In 1994, a walrus hunting trip near Iqaluit turned into the deadliest boating accident in Nunavut’s history.
The weather quickly turned. A heavy catch of walrus caused the vessel to start taking in water.
Eight of the men aboard drowned. Pitseolak Alainga and Billy Kownirk were found clinging to the wreckage about 150 kilometres out of town.
At a ceremony in Iqaluit last week, Nunavut’s Commissioner recognized both men for their courage on that day.
Alainga says the award takes some of the weight off his shoulders.
“It’s sometimes hard to say we were the two survivors of the accident, but at the same time, it’s been 20 years for me and Billy to be getting recognized for bravery and survival,” Alainga says.
“It’s so much easier for me and him to talk about the accident that we had in 1994.”
The graves of the men who died that day, including that of Alainga’s father, lie in a row at the edge of Iqaluit’s small cemetery.
“I can only say the weather out there is not to be fooled around with,” Alainga says. “The weather can change in minutes up here in the North, whether in summertime or wintertime. We can’t run Mother Nature.”
Amaujaq Groves was one of several others recognized with a Commissioner’s Award.
He saved his baby sister from choking on a piece of cereal when he was just four years old.
“We're just so completely proud of him for what he was able to do,” says his father, Jeremiah Groves. “It's even emotional now but... we just love him from the bottom of our hearts for everything he was able to do at a very young age.”
Amaujaq's story hit close to home for Deputy Commissioner Nellie Kusugak, who handed out the awards at the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum.
The little girl he saved is her granddaughter.
“Even my granddaughter may not have been here,” she says.
One of the other recipients was Matthew Knicklebein of Apex, a community in Iqaluit. He provided a safe and warm place for residents during a severe windstorm that left some people without power for 18 hours.