Mr. Kusugak never lacked passion. He addressed local, national and international audiences with ease, charm and heart. He was talented, articulate and successful at engaging listeners regarding the issues and realities facing Inuit. With speeches peppered with jokes and stories, he is one of the few Inuit leaders that was a delight to listen to. I have been fortunate to witness Mr. Kusugak speak at various venues as our nations Inuit leader.
His lecture at Trent University in the spring of 2006 left a positive impression on me. He had lectured to my first year Indigenous Studies 101 course. He spoke to approximately 100 students on the historic accomplishments of Inuit and their current state in a national context. At the end he opened the floor to questions. The way he answered the last question left the greatest impression on me and added pride in my heritage. A student asked if there was any correlation with the Nunavut flag colours coinciding with the First Nations medicine wheel colours; red, yellow, black, and white. He spoke straight forward in true Inuk style saying that he has no idea what the medicine wheel was. This response has stuck with me over the years.
I thought as a national Aboriginal leader he must have known a little about the medicine wheel, which is often stereotypically connected to Aboriginal Canadians including Inuit. So I often wondered why he answered this way. Over the years, I have realized his response was a way for him to cleverly convey and distinguish Inuit from other Canadian aboriginal populations.
Mr. Kusugak constantly advocated for an Inuit-specific approach. He did so at any opportunity that was presented to him – including at Trent University. His response to my classmate assisted me in realizing that I need to remember my own Inuk perspective, and not be shy to share that distinct difference.
“In accepting Canada, we shouldn’t have to worry
about losing our identity or believing in ourselves any
less. Inuit are more than First Canadians, Inuit are
– Jose Kusugak
His slogan, ‘First Canadian, Canadians First’ has been adopted by many, including the recent national document, ‘First Canadian, Canadians First: National Strategy on Inuit Education’. This motto will continue to support and strengthen our young people in the future to remember and understand their Inuit heritage as an inclusive and welcoming people.
During Mr. Kusugak’s time as president of Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, he initiated a name change that was quickly adapted to Inuit Tapariit Kanatami (ITK), and the change to the organizations logo. The logo incorporates the Canadian maple leaf, an ulu and a representation of four Inuit regions in Canada. With these changes, the organization had become reflective of modern day Inuit; appreciating Inuktitut, and represented as a united Inuit population. He continues to utilize his leadership by restructuring the organization to ensure advocacy for the Inuit land claim regions and future generations.
I hope to continue highlighting to my future students of the many accomplishments the late Jose Kusugak contributed to Inuit in Nunavut and Canada.
“Never put yourself on a pedestal, if you earn the respect, others will do that for you.”
Always staying humble, Jose Kusugak wrote this in a 2004 Inuktitut magazine article. With the lifetime of accomplishments and contributions Mr. Kusugak has made to Inuit all over Canada, I think we can award Jose Kusugak an extremely high pedestal. I know I have.