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‘Simply a visionary’

A former mental health advocate and early nurse practitioner is being remembered in both Yellowknife and Ottawa.

photo courtesy of Catherine MacQuarrie
Jo Macquarrie pictured in 2014 during her 80th birthday, died earlier this month. MacQuarrie was an advocate for mental health and Indigenous rights and heavily involved with numerous organizations in Yellowknife and the NWT during her time from 1966 and 1998.

Josephine “Jo” MacQuarrie, who lived in Yellowknife from 1966 to 1998 died on March 13 at the age of 84.

MacQuarrie, who was born in Vegreville in 1934, first came North to Baker Lake in the mid-sixties before settling in Yellowknife. During that time she worked as a nurse at Stanton Hospital and spent at least some of that time in obstetrics and advocating for mental health.

MacQuarrie married Bob, a Sir John Franklin School teacher and had four children during their time together – Catherine, Don, Ken and Doug. She also is survived by five grandchildren.

MacQuarrie was involved in a long list of community boards and organizations in Yellowknife during her time here, but she was probably best known for her advocacy of Indigenous peoples and her early leadership around mental health. In the late seventies she started the NWT and Nunavut chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association and was a very vocal opponent during the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline hearings around the same period.

“She was an advocate for people impacted by developments from big industrial projects and social impacts on communities,” said eldest daughter Catherine in a phone interview this week. “My understanding is that she was one of the first and earliest voices (for mental health advocacy) in those days.”

Whit Fraser, who was a CBC reporter at the time and whose recent book True North Rising gives special mention to MacQuarrie for questioning proponents of the project about mental health impacts during the Thomas Berger Inquiry for the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline.

“What strikes me most is how dedicated she was and effective going back to the mid-seventies as an advocate for mental health and forming the Northwest Territories Mental Health Association,” said Fraser. “It was only years later that I realized how far ahead she was of everybody else in recognizing the whole issue around mental health and being an advocate.”

Other roles she had during her more than 30 years in the North included former Chief Coroner of the NWT, founder of the Kitikmeot and Keewatin Health Board, City of Yellowknife alderman and executive director at the predecessor to the present day Mackenzie Valley Land and Water board. In the early nineties she was also part of the Inuit Patient Search Project.

In 1998, she moved to Ottawa and worked with the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami’s health department and eventually took on several more positions in her life including with the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Ottawa Urban Aboriginal Council, the Metis Nation of Ontario and the City of Ottawa Police Service.

“I would say ... broadly she was just somebody who was so committed to people,” said Catherine.  “She valued people no matter who you were or the walk of life you came from. I have had messages from friends in Yellowknife saying that they remembered when she offered her supported in the early days of the LGBTQ movement.

“Human value and diversity were really an important part of of her life and that people deserved respect no matter where they came from or what the circumstances were.”