First Inuk surgeon, National Gallery curator, CEO honoured with Indspire awards

The 2018 Indspire Award recipients were unveiled Tuesday and feature a cross-section of Indigenous stars blazing trails in the arts, business, education, health and spirituality.

Actress, law professor who helped develop UNDRIP among recipients

Donna May Kimmaliardjuk, 28, the first Inuk to become a heart surgeon, is one of the 2018 Indspire Award recipients. (CBC )

Donna May Kimmaliardjuk was about to perform heart surgery when she received a phone call informing her she was among 13 Indspire Award winners. 

On the other end of the line was Roberta Jamieson, the president of Indspire, and Kimmaliardjuk, 28, said the conversation lifted her spirits.

"It was just this beautiful conversation," said Kimmaliardjuk. "I remember having my heart racing and goosebumps as she was talking to me. I just felt very, very honoured, very humbled … But it was short-lived, I had the phone call and then I was like, OK, back to work."

Kimmaliardjuk will receive a 2018 Indspire Award for being the first Inuk to become a heart surgeon. She is one of 13 recipients announced Tuesday and the winners feature a cross-section of Indigenous stars blazing trails through the arts, business, education, health and spirituality.

Kimaliardjuk, whose family hails from Chesterfield Inlet and Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, said when she decided to pursue a career in medicine she didn't know of any Indigenous role models in the field or even women who were heart surgeons.

The awards, first handed out in 1994, aim to celebrate Indigenous successes and achievements. The honours are awarded by Indspire, an Indigenous-led charity that invests in the education of Indigenous people. The charity provides millions of dollars worth of scholarships and bursaries every year to Indigenous students across the country.

This year, Gloria Cranmer Webster, 86, was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Originally from 'Namgis First Nation in British Columbia, Cranmer Webster was the first Indigenous woman to attend the University of British Columbia where she graduated in 1956 with a bachelor of anthropology degree.

Cranmer Webster was also instrumental in the development of an alphabet and orthography for the Kwak'wala language, which allowed it to transition from the oral to the written, according to a biography provided by Indspire.

One of the most notable of achievements in Cranmer Webster's long and distinguished career came when she helped repatriate a number of Potlatch artifacts seized by Canadian authorities in the early 1920s.

'Walk with Percy'

Honouree Paul Chartrand, 74, is a Métis law professor who was involved in the development of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Chartrand said he has one piece of advice for youth: Walk with "Percy," which is short for perseverance.

"If you persevere you can achieve things that are difficult, even if you don't have the easiest opportunities that a lot of people have," said Chartrand, who worked on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which was created following the Oka Crisis. 

Theland Kicknosway, 14, from Walpole Island, an advocate for children and youth who drummed-in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet for their first swearing-in at Rideau Hall, is an Indspire Award recipient. (CBC )

Theland Kicknosway, 14, from Walpole Island, Ont., is an advocate for children and youth who drummed-in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet for their first swearing-in at Rideau Hall.

Kicknosway said youth should listen to elders and parents and inform themselves about the Sixties Scoop and residential schools. He said age should be no barrier to making a difference.

"You have the ability to do anything at any age. You could be the oldest one on the planet or the youngest, they both have the same ability, the same power to really make a change in their community," said Kicknosway.

'Those kids are making us ready'

Michael DeGagne, the founding executive director of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation which was created to deal with the legacy of Indian residential schools, is an Indspire Award recipient. (CBC)

Michael DeGagne is being honoured for his public service work, including as the founding executive director of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. He said the youth of today are better prepared to become the leaders of tomorrow and create the long hoped-for Indigenized bureaucracy.

"They are going to emerge as leaders in our community, as people who will manage our own services for us. We have to make sure they realize we are pushing for this on a political level," said DeGagne, president and vice-chancellor of Nipissing University. "Self-determination is coming to us. You, as the young generation in school, are the ones who …[will] have to be ready for it."

Nicole Bourque-Bouchier, CEO and owner of the oilsands construction firm Bouchier Group, is an Indspire Award recipient. (CBC)

Nicole Bourque-Bouchier, CEO and owner of leading oilsands construction firm Bouchier Group, said she hoped her place on the Indspire recipient list would inspire other Indigenous women and girls to take up the challenge and break ground in male-dominated sectors.

"I think females have a lot to offer to the business world that you don't tend to see because it was built on a man's world," said Bourque-Bouchier, 42, who is a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation. "When a female enters a non-traditional role, like in construction, they are not looked at as anybody serious. In order to do that, you have to prove yourself, you have to be able to have patience, and, over the years, with time, the respect will come."

Tracie Leost, 19, who ran 115 km over four days for the missing and murdered and garnered international attention from the likes of the New York Times and Vogue, is an Indspire Award recipient. (CBC )

Tracie Leost, 19, ran 115 km over four days for the missing and murdered and garnered international attention from the likes of the New York Times and Vogue. Leost said she wants to bring a message of hope to youth who feel hopelessness. Two of her former classmates died by suicide when she was in high school, so Leost knows first-hand of the darkness that can grip youth who feel they have no future.

"I was struggling and running ended up being my getaway," said Leost, who is Métis from St. Laurent, Man., and is now attending the University of Regina. "People told me I couldn't do things like this, and I am. People told me I wouldn't be somebody, and I am…. If we can do it, why can't you?"

Other recipients include:

  • Greg Hill, 50, from Six Nations, Ont., honoured for his work as curator as head of the Indigenous Art Department at the National Gallery of Canada.
  • Cecilia DeRose, 80, from the Secwepemc Nation, B.C, and a former residential school survivor honoured for her work in reviving and preserving her nation's language and culture.
  • Lorna B. Williams, 70, from Lil'wat Nation, B.C., honoured for her educational work and developing three degrees at the University of Victoria and designing a mandatory course in Indigenous education.
  • Michael Linklater, 34, Thunderchild First Nation, Sask., honoured for becoming the ninth-ranked 3-on-3 basketball player in the world and for founding Boys with Braids.
  • Ashley Callingbull, 27, Enoch Cree Nation, Alta., honoured for her Miss Canada and Mrs. Universe crowns along with a growing portfolio of acting and modelling work.

The awards will take place in Winnipeg on March 23, 2018 and be broadcast by CBC and APTN at a later date.


  • A previous version of this story said that there were 14 recipients. There are 13 recipients for the 2018 Indspire Award. Incorrect information was provided to CBC at the time of publication.
    Nov 08, 2017 8:51 AM ET


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him