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Tom Sammurtok reminisces about interpreting for the Queen

Tom Sammurtok reminisces on interpreting for the Queen
Tom Sammurtok says he felt privileged for his role interpreting for the Queen and it was sad when he heard she died on Sept. 8. Photo courtesy of Tom Sammurtok

Tom Sammurtok was 22 and working in Churchill, Man., when he got a tap on the shoulder with a big question.

“The government asked me if I would be willing to interpret for the Queen,” said Sammurtok, originally from Chesterfield Inlet.

Queen Elizabeth was set to visit the community July 1970 with Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Princess Anne. One of the reasons for visiting Churchill was for Prince Philip to take part in the Boy Scout jamboree, Sammurtok recalled.

The Royal Family were set to bring in a couple from each Kivalliq community to meet the Queen and Sammurtok was pegged as the interpreter for them.

“When they asked me if I could interpret, I was young, I was only 22 and I was nervous, I wasn’t sure… never having interpreted or even had interaction with someone as high as the Queen,” he remembers.

But he accepted and was soon given a crash course on how to properly interact with royalty.

“It was interesting that we were told you can do this or you can do this but you cannot do this or cannot do that,” said Sammurtok. “For example, when the Queen meets you, don’t extend your hand to shake her hand first. You have to wait until she extends her hand, then you can shake her hand.”

The couples representing the Kivalliq communities were lined up by their community’s distance to Churchill, with Eskimo Point (now Arviat) first.

Sammurtok was introduced to the Queen first, with the explanation that he was her official interpreter.

“I was very, very nervous,” he remembered. “I wasn’t sure, can I pull this off? But as soon as I met the Queen, she made me feel so at ease. We had a very brief conversation. She asked me what do I do and how old am I. I told her I am 22, and she said, ‘Oh I have a son who’s 21.’ After that it became easy enough for me to get the job done introducing the Inuit couples to her as she went down the line.”

Sammurtok would give the Queen the couples’ names, but not much more information, in order to leave some room for her to ask questions about where they were from, how they got to Churchill, what they do and how they live at home.

After that, Sammurtok’s job was done and he was able to enjoy the rest of the Royal visit.

Upon hearing of the Queen’s passing, Sammurtok said he felt touched by her longevity and sadness for her loss, but he was honoured and privileged to have interpreted for her.