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What an honour

Kathleen Lippa
Northern News Services

Cambidge Bay (June 23/03) - Helen Mamayaok Maksagak became the first Inuk and first female commissioner of the NWT in 1992 and then commissioner of Nunavut in 1999.

NNSL Photo

Helen Mamayaok Maksagak may be diminutive in size, but her involvement in the growth of Nunavut makes her larger than life. - photo courtesy of Navaklik Tologanak

Before that Maksagak worked as a community worker for the RCMP and as manager of a transient center.

On May 9, 2003, she was named a member of the Order of Canada. While Maksagak says she felt "small" in the presence of Gov. General Adrienne Clarkson, Maksagak's achievements in the North are anything but.

News/North: How did you feel when you found out you were getting the Order of Canada?

Helen Maksagak: I thought, 'Gee, why me? What did I do?' (Laughs)

N/N: What did they say to you about getting the award?

HM: I've been on many committees and organizations before. I've attended a lot of meetings and gotten into a lot of things. Last of all I became deputy commissioner then commissioner of NWT for four years. Then my husband got sick and I wanted to resign on my fourth year. He was dying of cancer. I asked him if I should resign and he said, 'No. You're almost finished. Finish off what you're doing and then you're done.'

So I had one more year and then I was asked to go to Iqaluit and become the first Nunavut commissioner. At first I was kind of leery because I wasn't a beneficiary of Nunavut. I live on Nunavut land, but I wasn't a beneficiary because I'm with the western side. But they said that's all right. So I did one year and became the first commissioner of Nunavut. And then I joined Status of Women of Council last of all.

N/N: What did your family think of all this?

HM: They just were so excited. I didn't think I could get it myself.

My husband died five years ago, so that's why I was going to resign as commissioner. But he said 'No.' He said, 'don't stop now.'

N/N: Tell me about getting the award. How did it all unfold?

HM: Apparently my son-in-law, my youngest daughter's husband, put in an application in my last year as commissioner for Nunavut. Then they told me. And I said, 'Well, do you think I'm going to get it?' And they said 'I'm sure you will.'

N/N: So you found out in January?

HM: Yes. And I finally went to Ottawa with my second son, John Jr., as my escort (the ceremony was May 9, 2003). Of course the weather was funny, so we got delayed one day. The flight didn't come in, so we flew out the next day on the red-eye from Edmonton. Oh, what a trip! (Laughs) We never slept.

N/N: What did you think of the orientation?

HM: They were telling us how to stand before the Governor General and what to do afterwards, how to walk away and go and write our name in a book. We did the same thing at Rideau Hall. They told us where to sit. There were a lot of people getting the Order of Canada.

N/N: When it finally happened, how did you feel?

HM: I was nervous alright, but I just prayed and asked for strength. And then when I finally stood in front of her excellency (Adrienne Clarkson), I just felt so small. I'm small enough, but I felt really small! (Laughing) But I had met the governor general before when I was the commissioner of Nunavut. She was no stranger to me. But to stand in front of her with all those people, it just makes you feel so small.

N/N: How old are you now?

HM: Seventy-two, but I still can get going if I have to do something!

N/N: It sounds like it. Why, over the years, have you gotten involved in so many things?

HM: I like to keep going. Once my children were in school I had nothing to keep me at home. So I just went and did things.

N/N: Where does your energy come from?

HM: I have no idea. All I did was pray every time I was going to bed for strength for another day (Laughs).

N/N: It helps to pray?

HM: Oh yeah. We were always taught to pray. I've tried to teach my children that way, but they're not all the same! (Laughs)

N/N: How many kids do you have?

HM: We had eight all together. But we lost two, so I have six. And we have two adopted boys. My own youngest is going to be 42 in the fall. The oldest one just turned 52.

N/N: Do awards mean anything to you?

HM: It gives you a big sense of honour that, you know, 'I don't deserve it, but I got it.' You know, what did I do to get this thing? But it was a great honour to get it, though. I think I was the only Inuk there, too.

We had a reception and a dinner that night which I really enjoyed. Meeting all those different people...

They sent me a video, too, of the ceremony.

N/N: What did you think seeing yourself on TV?

HM: I don't know. It's just little old me.

N/N: Where did you put your award?

HM: In a glass case in its box, but if I have to go to big functions I can wear it. Other than that, I keep it in a safe place.

N/N: What's on your agenda now? What have you been up to lately?

HM: Sewing and crocheting. My great-grandson is here and I'm supposed to go to a meeting in Ottawa for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation in July, but I haven't heard from them yet.

N/N: So you just keep going...

HM: Like the Energizer battery! (Laughs) As long as I can stand and walk I don't mind doing something. If you ask me to, I'll try.