Inuit leader Jose Kusugak dies

Jose Kusugak, a longtime defender of Inuit rights, language and culture in Canada, has died. He was 60 years old.
Jose Kusugak, seen at a Kivalliq Inuit Association meeting in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, in November 2009. Kusugak died on Tuesday night, after a battle with cancer. He was 60. ((CBC))
Jose Kusugak, a longtime defender of Inuit rights, language and culture in Canada, has died. He was 60 years old.

Kusugak, who had been battling bladder cancer for more than a year, was surrounded by family members when he passed away Tuesday night in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.

Kusugak was most recently president of the Kivalliq Inuit Association, a regional Inuit group based in Rankin Inlet.

He was president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. from 1994 to 2000, leading the organization as it began implementing the historic Inuit land claim that created Nunavut in 1999.

Kusugak was Nunavut Tunngavik's interim president in November, while a byelection campaign for the top job was underway.

"Inuit lost a giant," Cathy Towtongie, Nunavut Tunngavik's current president, told CBC News on Wednesday.

"We've lost a leader that has been committed — from his youth — to the Inuit issues, especially in terms of language," she added. "He's going to be missed."

'He gave the Inuit a new identity'

Towtongie credited the success of Nunavut's land claim to Kusugak, saying Inuit would not be able to call Nunavut their homeland if it weren't for his decades of hard work.

Kusugak, as president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, unveils the organization's new logo at a ceremony in Ottawa in 2002. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))

From 2000 to 2006, Kusugak served two terms as president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada's national Inuit organization.

"He was a smart guy. Jose understood what teamwork was," said Whit Fraser, who worked with Kusugak there.

Fraser said Kusugak was never timid about defending the rights of Inuit people, nor was he afraid to make federal politicians aware that Inuit are different from First Nations people.

"I think he gave the Inuit a new identity in Canada … that was very badly needed," Fraser said.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Mary Simon said she will remember Kusugak every time she looks at the organization's logo — one that Kusugak helped create.

"From now on, when I look at our logo — Inuit representing our four regions, hands joined embracing the maple leaf — I will remember Jose Kusugak," Simon said in a statement.

Taught, promoted Inuktitut

Simon said she and Fraser recently travelled to Rankin Inlet to visit Kusugak and "thank him and tell him we loved him."

"He was brave, honest and loving to the end," she said. "We will miss him deeply, and we will never forget him."

Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak said she remembered Kusugak as a "wonderful and engaging" Inuktitut-language teacher when she was in residential school in Churchill, Man., more than 30 years ago.

In a statement, Aariak said Kusugak began lobbying Inuit leaders in 1971 for a standardized Inuktitut writing system. He later served as chair of the Inuit Language Commission.

Kusugak also worked for CBC North from 1980 to 1990 as the broadcaster's area manager in what is now Nunavut's Kivalliq region.

In an interview with CBC News in April, shortly before he began cancer treatment, Kusugak encouraged people not to wait too long to see a nurse or doctor if they have medical concerns.