End of an era for Nellie Cournoyea, the 'Iron Lady of the North'

Although Nellie Cournoyea earned many appointments and honours during a political career that has spanned five decades, one title she’s downplaying is that of Arctic feminist icon.

Longtime chair of Inuvialuit Regional Corporation announced this week she won't seek another term

Although Nellie Cournoyea earned many appointments and honours during a political career that has spanned five decades, one title she's downplaying is that of Arctic feminist icon.

"I call her the North's Iron Lady," said Freddie Carmichael, a childhood friend from Aklavik and later a political colleague. "The reason for that is that she is extremely hardworking and dedicated to the Mackenzie Delta and the whole of the territory."

For the last 20 years, Cournoyea has served as chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC). Before that she was MLA for Nunakput from 1979 to 1995, and served as premier of the Northwest Territories from 1991 until 1995. Universities have bestowed her with honorary degrees. The University of Manitoba even named its Arctic research facility after her.

On Friday, Cournoyea responded to the veneration that's been pouring through via Northern broadcasting and social media after she announced Thursday she's not seeking the nomination for chair of the IRC. The nickname Iron Lady has come up a few times.

"Well, it's better than some of the names I've been called in the past," Cournoyea said.

'One of a kind'

One person who shares that respect for Cournoyea's work as a politician and businesswoman is longtime friend and former N.W.T. member of Parliament Ethel Blondin-Andrew.

"Nellie is one of a kind," she said.

Blondin-Andrew said it's not uncommon to see Cournoyea walk straight out of a meeting with ministers, academics and bureaucrats and then roll up her sleeves to help pluck geese or cut up muktuk.

"She operates at all levels. I've seen Cournoyea operate at the community level with family and with community. In the corporate business world she is just as comfortable as she would be on a whale hunt," Blondin-Andrew said.

Cournoyea, she said, shows an amazing ability to demonstrate empathy for anyone, not just her people.

Blondin-Andrew remembers working with Cournoyea, who was then the premier, as an assistant deputy minister during the Giant Mine bombing in 1992 that killed nine miners.

During that crisis, Blondin-Andrew said, she remembers Cournoyea's dedication to ensure the miners were buried before they proceeded with anything else.

"She is very fundamentally humanly decent and respectful. But also very tough. She can be tough as she is generous," Blondin-Andrew said.

Blondin-Andrew said many men and women, including her, have learned from Cournoyea and one of things she's learned is not to argue with her.

"There's no value in fighting with her. She's tough. She knows what she is talking about," Blondin-Andrew said.

The white dress incident

That toughness was the reason she rarely wore dresses and skirts, Cournoyea once said. Most days at her office Cournoyea shows up to work in pants and a fleece sweater or pullover that has the logo of a company or past conference on it.

When the Inuvialuit Final Agreement was signed in Tuktoyaktuk in June, 1984, Cournoyea wore a white pinstripe shift dress with a black-tie collar after joking to fellow negotiators that she'd don a dress if an agreement was ever reached.

"I assure you, this is not my dress. I've always told them that you can't boss people around unless you are in pants and a little bit sweaty," Cournoyea told the crowd gathered to watch the signing.

"I am doing this tonight, just for all the people who worked so hard, the negotiators, and I'll give it back to Frieda Lester when I'm finished with it."

Twenty-years later, Cournoyea, said her comments had nothing to do with what her outfits said about her. Instead, she was trying to bring across the point that getting anything done requires hard work.

"If you're a leader up here you have to be more than sitting around at the computer. You have to effect something. And a lot of times when you are effecting an action you get a little dirty," Cournoyea said.

"I'm one of the people that enjoys rolling up my sleeves and getting into the action. So that's what I meant."

Stepping up

Being a role model for women who roll up their sleeves is something that Cournoyea said she tentatively accepts.

"I believe a lot of woman look at me and say I have done a lot of things and then translate that for them making it possible to do a lot of things. And I think that's a good thing," Cournoyea said.

But she follows up that by saying that women stepping up is nothing new in Inuvialuit culture and that all genders played a central role in family and communities.

Most women, she said, even assumed male roles because the men were out hunting for long periods and sometimes didn't ever come home.

"When I was growing up women were the backbone of the home. There were a lot of dangers men were in when they were hunting. And they were not hunting the way they were today," Cournoyea said

Over the next week the Inuvialuit begin their race to find new leadership that will end in a leadership election on January 25th. All five candidates are men.

As for Nellie, she's hanging around IRC headquarters to clean up her office. Cournoyea hasn't decided when her last day will be.

Meantime, she's sorting through documents that some would say are soon to be artifacts of history.


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