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Improving health through Inuit tradition

Elder Gamailie Kilukishak says he remembers when Inuit culture and principles were the only way of life, when physical and mental health flourished as a result.

Gamailie Kilukishak has served two terms with Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit Katimajiit, a committee that advises the Government of Nunavut on Inuit traditional knowledge.
photo courtesy of the Government of Nunavut

"We could use traditional ways of dealing with mental health and wellbeing in Nunavut," Kilukishak says through interpreter Christine Ootova. "We used to counsel our people. There used to be an (Inuk) counsellor in our community... We survived on the land and so our health and wellbeing is always first priority."

Prior to Western influence, Inuit "lived in harmony. They had resilience," he says. "They had a very peaceful life."

Kilukishak, 85, shared his views for two terms on a traditional knowledge committee known as Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit Katimajiit, which advises the Government of Nunavut on Inuit language and culture. Despite the existence of that committee, he believes the GN isn't doing enough to strengthen the Inuit way of life.

"He feels that if all the elders throughout Nunavut would get together to discuss the old traditional knowledge of governing through consensus, probably to guide the MLAs or the ministers of the legislative assembly, it would probably help because elders know traditional knowledge the way (life) used to be," Ootova explained. "He feels that the people in the legislative assembly don't really know traditional knowledge."

Kilukishak is highly knowledgeable about Inuit best practices, says Shuvinai Mike, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit director with the Department of Culture and Heritage. She said she's heard him tell a minister and deputy minister that IQ needs to be legislated in order for real change to occur.

"He really believes that if Inuit were still really practising Inuit guiding principles, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, that there would be less people incarcerated, less people going to medical, less suicide," Mike said. "What we have learned from him in those two terms (on the committee)... we wrote it into a discussion paper to present at an Inuit studies conference in St. John's two years ago."

Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit Katimajiit normally consists of nine members, three from each region of Nunavut, although there are currently eight members serving. The elders are nominated by their communities and selected by the minister of Culture and Heritage. Committee members are accessible to all government departments, however.

Mike says Kilukishak, who is no longer on the committee, would occasionally remind fellow members of their purpose.

"He always used to say, 'We're here to guide. We're here to give advice. We're not here for ourselves,'" she recalls. "We miss him a lot."

Kilukishak spent most of his early life on the land in the Tununiq area, but also lived for a while near Arctic Bay and Iglulik. He travelled by dog team as a young man, and admits that modern modes of transportation are superior.

"Today you have the comfort of going on planes. He really enjoys that part," Ootova said.

Sen. Dennis Patterson presented Kilukishak with a Canada 150 "unsung hero" medal earlier this year. The nomination for that award describes him as having "maintained and lived his Inuit culture as a great example to others and the generations growing up around him.

"He has always been a strong promoter of the Inuktitut language and passed his knowledge on to younger people by attending many workshops, discussion meetings and appearing on radio shows over the years... He has been an important part of the local elders group for many years, helping to to preserve the past through storytelling for the future generations to listen and learn from."