Bob McLeod: Salute to Nellie Cournoyea – Economic Builder

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to recognize the achievements of a transformative figure, an economic builder in our territory, a true Northern leader, Nellie Cournoyea.

Nellie served our territory and the Inuvialuit people for nearly four decades. Her career is a testament to what can be achieved with heart, resilience and clarity of vision.

A former Member of this Assembly as the MLA for Nunakput, Nellie tirelessly advocated for the best interests of her region, the Northwest Territories, and all its peoples.   She was a fierce and passionate debater.   But above all, she was a champion of the people of the NWT.  She held numerous positions in Cabinet, including Health and Social Services, Renewable Resources, Culture and Communications, Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources, and, of course, she was the first female Premier of the NWT. She pursued policy with heart; always solid on numbers, and always conscious of what communities wanted and needed.

Nellie’s work in negotiating 1984’s Inuvialuit Settlement Agreement brought economic self-determination to the Inuvialuit people.  Her work in creating numerous co-management boards constitutionally entrenched the equality of the Inuvialuit with the federal and territorial governments in issues of natural resource management, a hard-fought battle that brought economic justice to that region.

The signing of the NWT’s first comprehensive land-claim ushered in a new era for the NWT as the Inuvialuit Final Agreement established its signatories as full participants in both the economic and political life of the NWT.  

It is no accident that successive settlements followed the model that Nellie had helped to develop.  Each agreement raised the level of Aboriginal participation and investment in the economy, eventually transforming the NWT’s economic environment when prospects of a Mackenzie Valley pipeline and the discovery of diamonds catapulted the NWT economy to new heights.

Today, Aboriginal companies play a pivotal role in almost every area of businesses and industry, providing significant opportunities for investment and driving the development of a skilled and vibrant northern workforce.

Mr. Speaker, Nellie’s drive came from her desire to advance the economic wellbeing of the Beaufort Delta region. Her work to advance land claims, self-government and even Devolution were all tools to this end. But her public service; her tough, pragmatic approach, and relentless work ethic was one from which we all benefited. 

Immediately after leaving the Legislature in 1995, in typical Nellie fashion, she rolled up her sleeves and took the reins at the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation a position she held until retirement.   I would like to recognize today Nellie’s incredible work building the IRC into the strong economic engine it is today.

Her leadership saw the corporation grow, from a small entity to manage settlement funds from the Inuvialuit Agreement, to an economic powerhouse with $492 million in assets. Her personal commitment to the success of the corporation was notable each morning as her office light in the IRC Building was the first one on each morning and the last to dim each night.

Her success and the economic, community, and cultural wellbeing her leadership has brought to the Beaufort Delta region is an example that we should all carry with us as we move through these trying economic times. We cannot back down from the challenges we will face; we must not stray from our principles. That is how success is born. 

Nellie has been recognized nationally in Canada and internationally for all of her achievements.  She was a winner of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 1994 and she is also the recipient of five honourary doctorates in law from Lakehead University, Carleton University, University of Toronto, University of Lethbridge and University of Alberta. In 2008 the Governor General of Canada awarded Nellie the Northern Medal in recognition for her significant contributions to the evolution and reaffirmation of the Canadian North as part of our national identity.  That same year, she was also inducted into the Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame.

Not only has Nellie been a leader, she has been a friend to our Government and me personally. I always knew that when she contacted me, the phone call would start with her asking how I was and then often chastising me about my travel and meeting schedule.

Mr. Speaker, I would be remiss, if I did not also recognize the newly-elected chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation Duane Smith.  He will have big shoes to fill, but I have every confidence that he is up to the challenge, and I would like to wish Mr. Smith the best of luck in his new position, and continued success for the IRC as a whole. 

In the meantime, along with all residents of the NWT, I trust his predecessor is getting a well-deserved rest for the contributions she has made to the social, political, but especially the economic evolution we are now seeing in our North. 

Thank you, Nellie.  Thank you, Mr. Speaker.