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‘We were always raised out on the land’; Helen Klengenberg still embraces Inuit culture after years of business and administrative roles

Helen Kimnik Klengenberg displays her recognition awards from the Municipality of Kugluktuk for those who have attained higher education. She received the awards for earning her bachelor of arts and masters of business administration. Also pictured is Klengenberg’s niece, Barbara Kapakatoak. Photo courtesy of Helen Kimnik Klengenberg ᕼᐊᓚᓐ ᑭᒻᓂᒃ ᑭᓕᖏᓐᐴᒡ ᑕᑯᒃᓴᐅᑎᑦᑎᔪᖅ ᐃᓕᑕᕆᔭᐅᔾᔪᑎᖓᓂᑦ ᓄᓇᓕᖕᒥᑦ ᖁᕐᓗᖅᑐᕐᒥᑦ ᖁᑦᑎᖕᓂᖅᓴᒥᑦ ᐃᓕᓐᓂᐊᕌᓂᒃᓯᒪᔪᓄᑦ. ᐃᓕᑕᕆᔭᐅᔾᔪᑎᑖᓚᐅᖅᑐᖅ ᖃᐅᔨᓇᓱᒃᑐᓕᕆᓂᕐᒧᑦ ᓯᑕᒪᐅᔪᓂᑦ ᐃᓕᓐᓂᐊᕈᑕᐅᔪᓂᒃ ᐊᒻᒪᓗ ᐱᓕᕆᐊᓂᒃ ᐊᐅᓚᑦᑎᓂᕐᒧᑦ. ᐊᔾᔨᒦᖃᑕᐅᔪᖅ ᑭᓕᖏᓐᐴᒡ ᐊᙵᖓ ᓄᐊᖓᓘᕝᕙ, ᐹᐳᕋ ᑲᐸᑲᑐᐊᒃ.

Helen Kimnik Klengenberg has lived in two worlds over the past 70 years, but she held tightly to the one that gave her a foundation as a child.

She has worked for government administration, fought for language representation and preservation, and, based on the the knowledge gained from past generations, she embodies qaujimajatuqangit.

Klengenberg was born in September 1956 while visiting her maternal grandparents in Tahiapik, almost 100 km south of Kugluktuk.

Tahiapik translates to “the small lakes, but it doesn’t mean that,” says Klengenberg. “Some clever individual who probably got stuck there named it that,” she laughs. “A white man.”

Originally from the country north of Kugluktuk, her parents raised their children traditionally by moving around and living among nature.

“We were always raised out on the land,” she recalls. “My father was a seal hunter, and a trapper during the winter time, and we were always travelling.”

Klengenberg Bay, about 40 km north of Kugluktuk, was named after her father.

After he became ill, the family moved to the community, and Klengenberg and her three siblings were eventually taken by plane to residential school in Inuvik for a year. When their children complained about abuse at school during the summer visit home, Klengenberg’s parents intervened and their offspring did not return to Inuvik.

“Even one year is traumatizing,” Klengenberg, who was seven years old at the time, recalls. “I didn’t speak a word of English, and I was punished when I spoke in my own language. I don’t know how I survived one year.”

Following that, she attended the local school until Grade 9, when she complained to the superintendent in Cambridge Bay about limited access to home economics classes. When her principal chastised her to the point of tears for daring to speak up about the lack of educational opportunities, she quit school at age 13 to take a job at the Hudson’s Bay Company as a cashier.

“My father always said, ‘Work or go to school. There’s no in between.’ After that, I worked all my life at various jobs without much education.”

Earning degrees

Klengenberg eventually became regional director, working directly for the premier, until she took educational leave in 1991 to attain her bachelor of arts in political science from the University of Western Ontario. She graduated in 1996. She then advanced her education further, attaining a masters of business administration (MBA) at St. Mary’s University in Halifax in 2000.

“Everywhere I went, I immersed myself in the culture and the dialect,” she says. “It was difficult to understand the dialect in Kivalliq region, but the NTI [Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated] offered classes, so from there it became easier to learn different dialects.’

This knowledge of language would serve Klengenberg well once she went to work for Nunavut’s languages commissioner in 2015, after running a business with her husband with the knowledge gained from her MBA, first in Rankin Inlet, then in Iqaluit, where she moved in 2003.

Her business, Akhaliak Group of Companies, involved production of promotional material, a print shop, an office supply store and consulting services. She was appointed languages commissioner in 2015, but was forced to resign two years later after a boating accident that resulted in a back injury. She and her husband had always planned to move back to Kugluktuk, and had already bought a house years earlier, so she took the opportunity to retire in her home community.

Legacy and responsibilities of the next generation

Klengenberg is happy with the work she accomplished during her two years as languages commissioner.

“The language commission is to provide service to the population [of Nunavut] and to protect [our] languages — English and French as well — to make sure services were provided, used and written [in official documentation]. We worked with legislation. I’m not too worried [as long as] the legislation is enforced… there shouldn’t be issues of our language being used. The only problem was the federal government,” she says.

“There was also the problem of people being not ready to take on the responsibilities [of language protection]. That was an issue back then and probably still is. We ask a lot of our people, but the most important part is asking them to take on the jobs we create, and we’re just not doing it fast enough. The positions are being filled by others from the south.

“I look forward to seeing how [new post-secondary initiative funds] are being used. We need to see that our people are being educated and [have it] brought back to the [smaller] communities, because people don’t want to leave their communities.

“I think we have to make changes in that area to make sure the program becomes more community-oriented and brought in instead of out. But it’s all about infrastructure. If we don’t have the resources to bring them into our communities, it’s difficult.

Ice fishing and cabin and tent stays

As for her life now, Klengenberg enjoys living out her days at home in Kugluktuk and on the land. She’s also involved with the board of Nunavut Arctic College and the Kugluktuk District Education Authority.

“Outside of those two [things], I go fishing and hunting a lot,” she says. “It’s wonderful. I wish I’d had more of the resources when I was younger [to do this]. Our culture is about being out on the land.”

Klengenberg has a cabin about 25 km from the community that she regularly visits for ice fishing, as well as a tent several kilometres outside the town that she drives to on her four-wheeler.

“It’s nice to spend time outside. Just last week I had tea and put my wood stove on, and it was pretty warm for a few hours.”

She says she plans to keep going with this lifestyle “until I can’t move around anymore.”

Commenting on other Elders who live in homes in the communities, Klengenberg says, “They really need to look after their Elders, because right now they’re sending them out of territory. It’s going to take money [to keep them at home], but it’s a good investment.

“I’m planning to take care of myself for awhile. It’s nice to get out and be in the country. I wish our children and grandchildren would get more opportunities to go out to see the country, because it’s so good for their mind and identity.”

Kira Wronska Dorward

About the Author: Kira Wronska Dorward

I attended Trinity College as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, graduating in 2012 as a Specialist in History. In 2014 I successfully attained a Master of Arts in Modern History from UofT..
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