Speak Inuktitut, protect the vulnerable, says Nunavut commissioner on end of five-year term

Nellie Kusugak finished a five-year appointment as Nunavut's commissioner this week. Her last day was Monday.

'It was an absolute privilege and honour to be a commissioner...I never ever took that lightly,' says Kusugak

Nunavut Commissioner Nellie Kusugak is finished her term this week as symbolic head of state. Deputy Commissioner Rebekah Uqi Williams will act as commissioner until the role is filled. (David Gunn/CBC)

Nellie Kusugak finished a five-year appointment as Nunavut's commissioner this week.  

"I had the greatest five years of my life," Kusugak told CBC News, but added, "now it's time to go back home," to Rankin Inlet. Her last day as commissioner was Monday.

As the territorial head of state, the commissioner represents all Nunavut citizens. Kusugak says she thought of the job as a way to "mother" her people, by speaking up for the rights and safety of Nunavummiut.

"Wherever you go, you are really representing the people of Nunavut. You have to keep that in mind all the time. You have to take it to heart," she said. "It was an absolute privilege and honour to be a commissioner and I never ever took that lightly."

The commissioner gives assent to bills so they can become law. The job also entails politician swears-in to the government, like the Speaker and members of cabinet. All northern territories have a commissioner. It's the same role as Lieutenant Governors fill in provinces across Canada.

It was former premier Peter Taptuna who encouraged Kusugak to apply for and take on the position. 

An educator and cultural advocate, Kusugak worked to bring awareness to Nunavut, always adding Inuktitut during her speeches in the south.

"I've had the privilege of using Inuktitut everywhere I go," she said. "I always spoke a little bit of Inuktitut every time I had to make a speech in the south or where there were non-Inuktitut speakers. 

She spoke at citizenship ceremonies, visited communities to host feasts and presented awards to artists, volunteers and community pillars. 

One time she gave a keynote speech for Nunavut RCMP on ways to best serve their communities. She told them about her father, an RCMP special constable, who taught her all people should be treated with dignity. 

"My father was a big believer in never ever forgetting that you're dealing with a human being," she said. 

When they take on the role, commissioners are asked to create their own coat of arms. Kusugak's coat of arms shows a cabin and a flower with a smiling face. It represents family, and a safe haven for women and children. 

Kusugak presents the Order of Nunavut to Ellen Hamilton at the Nunavut Legislative Assembly in 2017. (Nick Murray/CBC)

Growing up, she said her family home was a safe place for women and children to come when they needed to. Her mother spoke strongly within their community about the rights and safety of women and children. 

She worked as commissioner to bring awareness to issues of violence against women and girls in Nunavut. 

"If you believe in something, then that's what you stand for. I truly believe that everyone deserves to be treated right," she said. "Especially women in my culture who have no voice, many of them have no voice. You really want them to have a voice, but it's not that simple." 

Of Nunavut's five commissioners, four of them have been women. Kusugak called former commissioner Ann Hanson a mentor, who she could go to for needed advice in her role as commissioner. 

"I've enjoyed serving the people. I thank them very much," she said. 

Premier Joe Savikataaq took to social media to say goodbye to Kusugak as commissioner.

Deputy commissioner Rebekah Uqi Williams will stand in until a new commissioner can be appointed.