It’s difficult to keep up with Deborah Tagurnaaq, the recently appointed Inuit Advisor to Bishop Shane Parker. She keeps up a fast pace, serving the Inuit Community in Ottawa in many ways, but she generously made time for a conversation with Crosstalk at the Inuuqatigiit Centre for Inuit Children, Youth and Families.
In addition to being the parent co-ordinator and Elder’s consultant at the Inuuqatigitt Centre, a mother to four children and a grandmother, Deborah (she prefers that we use her first name) does a lot of frontline community work.
“I hold many jobs because I have different skillsets. …I do facilitation in Inuktitut using my own mother tongue.
She credits her father Tagurnaaq, an Inuk Anglican lay minister and Inuktitut linguist, for equipping her with the skills to do it all.
“I have six brothers and six sisters, and I am number 13. My older siblings were taken away to residential school. My middle siblings had to go outside our region to go to school, but [conditions there] were not as harsh as the first residential schools,”
Deborah says Inuit Arctic communities have come a long way since that time. Apologies from government and churches and admissions of wrongdoing are a step forward, she said. “The Anglican Dioceses that had a lot of Inuit children in their care are very apologetic and are most active in doing repair and having to reconcile, so this is good to see happening.”
The youngest children in her family were able to attend primary school in their own community of Naujaat, Nunavut. “I would learn in English the whole day in western society culture and when I went home my father would say, ‘No, you aren’t going out to play until you’ve learned what you learned in English to Inuktitut.’ So, he would have me write in syllabics, doing storybooks, making themed activities … until he was satisfied and would say, ‘Now you can go out.’ He was strict, but he was shaping my future because he knew the Inuktitut language which was on the verge of being eradicated. He saw potential in me….He took me under his wings and taught me everything in life, about ecology, the environment, family, kinship and everything else in Inuktitut. He was a linguist because he learned a lot of different dialects,…So he was shaping my future, and I wouldn’t be where I am right now [otherwise], fluently speaking in English and Inuktitut… He was a wonderful person.”
Deborah had to leave her home community to go to high school, but one of her older sisters invited her to come and live with her family rather than going to a federally run day school program. “So, I went to high school in Arviat, Nunavut. [They spoke] a totally different dialect from what I was used to, and I did not understand. I had to learn the hardest way possible, but I am now able to understand Arviat dialect.”
After high school, Deborah attended Nunavut Arctic College in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut and then began to work in Rankin Inlet for Keewatin Legal Aid Services as a Native Court worker.
At that time the Kivalliq Inuit Association was negotiating with the federal government on Nunavut education and training programs. According to the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, the voting age was 16 years old and up. “I thought ‘How can a 16-year-old vote without being informed properly about how to make a sound decision to elect an Inuit leader?’ she recalls. The Kivalliq Inuit Association president at that time, Louis Pilakapsi, also saw potential in Deborah. “You work well with the Elders and the youth, and your point about 16 year-[olds] voting is very important. The elders will have to connect with the youth,” he said to her. He asked her to work with them, and they established the Kivalliq Inuit Youth Group. It became a model for the other regions in Nunavut and led to the development of the Nunavut Inuit Youth Group and later the National Inuit Youth Council.
Deborah went on to work for other Inuit organizations, including the Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, in portfolios of Inuit Residential School injustices and child sexual abuse in “National Strategy of preventing abuse in Inuit communities”.
Asked if Ottawa now feels like home, Deborah said, “I’ve made it my home. I’ve learned all the methods of my father’s great teachings. I am now working for Inuuqatigiit Centre for Inuit Children, Youth and families – Family Well-Being department as a Parent Coordinator and Inuit Elders consultant.”
Along the way, the Rev. Aigah Attagutsiak of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Ottawa asked her if she would help to come up with Inuktitut Christmas celebrations. “We started very small with word of mouth in 2011, and just by word of mouth, not advertising, but it became such a huge success over the years,” they have had to relocate the celebration to a larger church near St. Margaret’s Anglican Church down the street at Lady of the Assumption Church.
She hopes to visit her family in Naujaat, Nunavut soon. “Three years ago, I went to Naujaat before the pandemic and all the lockdowns happened globally, and in due time when the travel restrictions are lifted to travel to Nunavut, I would like to visit my family members in Naujaat.”