“Anaana? Oprah? Or Rassi?”

That’s what a little boy in Nunavut would ask his mother as to which show to watch.

His mother’s answer: “Rassi.”

People are naturally drawn to Rassi Nashalik — to shake her hand, get her autograph, even get a photo taken with her. Little ones run up to her and grin “Hi, Igalaaq!”

No, she’s not a rock star. She may as well be one. Rather, she hosts a supper-hour news program —  Igalaaq.

Rassi has been the only host for the televised newscast since its debut in 1995. The show is delivered in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit people of Canada’s Arctic.

On March 28th, Rassi will host her last show. After 18 years, she’s retiring.

Rewind back a few weeks.  

Rassi wearing toque

Rassi Nashalik began hosting CBC North's Inuktitut-language newscast when it started in 1995. She officially signs off March 31 into retirement. (Sean Rombough)

Rassi and I are sharing a feast in her home. She boiled seal meat and chunks of maktaaq (beluga whale). There’s also fried bannock. Traditional Inuit food we had stored in our freezers. 

It’s moments like this that come not too often in Yellowknife, but appreciated as if we were home in Nunavut.

Now, we are drinking tea.

I nestle into a spot on a comfy chair as she tends to her qulliq, a traditional Inuit soap stone lamp. Something she learned from watching her mother, when she a little girl.

'I’m very lucky I lived out on the land and used dog teams for transportation. A very traditional lifestyle, learned that by watching my mother. Full of love, full of life. We played outdoors all the time, there was no such thing it’s too cold to play out'- Rassi

Today she is lights it to bless her home, using cotton willows for flints and vegetable oil to keep the flame going.

“The qulliq has a big significance for me and my culture. For generations it gave us heat, melted ice for drinking water and for cooking food. I wouldn't be here if it weren’t for the qulliq”.

Rassi Nashalik was born on a little island on Cumberland Sound at Sauniqturaakjuk. It used to be an outpost camp near Pangnirtung, Nunavut.

She lived there until she was 10 years old, with her parents and 11 siblings.

“I’m very lucky I lived out on the land and used dog teams for transportation. A very traditional lifestyle, learned that by watching my mother. Full of love, full of life. We played outdoors all the time, there was no such thing it’s too cold to play out.”

Rassi Nashalik

Rassi Nashalik tends to her qulliq, a traditional Inuit soap stone lamp. This is something she learned from watching her mother, when she a little girl. (Juanita Taylor/CBC)

And like many aboriginal children, Rassi was taken from her family and sent to residential school in the 1960s. She spent three years at the school in Pangnirtung and another three years at a residential school in Churchill, Manitoba.

Her working life has been in language.

Pre-Igalaaq, Rassi was employed with the government’s Language Bureau for 13 years.

That’s when she saw a job ad in the paper, CBC North was looking for an Inuktitut-speaking person to host a television news show.

She cut out the ad and stuffed it into her wallet.

Rassi at residential school

Rassi in her teens, this was taken when she was going to residential school in Churchill, MB. (Rassi)

Driving across the country on a trip with her common-law husband Bob, she kept taking it out and reading it, then putting it back in until the next time she pulled it out.

At the last moment, Rassi called her employer and had them fax her resume to CBC North.

And on the receiving line was then-CBC Regional Director Marie Wilson. Wilson says before she hired Rassi, she observed Rassi.

“She was confident, she was capable and I knew that she would have been exposed on a daily basis by nature of that work to all of the public and current issues of the day.”  

Rassi and husband

Rassi and her common-law husband Bob Stephen visiting Pangnirtung, NU. (Rassi)

Knowing Rassi’s strong language skills, Wilson knew she was one for job.

“These programs are the daily newspaper of the North... you can not be a functioning member of the North or any part of the country, frankly, if you don't know what's going on. And the daily service of news and information that Rassi as a trusted host and source has dished up I think has been huge contribution to the understanding and public service of northern viewers.”

'I speak Inuktitut every day, delivering news to unilingual people. I want them to understand what’s going on around the north and around the world.'- Rassi Nashalik 

Rassi says, “I was green. Very green”. She says the only hope she had was her language.

“When I use Inuktitut in my job, in my language, that’s the one that kept me going because I speak Inuktitut every day, delivering news to unilingual people. I want them to understand what’s going on around the North and around the world.”

For every newscast, Rassi reads news in English off the teleprompter and delivers it in Inuktitut.

Inuktitut is one language with numerous dialects in Nunavut.

Once in a while, Rassi says, she gets feedback from a viewer who doesn’t like how she used Inuktitut, because it’s not how they use Inuktitut.

She admits to getting defensive. But she quickly turns it into constructive criticism.

She remembers a  call from one viewer after he left an unhappy message.

“I said, this is Rassi from CBC Igalaaq. I just want to thank you for watching Igalaaq. Thanks for your feedback.”  

The logistics and costs of broadcasting a television news program have had the show air from CBC North in Yellowknife. That’s also where Northbeat is broadcasted from, the English version of northern news.

Stories for both shows are gathered by news stations in Iqaluit, Yellowknife, Hay River, Inuvik and Whitehorse.

And although Nunavut is one-fifth the size of Canada, everybody knows everybody.

Which can make it difficult at times to be a newsreader.

Rassi says it’s the hardest when she has to read bad news about her close family and friends.

Her thoughts are brought back to the day when she had to read about her childhood friend found dead in Kujjuaq, Nunavik.

“That was very, very hard for me.”

She tears up. Her eyes focus on an object on the table. I stay quiet and let her go back to that day.

“I keep saying, it’s my job. It’s my job to do this.”

Crying throughout the day allowed her to read the story about her friend found dead.

There is one story that nearly made her lose her composure on air. Last year a father and his son from Arviat got stuck on a floe-edge in the Arctic ocean.They were rescued then interviewed.

The father, Joe Karetak said during the interview, “My son wanted to give up.”

That’s when Rassi says she nearly lost it.

“I had a lump in my throat because I feel for that young man. I have a son who is young and I was putting him in that shoe of that young boy. And he told his dad 'I’m going to give up, are we going to die?'. When he was telling that story, I nearly burst out, but I composed myself. When you’re involved with your newscast, it can get very emotional.”

 

Rassi in igloo

“I was just like in heaven when I interviewed someone in Igloo,” said Rassi. She is pictured here with Rankin Inlet elders: John Kabvitok and the late Mary-Anne Taparti. (Curtis Cameron)

Igalaaq has been taken to the road covering important cultural events in Nunavut.

“I was just like in heaven when I interviewed someone in Igloo,” said Rassi. She did this during the annual spring celebration, Toonik Time, in Iqaluit. “It was really really peaceful.”

One of her most proudest moments was covering the first-ever Nunavut elections when it became a new territory separated from NWT.

“That was exciting. I was part of that history doing a live coverage. I was thrilled. I was so proud of Nunavummiut, after so many years after talking about division, they finally had their own legislature.”

Now after 18 years, Rassi wants to have a good rest.

“I’m ready. Been talking about last couple of years. Ready to go. Somebody’s else turn to do this job. I’ve done my part. 18 years. And I think it’s a long time.”