'He was a visionary': Inuit leader remembered in Northern Quebec

Robbie Tookalook, who died of cancer on Oct. 4, is being honoured as one of the signatories to the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and a key architect of Nunavik.

Robbie Tookalook helped create Air Inuit, secure Inuit land rights, found Nunavik - and still had time to hunt

Robbie Tookalook, one of the architects of Nunavik, died on Oct. 4, 2017. (Submitted by Makivik Corporation)

Robbie Tookalook, an Inuit leader who was instrumental in the signing of the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement is being remembered as one of the pillars of modern-day Nunavik.

Tookalook died on Oct. 4, in his home village of Umiujaq, on Hudson Bay.

''It was important for him to die in the north,'' said his friend Sen. Charlie Watt, who visited Tookalook a few weeks before his death.

Watt said even in his final days, the 73-year-old wanted to discuss elements of the James Bay treaty that have not yet been implemented.

''That's Robbie for you,'' said Watt, describing him as a person who was fully committed to any issue he took on.

Defining Canadian history

The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was the first major land-claims agreement in Canada.

In addition to providing financial compensation for Cree and Inuit communities affected by the massive James Bay hydroelectric development project, it defined future relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments.
Robbie Tookalook signing the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement in Quebec City in 1975. (Submitted by Makivik Corporation)

Watt remembers meeting Tookalook in the early 1970s in Inukjuak, Que., during the first legal challenge to the hydroelectric project.

Watt said he was amazed by Tookalook's ability to handle himself in a bureaucratic legal setting, an environment that stood in such stark contrast to his northern community.

''He was quite energetic, active and tried his best to represent his people,'' said Watt. ''He is going to missed by a lot of us.''
Robbie Tookalook (third from right) sitting with his fellow signatories of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in Quebec City in 1975. (Submitted by Makivik Corporation)

For more than two decades, Tookalook was a board member of Makivik Corporation, the administrative body that now represents the Nunavik Inuit.

Makivik's communications co-ordinator, William Tagoona, who also met Tookalook in the 1970s, remembers his dedication to Indigenous peoples.

''He knew we were being left behind, put into a corner, and he wanted to get out of that. And the only way was to speak up for yourself,'' said Tagoona.

Both men were sent to residential schools, an experience that shaped Tookalook's commitment to Indigenous rights, said Tagoona.

''What it really taught us was to fight for what you need, to fight for what you saw was injustice.''

Tagoona said Tookalook was overjoyed when his daughter Louisa defeated him in an election for a seat on the board of directors of Makivik.

She also succeeded him as mayor of Umiujaq.

''He was a firm believer in the next generation taking over,'' said Tagoona.

Tributes pour in for 'leader, teacher'

Makivik Corporation posted a tribute to Tookalook on its Facebook page, describing him as ''a great leader from Umiujaq," the village he helped build in the 1980s.

Tagoona said he was moved to see hundreds of people respond to the post, which goes on to read, ''He said it seems like he spent his whole life in politics but adds he liked the life of a hunter the most.''

Robbie Tookalook (far right), at a gala in Kuujjuaq, Que., in 2015, standing with his fellow signatories of the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. (Submitted by Makivik Corporation)
Tagoona said this was fundamental to Tookalook's life's work.
''His link to the land was really strong, and everything he did was ultimately to make it possible for his people to hunt on the land like their ancestors,'' said Tagoona.

With files from Quebec AM