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Remembering community activist who led Co-operative movement in the North


The North has lost a man credited with working with communities to build the Arctic Co-operative network cross the NWT and Nunavut.

Andrew Goussaert, former CEO of Arctic Co-operatives Limited (ACL), passed away on April 9 in Winnipeg, aged 90.

Born in Belgium, Goussaert immigrated to Canada in 1956 and worked as an ordained Oblate missionary in the central Arctic, according to Goussaert's former colleague Terry Thompson.

He learned to speak Inuktitut and through living a traditional Inuit way of life, he came to appreciate local values of mutual help to survive in the extreme Arctic environment.

“It was in this school of life that Andrew was able to envision how co-operatives could enable Inuit to enter into the monetary economy of Canada while retaining control over the events and forces that affected their daily life,” Thompson said.

Andrew Goussaert, third from left, and local delegates to an Arctic Co-operative meet in the Arctic, in an undated photo. photo courtesy of Arctic Co-operatives Limited

Hands-on construction

In the early 1960s, as people in the Arctic began settling into communities, Goussaert became active in helping Inuit develop small community co-operatives.

His role became hands-on as he scavenged abandoned Distant Early Warning (DEW-Line) sites for materials to build facilities.

DEW-Line radar stations monitored for air attacks over the Arctic during the Cold War.

“Andrew and people in the communities would go to the old DEW-Line sites and, by dog team, haul old structures across the tundra to be some of the first buildings in the communities, and save every nail. They took the buildings apart and reconstructed them,” said Andy Morrison, who worked with Goussaert at the Co-op in Yellowknife in the 1980s. Morrison succeeded him as CEO of ACL in 1990.

Cambridge Bay's Bill Lyall said even though he is Inuk, Goussaert was more fluent in Inuktitut than he was.

“I came out of residential school after seven years not knowing a word of my own language,” Lyall recalled.

When Lyall arrived in Cambridge Bay in 1968, the Co-op was already functioning before Goussaert moved there in 1974.

He remembers Goussaert utilizing his many skills in helping to build homes: carpenter, electrician and foreman.

“We built the houses in the Co-operative system. The people built the homes. It made the people feel good because we can now see the finished product of what we did,” Lyall said. “He was a one-of-a-kind person. His path in life was to be with people, teach people how to run a business. For me he was a great mentor.”

Lyall became president of his community's Co-op in 1975.

Goussaert served as the manager of the community's fishing Co-op and oversaw its expansion into a new retail store, a larger hotel and taxi services.

Leading by example

Though Goussaert held many leadership positions, the roles never went to his head, remembers Thompson, who also worked with Goussaert at the Co-op in Yellowknife in the 1980s.

“He was a most unusual man. He wanted you to figure out what needed to be done and do it and tell him when you were done,” he said. “He didn't want to supervise people. He wanted to encourage people.

Andrew Goussaert and residents of Kugaaruk stand near a propeller plane, in an undated photo. photo courtesy of Arctic Co-operatives Limited

If he was involved in something, he never let on he had anything to do with it. He never took credit for the things he did but always made sure that others got credit for what they did.”

Goussaert was also involved in the creation of the first Co-ops in Kugaaruk and Gjoa Haven when he lived in those communities.

By the early 1970s, the Co-op network had grown to include about 26 across the Arctic.

“He had the complete trust of the Inuit people. I don't think he could've done what he did if that wasn't true,” Thompson said.

In 1972, Co-op members in those communities elected Goussaert to be the first president of the newly-formed Canadian Arctic Co-operative Federation Limited (CACFL).

Work with YK Co-op, Borealis housing

Eight years later, and after resigning from the priesthood, he moved to Yellowknife.

Goussaert became CEO of the amalgamated CACFL and Canadian Arctic Producers Co-operative Limited, which became the ACL.

Just months after arriving in the city, he became the main driver behind the creation of the Yellowknife Direct Charge Co-op.

“He fit right into the community,” Morrison remembers. “He very much believed that individuals should be taking charge of their own destiny and affairs. (Direct Charge Co-op) started by him encouraging people to come together, and bringing people together whom he didn't necessarily know. It was quite a feat. He could talk to anybody.”

In an effort to respond to a problem that still affects Yellowknife today, Goussaert tried to come up with solutions to the housing shortage. In 1981, he helped form the Borealis Housing Cooperative.

“The federal government would make allotments for Co-ops, but there were none for the NWT,” Morrison said. “Andrew lobbied every government official he could find and the NWT was suddenly awarded 50 units of housing. It took two years from the concept stage until the first units were occupied. The speed that whole project was developed with was largely based on Andrew's drive and commitment and connection and his attention to the housing problem in the North.

“And I lived in (Borealis Housing) for a number of years and I loved it.”

In the tough economic climate of the 1980s, ACL was forced to move its head office out of Yellowknife and to a more affordable location in Winnipeg.

In 1986, five years before he retired, Goussaert helped create the Arctic Co-op Development Fund, the financial arm of the ACL.

Awards for service

Goussaert's work drew accolades nationally and from his own organization.

On June 23, 1980, he was named to the Order of Canada in recognition of his organization of the CACFL, “the largest single employer of Inuit people in the territories,” according to the Governor General of Canada entry for his award.

In 1990, he was awarded the Co-operative Contribution Award in recognition of his instrumental role in Co-operatives in Canada.

Two years later, he won the Manitoba Distinguished Co-operator Award from the Manitoba Co-operative Council, and in 2008 the Canadian Co-operative Association Achievement Award.

A man dedicated to Northerners

In addition to working with Goussaert at the Co-ops in Yellowknife and Winnipeg, Morrison travelled with him to several communities across the North. His impact was felt and remembered years after he moved south.

“It was a joy to see the expression on people's faces when they recognized him and knew the work he had done and the efforts he put into building Co-operatives and supporting people, encouraging education, encouraging community ownership, and all as a very humble person,” he said.

Thompson hopes Northerners remember Goussaert as someone who was dedicated to the North and who expected little in return.

“Look at all the economic activities that Inuit people are involved in because of the community cooperative system,” he said. “There were other people who worked in the North who made lots of money for themselves but did very little for the communities, but Andrew was the opposite.”

Goussaert is survived by his wife Bea and their daughter Vera, who is the executive director of the Manitoba Co-operative Association.