the Inuvialuit Final Agreement was reached, Nellie showed up wearing a borrowed dress in playful response to her fellow negotiators who teased her about not dressing like a girl. It was nothing against the garment, she later said. In fact, it isn’t about what you wear at all; it’s about how hard you work. Growing up, there were no other options.
After a decade of negotiations, the agreement became the first comprehensive land claim in the North and only the second in Canada. It gave the Inuvialuit 91,000-square-kilometers of land and 13,000-square-kilometres of subsurface rights to minerals, oil and gas.
In 2015, Cournoyea, along with federal and territorial representatives, signed an agreement-in-principle for Inuvialuit self-government. And in the next year, the Inuvik-Tuk highway—a major push of hers—is scheduled to open and connect the Arctic Ocean to the rest of the country.
Change is inevitable. Cournoyea has experienced and initiated her fair share. But a good leader uses change to propel their people forward.
What are some of your earliest memories of growing up outside of Aklavik? I was brought up within a land-based society. Our home—30 miles north of Aklavik—was well-situated. It was small, but there was a wide range of furs to harvest: fox, mink, lynx and of course muskrat.
If the market for these furs was good, we felt very rich but inevitably the poorer years brought us back to reality and everyone had to work harder to make enough to buy a few things. We could never really starve. There was always fish, whales, ducks, caribou, seals and berries.
There were six camps around our place, in the immediate vicinity. I say immediate because nowadays I suppose people will go out and get in their 100-horsepower, 50-horsepower machinery, [and distances have become shorter.] We had dog teams and I think if anyone in our area had a 4.7-horsepower kicker we thought we were pretty fast. You travelled a lot slower, but you had to be conscious of what was going on around you if you wanted to survive and make a living.
The most exciting part of the year was in June when most people came to town because that was the end of hunting and trapping season and people came from all around to Aklavik. There was a real celebration for two or three weeks: 24-hour dances, and it seemed everyone was a musician then.
We were all the same, everybody. We were following the seasons. There was no government and people had to very well survive on their own intitiative. There was a commonality of interest.
Transportation and communication was important because it was very limited. In Aklavik, I started up at the small radio station, where nearly everyone I knew volunteered. That was really important to us, you’d save your battery so you could listen to your radio. The door was open. When people came into town, the first thing they did was they’d come in to the radio station that had one switch, and send a message, sing a song or tell a story. It was a community radio. It was for the people.
When I went to Inuvik, I began working at the station there in about 1962 or 1963. It was community radio as well, but it was becoming the CBC. The CBC didn’t care much about us anyway, we had a landline and not much you could get over that because it was out more than it was in.
But the CBC became a little more tied into the south and there were more restrictions: you can’t do this, you can’t do that, you can’t have kids in the studio. We always had voices coming over from Grollier Hall. There were some good people at the radio station and I really felt they could continue but I just knew when someone comes in, in the morning, and tells you, “Hey, why have you got that kid on the air?”—and at that time too you really didn’t know what was going on in the residential school—there was just a disconnect from what the people felt should be done. That to me wasn’t a job I wanted very long.
Did being raised on the land influence your career? I never thought of my life as a career. I did things because it seemed like the right thing to do: it was to do with timing and where things were needed.
Just by the fact of how we lived, how we made our living and how we got our food, it dictated to us what we had to do. You want to keep warm? You go and make sure you have wood. You want food? You go and set the net and make sure you have enough fish.
In my growing-up years, I always found that it wasn’t whether you were 10 or 14, it was what you could do. It was your contribution. You had to really support the family: the sons harvested and the daughters were helpers to the family.
I never heard anyone ask, “How old are you?”
People, I think, were much more confident in themselves then, much more sure of what they had to do every day in their life. There was a proud independence about the fact that people knew what to do, and felt comfortable with their abilities. And it wasn’t just something that was talked about, it was demonstrated in everyday activity. We were always aware how many muskrats you got: it [affected] whether you were going to have a better order, bringing in flour and your staples. I guess, in its own way, there was always awareness of how hard you worked to make sure you were going to live through the winter.
I would say, I wish I was born even earlier. I was so privileged because I was living in a society where the relationships between elders and children working together were really a common part of our life. If I were born earlier, there would be even more of that. There’s no big lesson, just, when people are talking to you, you listen. And you don't just sit there politely, you really listen. Anybody who grew up in that period of time, you’ve had a good grounding and it goes back to having pride in what you’re doing, knowledge of what you’re doing and control over what you’re doing.
What was your approach going into talks about the Inuvialuit Final Agreement and self-government? What we’re doing is we’re trying to survive and overcome a lot of changes.
There were always different issues that came about and changed peoples lives but I think the most debilitating thing was just the attitude toward programs and services provided to the native population. It was one-program-fits-all. It says, “You’re on welfare: if you want help, you’re on welfare.” A lot of people didn’t take welfare for a long time and there was quite a pushback to say, “Look, welfare is not what people need.” People need support in maybe building homes, but with the government it’s always, “Here’s your welfare cheque.” And by taking that welfare cheque, the government owns you. You’re a dependant. People had to really work to survive that. Some people could do that and a lot of people were not able to or really had to struggle.
I don’t think the people in government ever thought that they should be trying to adapt programs and support services to who people were and what they could do. It was, “You adapt to what we’re giving you and how we’re giving it to you.” You take a lot of pride and dignity away from people when you say, “Well, now you’re depending on us."
There was not a lot respect for the capabilities of people. It was: “How quickly can you live like us, with our southern values and southern lifestyle?” And it was a big difference.
But these weren't the first influences of the south. We were always tied to the will of the international [markets]. When the fur trade went down, why did it go down? Italians weren’t buying. When the different species were no longer being bought and sold, it was an international protectionist-type of lobby. It wasn’t because the population of species went down.
We sold sealskins, we sold muskrats, because people were living on that. They moved around so you never really disrupted the population, unless something came in that was beyond our control. Like the bowhead whale—whalers came in and decimated that population. They did, we didn’t.
We are evolving all of the time. There were the whaling days, the development of the DEW Line, the resettling and starting of communities. People—even though there have been a lot of pressures and changes—were resilient, they still survive and are still proud of who they are.
At what point did discussion of land claims become so pivotal? In this region, the oil and gas industry was booming very quickly and land and resources were granted, devolved or permitted to the oil and gas industry and we had no control over that. Yes, there were meetings with hunters and trappers but they didn’t go very far. The companies would get their permits from Ottawa. So there were a lot of people saying, “Why is this happening? Why aren’t we taking care of our environment? Why aren’t we taking care of these resources?” You would like to have taken more time in negotiating the claim but the point is that most of the value of the land in terms of the economic base was being sold off to the oil and gas industry.
Things were changing—the ups and downs of fur pricing were really making an impact on people and they were all trying to go to work. We built a lot of great companies out of this but at the same time they were losing their ground because you didn’t have to talk to people, you didn’t have to adhere to any specific rules or involvement. So we had to do something and that’s what the claims are all about—to secure the base for a good economic future.
There’s two different realities in the North: the native people who are rooted in their land, in their culture even though they’re suffering from some changes—so their decisions are based on the health of the environment around them. We relied on the resources, maybe not the oil and gas, but the resources of the land, and we always felt in the back of our hearts that we could go back to that if we wanted. And then there’s the people who have come here, and the decisions they make would be relative to that.
We have a lot of good non-native people around but if you get to know them, they’re not rooted in the culture and the long-term environment of the Arctic. A lot of what those people do is short-term. I had one person tell me they don’t know how to make a bigger difference. We spend a lot of time trying to educate people, but I said, “Just look at the graveyard. Who’s dead in the graveyard?” Decisions were made by these people who understood the politics in another way.
Have you found it difficult to succeed in what has been such a male-dominated domain?
I worked in it all the time but for me personally, I never paid too much attention to how it affected me. It was there, but I was so busy maybe I didn’t notice it as much.
When you’re growing up and you’re rooted in what you’re doing, you always know how important every person in the family is. The women in my growing-up were so very important and being the eldest daughter that was being important. The men couldn’t do their job unless they had the women being involved with a lot of the stuff, but you didn’t talk about roles. You just knew.
A lot of people are always talking to me about things like that, but I never let it preoccupy my mind because I know the importance of women and mothers equally. Nobody is more important than the other. I know the value of people because we wouldn’t have survived otherwise.
And I wasn’t scared of men anyway, I could handle them.
I’ve heard you described as being as comfortable in the boardroom as you are out on the land. They’re definitely connected. It’s the confidence that takes away the intimidation of the boardrooms and we learn that as we go. It’s how we’re brought up.
Where you feel at home is when you feel at home with yourself and how well grounded you are. This is one of the things we worry about, is that people don’t value themselves as much as they should.
Our life and our commonality of interest are from east to west and decisions are made south to north. That’s the cutoff there. And the commonality of interest is the environment we live in and the lifestyle. A lot of us, particularly Inuvialuit and Inuit, we live on the shoreline of the ocean or in very close proximity to it, so that’s what we know and that’s how we’re brought up to deal with our life, with that in mind. The stronger we get back our culture and the stronger we get to those things, the more solid people will be to try to refill that gap. We’ve got to work to fill that gap and put people back together again. With residential school, that was broken. People don’t have as much confidence in themselves or respect for themselves.
We work hard at gaining respect for our own people. The Inuit, as a whole. The big gap we have to fill all the time is to try to boost people up around us. And a big thing is education. But one of the things is you can be good at both—just because you have an education doesn’t mean you can’t be culturally strong.
This interview has been edited and condensed.