Nellie Kusugak used to worry about her family when her late husband, Jose Kusugak, couldn’t be at family events.
“And then I looked at Jose,” she remembered. “I’m worried about my family, but Jose is worried about the whole of Inuit in Canada.”
That’s what she signed up for in marrying Jose – a family and community man, but one dedicated to advancing Inuit on the grand stage.
Born in Naujaat, then known as Repulse Bay, in 1950, Jose was a survivor of the residential school system and pursued a career at the University of Saskatchewan’s Eskimo Language School and the Churchill Vocational Centre in Manitoba, where he taught Inuktitut and Inuit history and later served as a cultural and linguistic adviser.
He played a key role as head of the Inuit Language Commission in the 1970s to develop a standardized, dual writing system for Inuktitut, using Roman orthography and syllabics.
In 1971, he joined Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC), where he used his communication skills to promote land claims among Inuit. He later joined CBC North in 1980 to manage the broadcaster’s Kivalliq operations and then the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation a decade later, introducing new areas of Inuktitut programming.
From 1994 to 2000, he was president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. and helped play a pivotal role in negotiating the land claim that created Nunavut.
In 2000, he was elected president of ITC. He left in 2006 and continued to work in regional politics before his passing in 2011.
Now, Canada Post is honouring his life through a special stamp. The corporation held an unveiling of the stamp and brought family, friends and former peers of Jose together to celebrate his impact in the country.
Stephen Hendrie, former director of communications for Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), remembers Jose’s role in changing the name of the organization from Inuit Tapirisat of Canada.
“The new name was in Inuktitut only, and Jose figured that Canadians could learn three words in Inuktitut: Inuit, which means people; Tapiriit, which means are united; and Kanatami, in Canada. Inuit are united in Canada,” said Hendrie.
Jose also came up with the unique logo for ITK from a contest. The logo includes four Inuit, representing the four regions, creating a white silhouette of a maple leaf in the middle with ulus around.
“Jose would say the maple leaf is in snow white because there’s no maple trees in the Arctic,” remembered Hendrie. “In his own way, Jose was writing Inuit back into Canadian history.”
Hendrie said Jose “spoke the language of peace and love and social justice” and that Canadians in the south will learn more about the Arctic and Jose’s impact through the commemorative stamp.
“Jose used to tell Canadians that Rankin is at the centre of the nation, the heart of Canada,” said Hendrie.
The unveiling event in Rankin Inlet on June 14 included several musical performances, something many of the speakers attested would fit well with Jose’s love for music.
“I think Jose would be very happy having this event in a hockey arena,” said Patrick Tagoona, owner and president of Nunavut Investments Ltd. “While I’m talking I can’t help but see Jose’s picture up there, so, ‘Hi Jose.’”
Beyond Jose’s work for Inuit advocacy, Tagoona remembered him as a PA announcer and sound man in hockey games, quoting how he used to call “two minutes for hooking” and similar phrases in English and Inuktitut.
Tagoona said the love he had for announcing was obviously passed on to his son Pujjuut Kusugak, who presented play-by-play for Team Canada in Inuktitut during the 2022 Olympics.
Tagoona said Jose was a longtime friend of his family, but also a mentor, teacher and motivator to him personally.
“His family was his priority and he made that clear to me on many occasions by his actions,” said Tagoona, thanking his family for allowing Jose to sacrifice some of that time for the betterment of Nunavut as a whole.
“He was a strong proponent of the Inuit in our culture, but he was welcoming to everybody no matter what race they were from.”
Tagoona said he often misses him when he goes to his cabin.
“He was much more than a politician,” he said. “He was a family man. He was a man with vision. When it came to his political life, that’s something that we all benefited from.”
Lastly, Tagoona reminded the audience of something Jose was also passionate about: to get your medical checkups, and don’t be afraid or embarrassed to do so, as it can be a matter of life or death.
Nellie said her late husband wanted future Inuit to have a voice and be heard.
“As long as I’ve known Jose, he’s worked for the betterment of Inuit,” she said.
“Jose did not work for accolades. He was the proudest Inuk I knew, meaning he took pride in being an Inuk and all the beauty of our culture and language.”
And for her family, his strength and impact teaches all his descendants “to have a strong voice and that they are as capable as anyone else.”
Jose’s stamp is one of three stamps officially released by Canada Post on National Indigenous Peoples Day, June 21.
The other two honour Métis leader Harry Daniels and First Nation leader Chief Marie-Anne Day Walker-Pelletier.