Nunavut Premier P.J. Akeeagok has a backstory like no other leader in Canada. He grew up in Grise Fiord, the northernmost community in the country. The hamlet on the southern tip of Ellesmere Island has a dark past. The federal government relocated Inuit families from Northern Quebec to what is now Grise Fiord in the 1950s to help reinforce Canadian sovereignty in the High Arctic.
The courage and resiliency of the families that survived the relocation lives on in Grise Fiord today, Mr. Akeeagok says. He spoke to Globe and Mail health reporter Kelly Grant in his Iqaluit office about his love of the Grise Fiord schoolhouse, his plans for elder care in Nunavut and how his mother’s cancer treatment far from home shaped his view of health care.
I wanted to start by talking about growing up in Grise Fiord. Were you born there?
Yeah. I’m just very lucky to call Grise Fiord home. I don’t know if you know the history, but it’s a very small community. It’s one of the most vibrant communities you could go to.
What’s your family’s story?
My grandfather came up to help family that was relocated from Northern Quebec adjust to the environment. My father’s originally from around Arctic Bay – not in Arctic Bay, but down the fjord. He was actually born out on the land. And then my grandmother’s from Pangnirtung. They came up to Grise to help my grandfather’s brother when they got moved up there. So that’s the direct connection. And they’ve called Grise Fiord home since. Both my parents are still up there.
Some of the stories I read when you first became Premier mentioned that, when you were a boy in Grise Fiord, they basically couldn’t keep you out of the schoolhouse. What was it that made you so into school?
I just had amazing teachers growing up. Really amazing. The folks who looked after me – my mother, obviously, and my father and then also my aunts who quit school at the time to look after me – they really instilled the importance of education early on. I remember being bribed to get out of school. I remember holding the desks and folks trying to pry me out of school.
What was the school like in Grise Fiord? Were there many kids?
Not very many. And I think that’s really the benefit, the one on one. We got lumped into many grades. So you’d be in class with a few grades up. I thought it was a really good thing to learn from peers.
Later, you attended Nunavut Sivuniksavut, an eight-month college program in Ottawa for future Inuit leaders. Was that your first time living away from home?
Yeah, it was. It was an incredible experience to go through that, to live independently coming from a small community. But I’ve been fortunate. We used to travel all the time. My parents said, ‘The world’s massive and it’s important to be exposed to what’s out there.’ So right from an early age, every year, we would travel south and around the north as well. We took trips down south to Edmonton every year. We’d love to have our Christmas down there as well.
I love the idea that Edmonton at Christmas is going south.
I remember the smell of the trees. To me, it smelled really good – even the smog at the airport when you just come in, [which you notice] when you come from, really, the purest, the freshest place in the world. But I love that southern smell. The city smell.
Tell me a little bit about how you first got involved in the work you did with the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, where you served as president before becoming Premier?
My whole career, I’ve worked for Inuit organizations. My time in Ottawa exposed me to the politics of the evolving history that we’re seeing now. It was really inspiring in that sense. Land claims were fresh. Not too many people have the ability to be in direct discussion with the forefathers [of a territory].
One of the big issues here in Nunavut, obviously, is elder care. I know that’s a priority for your government. Can you tell me some of the specific things you hope to do on that file?
We owe them dignity. I’m really excited that within our mandate, it’s very clear what those action items are. The first and foremost is a repatriation of our elders to bring them back home to Nunavut.
How concerned are you about the nursing shortage, and in particular, about having to again close or really pare down the services at health centres across the territory this summer?
I’m concerned. But really, I don’t think it’s just a Nunavut concern. I think it’s a global concern in terms of the shortages that we see. But what does concern me is how remote our communities are and how essential these health centres are. It’s very different than in southern Canada, where you could drive to the next hospital, or you can drive to be seen by a doctor, even if it’s a few hour’s drive. We don’t have that luxury here.
Growing up in Grise Fiord, there must have been long stretches of time when you couldn’t see a doctor or somebody got hurt and couldn’t fly out. What was the access to health care like when you were a kid?
We’ve had very stable nurses in the community. Obviously, it’s not a doctor. But we were very fortunate to have had those nurses that stayed in the community. But my mother fought cancer twice. So the health care experience I do have was her leaving the community with my father to be in Montreal to undergo chemo for months on end, and just how my brother had to look after us.
How old were you when that was going on?
[My brother] Russell would have been 17, so I would have been 10 or 12. At exam time, he’d help us prepare and then cook breakfast for us. It was not just my brother, it’s really the whole community that pulls you through, especially when you’re that tight knit as a small community. Everybody looks after each other. And that’s really where I always come from. It’s really not about you, it’s about everybody around you.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said Grise Fiord was located on Baffin Island. In fact, it is on Ellesmere Island.
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