Cambridge Bay recently lost another connection with the Inuinnaqtun language with the death of Elder Ella Panegyuk.
She was one of only a few dozen such individuals, Mayor Pamela Gross said.
“Anyone over the age of 70 and 80 are mainly unilingual,” said Gross. “Their English level may vary, but primarily they’re unilingual.”
To strengthen the language, the Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq/Kitikmeot Heritage Society has started a one-on-one mentorship program involving eight people who are learning Inuinnaqtun. According to Statistics Canada’s 2016 census, 1,310 people reported knowing enough Inuinnaqtun to carry on a conversation.
Mercy Panegyuk, Ella’s daughter-in-law, met her 37 years ago.
“She said (Inuinnaqtun) was very important to her. She tried teaching her grandchildren. She was really loving and caring to her grandchildren,” she said.
Panegyuk, who died on May 5, lived much of her life in Bay Chimo and had a “large, beautiful family,” Gross said.
The day of her funeral brought sunshine, but clouds later rolled in and there was a light snowfall. Cambridge Bay resident Naikak Hakongak commented on the significance of the weather.
“New light snowfall … I remember that it is a sign that when Elder passes on it is their way of saying that they are at peace and all is well,” he wrote.
Ella was predeceased by her husband, Moses, and a few of her 14 children.
Her love of the outdoors never waned as she aged, Gross noted. Community members would spot her walking alongside the roads, using her cane, and would stop to offer her a ride in a vehicle. She often declined because she was determined to remain mobile and she enjoyed the fresh air, she said.
Mercy said she and her husband Peter, Ella’s son, took her out on the land and boating, even up until 2018, when she went on a final trip to Ellis River.
“She’d tell us stories about the land and how they walked. It was nice stories,” Mercy said.
Gross also remembers Ella as a very pleasant individual.
“She was always happy to see people and had a lovely smile on her face,” she said.
A few years ago, Gross went to her grandmother’s house and found Ella paying a visit. Gross pulled out her cellphone and took a “selfie” with Ella. Her reaction still makes Gross beam as she recalls that moment.
“She had a really fun, almost uncontrollable laughter to see herself reflected in this picture of her and I,” she said. “It just really got me thinking how when we do that with our Elders what they’ve seen in their lifetime – how far people have come and how far technology has changed. We need to still remember our ancestral roots but embrace today.
“It’s really a hard thing to know that we’ve lost someone so precious to our community,” Gross said. “We know that they’ve left their own legacy and a way of life that we’re always proud of as a people.”