It seemed all of Canada erupted in excitement when Eekeeluak Avalak of Cambridge Bay clinched the gold medal in wrestling last August at the 2022 Canada Summer Games.
The 18-year-old’s victory fuelled headlines, and filled news broadcasts and social media feeds across the nation. More than 200 people came out to Cambridge Bay’s airport to greet Avalak with cheers and hugs when he returned home. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made sure to meet him after his tour of the community’s North Warning System radar station in late August.
Avalak was the story of the summer.
“It was a bit overwhelming,” the wrestler says, during a chat on the phone with Up Here a month after his milestone achievement. “But you know, I was happy to know that my community supported me and was there to cheer me on. And it wasn’t just my moment; it was all of Nunavut’s moment.”
It’s easy to see why Avalak so completely captured the country’s attention. After all, he did win Nunavut’s first-ever gold (and only second medal) at the Games, by beating Fred Calingay of Alberta in the finals, 10-1.
But there’s also something special about the athlete himself. From overcoming personal hardship to sharing his historic achievement with his home territory, Avalak’s journey has all the makings of a true sports epic.
Cambridge Bay didn’t even have wrestling mats when Avalak was introduced to the sport at age 12, and the obstacles to his training only multiplied as he grew increasingly competitive. With none of his peers able to match him, he mainly relied on long-time coach Chris Crooks and Crooks’ adult son as sparring partners.
It takes “incredible discipline” to achieve Avalak’s level of fitness, Crooks says. “Especially in Nunavut, because you don’t have training partners, and so much of it has got to be on your own,
Thankfully, Avalak isn’t lacking in tenacity. “I didn’t let these bumps stop me from improving my conditioning,” he says.
His determination, along with his natural physical abilities and devotion to technique, allowed him to dominate at the Canada Summer Games. After training with Crooks and fellow Nunavut wrestlers in Edmonton a few weeks before the Games, Avalak plowed through his competition with an undefeated record.
Though his performance on the mat was a highlight of the entire Games, it wasn’t without highs and lows. “I was thinking a lot about my late-brother who passed away in 2015,” Avalak says, recalling a particularly challenging morning before his semi-final match against Ontario’s Zubin Gatta. “It would have been his birthday when I was at the Games.”
“I felt he was there with me through each match, and that gave me the fuel to push even harder,” he says. “Then after that gold medal match, I felt so happy…once it started to sink in, that’s when I let all my emotions out.”
And for good reason. History had been made.
Now, the young wrestler is attending the Vimy Ridge Academy in Edmonton, where he is upgrading his high school classes and continuing to train.
It will be a big loss for Nunavut’s wrestling team, Crooks says. “He helps me with the young kids’ programs. But that’s the nature of the beast in any community. They will develop and move on, and you hope perhaps they’ll come back and give back.”
And Avalak intends to. “The biggest thing for me wasn’t winning the Games, but being able to inspire others,” he says. “That’s my big goal.
“Oh, and becoming an Olympian.”
When Betty Harnum moved to Kinngait, Nunavut in the 1970s, she already spoke English, French, German, and Spanish. Less than a decade later, she was hired to translate for community representatives at Kitikmeot Inuit Association meetings, having picked up several dialects of Inuktut—including Greenlandic—over time.
“She was a born linguist,” Pearl Benyk, a friend of Harnum’s since 1982, tells me over the phone, about a month after Harnum’s death in August. Benyk says though Harnum grasped the basics of Inuktut from a class in Iqaluit, she learned it in earnest by chatting with locals.
Eventually, Harnum’s talents translated to her being named the NWT’s first languages commissioner. From 1992 to 1996, she promoted the territory’s official languages and ensured official language speakers’ rights were recognized and protected. “I remember her dedication and the time she put in… to protect people’s rights to have their voices heard and understood,” says her son, Beau Lenny.
While working towards a master’s degree in linguistics from the University of Calgary, Harnum raised Lenny as a single parent. When they moved back to Yellowknife, Lenny says his mother found a balance between her career and being there for him. “She was one of the most caring, loving, outgoing, and hardworking women I’ve ever known.”
Later, Harnum was part of a team at the South Slave Divisional Education Council that created a Chipewyan dictionary. Harnum met with a dozen Elders to record thousands of words and phrases and put them to paper. “She had an ear for languages,” says Brent Kaulback, who worked with her on the project, adding Elders respected her for “the passion that she brought to ensuring that the words were written down as accurately as we could possibly make them.” The project, he says, “really highlighted the importance of the languages in the community.”
In recent years, Harnum led an archiving project with CBC North. She and a team of 17 Indigenous language experts and broadcast technicians across Canada digitized and catalogued 75,000 hours of recorded stories in eight Indigenous languages—including Gwich’in, Tłı̨chǫ, Cree and Inuktut—that had been collected over six decades. “This is Northern history from an Indigenous perspective, oral history of people on the frontline,” Harnum told CBC North back in June 2017.
I was lucky enough to call Harnum a friend, and while I was impressed with how she could slip in and out of dozens of languages and dialects, I hadn't realized how much she had accomplished when I met her in 2014. Having just arrived in Yellowknife, I moved into a house with three other women; Harnum was one of them, and she was immediately welcoming. During the many dinners we shared together, she shared stories about her work and life in the North. Every so often, she referred to something in another language and explained the word’s meaning. And she would enthusiastically speak French with me when I told her I wanted to practice, never batting an eye when I butchered words and phrases through my pronunciation. It’s important to practice, she told me, even if I got it wrong.
“I think if you were to ask Betty what message she would like to put out there, it would be… talk in your language. Use your language at home with your children and let them learn,” says Benyk. “She used to talk about how that’s the most important way to preserve a language.”
When the population of peregrine falcons began to decline across Canada in the 1970s, the news “scared people spitless all over the country,” according to biologist Dave Mossop.
There was no such thing as the Endangered Species Act in Canada before 2002. Information about the falcon’s population relied on word of mouth among biologists. Researchers were unsure what was causing the decline or how to fix it. (They later discovered pesticides were responsible for killing off the species.)
In 1971, Canadian Wildlife Services decided to breed young peregrines in captivity then introduce them to the wild, not knowing for certain if it would work. Mossop was a bird biologist studying ptarmigan near Whitehorse at the time, and he agreed to monitor the few Yukon peregrine falcons left in the wild.
In the late 1970s, Mossop found a pair of peregrines occupying a nest site on the Yukon River. Curiously, they weren’t hatching eggs. “The problem was, of course, that they had pesticide poisoning that was killing the embryo in the eggs,” he says. “Of course, we didn’t know that at the time.” Mossop and a team of biologists placed the peregrine falcon that was bred in captivity into the birds’ nest to see if the pair would adopt the baby.
He watched intently over the first day, as the female adult bird tried to understand the situation. “She was extremely upset at first that there was something in her nest. I don’t think she knew what it was. And then this young bird began to beg for food,” Mossop says. The adult male took off, disappearing for a half an hour, but returning with prey he had hunted. “The female bird took it from him and prepared it, and then it was like she didn’t know what to do with it at that point.” Eventually she began to feed the young falcon. Over the next five years, Mossop took more young birds for fostering—and the cycle continued.
The peregrine population in the Yukon is now in good shape and their numbers are likely back to where they were originally, before the decline. They were taken off the endangered species list in 2017. A year later, Mossop’s work was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Nature Inspiration Awards for his devotion to wildlife research, nature conservation, and advocacy. And in December 2021, he was named to the Order of Yukon for his environmental and conservation work. But he makes it clear his successes came with a lot of help. There was a big team behind him, including Bob Hayes—his assistant for many years.
Mossop has been retired for several years now, but every so often he climbs into his car and ventures to a spot near the Yukon River. There, he keeps an eye out for peregrine falcons to ensure they are still doing alright.
“They have declined once and it could happen again,” he says, noting that biologists are, again, seeing peregrines produce less young. Mossop still communicates with others who look out for the falcons and reports back his own findings.
“There’s a bit of concern, but it’s nice to see the numbers up. They’re not as high as I think they should be, but they’re good numbers. You can go out and see peregrines at least anyway, along our Yukon rivers and that’s a wonderful thing.”
“In order to effect change, you need to be part of the community.” It’s a phrase Gerri Sharpe has lived her life by.
Like back in the early 1990s, when she was a new mother and had gone through seven babysitters in Inuvik, NWT, trying to find someone to watch her young child while she worked at the local hospital. Seeing that other parents faced the same struggle, Sharpe teamed up with them to petition and fundraise for the hospital to create space for a daycare. “We ended up opening the first daycare on [a] worksite in the Northwest Territories,” Sharpe says, adding it eventually became available to the whole community.
Three decades later, Sharpe is still determined to effect change in her community. In February 2022, she was elected president of the Pauktuutit Inuit Women’s Association—a national advocacy group for Inuit women. One of her priorities is to shine a spotlight on the North’s need for homeless shelters and midwifery programs. “A lot of people in the south have no comprehension of how things are different up here with everything from medical travel to shelters to having to leave for a month to have your baby,” she says. “Canada needs to be educated from that perspective.”
Women in most Northern communities must fly to territorial capitals or larger southern centres to give birth. Having people in the community qualified to deliver babies will keep families together and give new parents the sense of comfort that home brings. “Needing to leave [your community] a month before your due date needs to stop. And we can fix that by having midwives in the communities.” Indigenous midwives can also incorporate traditional practices into the birthing process.
That tie to home and culture is something Sharpe values deeply, especially as a woman who spent part of her upbringing feeling disconnected. Sharpe was born in Yellowknife, but was partially raised in Nova Scotia. She also spent two years in foster care in Nova Scotia, separated from her family. When her father regained custody, they returned North and Sharpe felt an instant connection.
In Inuvik in 2008, Sharpe received her first traditional tattoos—or kakiniit. “I remember feeling such pride,” she says. “I remember looking at my fingers thinking, my hands look old. But it looks right because I have only seen those tattoos on the fingers of old
Her tattoos represent who she is and where she comes from, she says. Kakiniit were banned by the church for decades—and even called evil—so when Pope Francis visited Iqaluit this past July, Sharpe knew exactly what she wanted to say. She walked up to him and pointed to the ink etched into her face. She pulled up her sleeves so he could see the markings lining her fingers and wrists, then explained what her traditional Inuit tattoos mean.
“I wanted to emphasize that we are still within our culture—but not be angry, not be mad, not be shy. I wanted to make sure that I took that opportunity to say what I needed to say in a good way. So that it was coming across very much as, we are still here and we are resilient.”
Julie Jai and David Trick
Every Yukoner hates to hear it. Tell a southerner where you’re from, and the question inevitably follows: “Oh, so you live in Yellowknife?”
To part-time Whitehorse residents and philanthropists Julie Jai and David Trick, it’s just one small example that shows how little people know about the North. And sadly, this trend extends to the Yukon’s artists.
“They contribute so much to making this a good community,” says Trick, a retired public administrator. “Their creativity, their innovation, the ideas they bring… they make the Yukon a very different place. Yet outside the Yukon, many of these artists are not anywhere near as well-known as they should be.”
Well, not for long. As co-founders of the new Yukon Prize for the Visual Arts—the first award of its kind entirely dedicated to the territory—Jai and Trick are determined to give Yukon artists a national spotlight.
The idea for the biannual arts prize came to Jai—lawyer by profession, textile artist on the side—three years ago. She’d been listening to a CBC Radio interview with Toronto author Camilla Gibb, who described the financial barriers to creating art. Jai recognized these same obstacles hindered many Yukon artist friends who struggled to fit in their practice around full-time jobs.
“It just made me think, ‘Okay, what are ways of getting money into the hands of artists so that they can do that?’” Jai says. The Yukon Prize for the Visual Arts seemed the perfect solution: providing a $20,000 award to the winner (which Jai and Trick promised to largely bankroll themselves), while also showcasing many of the territory’s most exciting artists at the same time. “It’s not just helping one artist that’s significant; it’s doing something that promotes Yukon art as a whole.”
After recruiting a tight-knit team of arts enthusiasts to help see it through, the couple launched the first edition in 2021.
Every aspect was meticulously planned. Three curators from southern Canada were selected as prize jurors, providing an opportunity for the finalists to network with gallery executives and critics and have their work displayed outside of the Yukon. Meanwhile, a finalists’ exhibition was held at the Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse. The awards ceremony that November was broadcast across social media and multidisciplinary artist Joseph Tisiga was named the inaugural winner, out of 107 applicants.
As Trick explains, “It’s been deliberately designed to include Yukon artists in the national conversation and have people recognize them for the quality of art that they’re producing.”
It wasn’t long before the prize saw success in that regard.
Krystle Silverfox is a Northern Tutchone installation artist who focuses on themes of race, gender, and sexuality. One of six finalists in 2021, she described her selection as the moment she realized she was making it as an artist. “I was such a fan of everybody else in that show’s work, so to be included alongside them was kind of surreal,” she says.
Now, Silverfox is shortlisted for the national Sobey Art Award. One of the longest-standing and most prestigious awards for visual arts in the country, she’s only the third artist from the territory to make the cut. And she’s convinced the Yukon Prize helped get her there.
This is why Jai and Trick have committed to keeping this privately funded initiative going for years to come. They want to see more recognition like this for Yukon artists, because they believe the work coming out of the territory is important.
That proved true during May’s Art Vancouver show. “We decided to rent a large booth so we could bring the finalists to this art show… and many, many people came by and said our booth was the best of all of the ones there,” Jai recalls. “It just reinforced my feeling that what Yukon artists need is more opportunity.”
Jai and Trick are now working on the second edition of the prize for 2023. They envision a weekend filled with arts crawls, studio tours, artist talks and musical performances open to the public, capped off with a final extravagant gala to declare the winner.
“Our long-term dream is that every two years, there will be this Yukon Prize weekend, and people will put it on their calendar,” Jai says. “They’ll say, ‘We have to reserve these dates.
‘We want to be there to meet these artists.’”
Bobbi Rose Koe
Atop Blueberry Hill, Coleen Hardisty gazed out at the incredibly blue waters of the Wind River below. She felt her eyes tear up.
“I never thought I’d be able to get to such an amazing place on the earth when I was younger,” she says, explaining how grateful she was to join Bobbi Rose Koe—founder of outfitting company, Dinjii Zhuh Adventures—on the June 2022 expedition. Hardisty was one of several Northern Indigenous youth who had joined Koe to learn about river guiding on the trip.
Through the program, Koe teaches Indigenous youth a variety of paddling techniques, as well as on-the-land skills and a history of the waters they travel on and the people who live there. Part of the aim of the program is to encourage young people like Hardisty to become paddle guides and tourism operators in their hometowns.
Koe was inspired to lead others out on the land by her own upbringing in Fort McPherson, NWT. Her grandparents brought her closer to her Gwich’in roots every time they ventured out on the Peel River—and the rivers of its larger watershed in the Yukon and NWT. “When my family and I would go out on the land, I always watched my grandparents with admiration and love,” she said, in an interview with Joel Hibbard, owner of Nahanni River Adventures, an outfitting company she has worked with. Her grandparents told her stories about her family, and her people, as they navigated the waters and lived off the land. River guiding became natural to Koe—she refers to it as “a way of life.”
“The land we traveled, I learned at a young age, was our home. I was always told, you look after the land, the land will look after you.”
So when many Yukoners fought to protect the Peel Watershed from industrial development, Koe—who then worked as a guide with Northern outfitters—taught visiting paddlers and locals what makes the land so special. In 2019, the Yukon government signed a final agreement to protect the area after 15 years of consultations, protests, and court battles. Koe’s dedication to raising awareness led to her winning the Canadian River Heritage Award in 2021. While she’s modest about winning awards, she’s grateful for the exposure. “It shines a light on the work we are trying to do in the North,” she says. “And I know that’s important.”
Although Koe has been river guiding since she was a child, she began her first formal leadership training with Students on Ice—a youth expedition for future leaders—at 15. Touring the Arctic by ship, they saw first-hand how climate change was affecting it.
In 2015, with four other youth, Koe paddled the Wind River with CPAWS Yukon and it was a life-changing experience. “It made me realize that I could do whatever I want to do. Thanks to that trip seven years ago, it’s got me to where I am today,” she says. “It pushed me to learn more about who I am and where I come from and to learn about my history.”
Now, that includes training young people to become river guides, empowering them to venture deeper into their own homelands and histories.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Hardisty says. “Bobbi was such a gracious teacher.”
While some of her students may return to work with her next year, Koe intends to continue to educate youth and help connect a new generation with the land and the water.