What it takes to win the Northwest Territories spelling bee

Last modified: May 3, 2023 at 6:31am

Students from across the Northwest Territories met in Fort Simpson this week to compete in the territory’s inaugural Spelling Bee finals.

Spellers ranging from Grade 7 to Grade 12 spent months preparing, with territorial schools hosting internal spelling bees as qualifiers throughout the month of March.

The winners of those contests went head-to-head at Líídlįį Kúę Regional High School on Tuesday.


Illonis Hall, a principal and coordinator of the championship, said the competition built confidence and resilience.

“Those are things that I see in our schools that we need to work towards,” he told Cabin Radio.

“Building confidence within our students is so important. They can do tough things, even tougher things than we can imagine, and this allows them to be engaged and vulnerable, and to prepare for the society they have to live in.”

Competing students came from the Beaufort Delta Divisional Education Council, Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency, Commission scolaire francophone and Dehcho Divisional Education Council.

For Yellowknife’s École Allain St-Cyr, the winnings were big.


Émilie Gagné, a Grade 9 student from the francophone school, will be leaving Fort Simpson with a first-place trophy.

“It went well. I was very nervous on stage but I mean, I just won a MacBook for spelling ‘bayou,'” she said, referring to the term for a brackish body of water.

“I’m definitely going to brag about this for a while … mostly, I just want to say to the people who didn’t believe in me: suck it.”

Émilie Gagné (centre), Rienn Nicholls (right) and Zandria Blake at the NWT Spelling Bee finals. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio

Gagné was a crowd favourite, bringing to the stage the confidence and resilience Hall was searching for.


During what would become the final round for grades nine and 10, the two spellers against Gagné spelt their word incorrectly. According to the spelling bee rules, this means Gagné should then have the chance to spell the word. If done so correctly, she would win first place.

However, upon spelling ‘bayou’ incorrectly, the other two spellers were about to be given a second chance due to a mix-up amongst the judges. Gagné would not give in that easily, though, and stood up to ask for clarification. Once the judges realized their error, the ninth-grader spelled ‘bayou’ for the victory.

“I didn’t want them to think I was being rude, but I knew that I was supposed to get to spell the word as well, and I knew if I did it right then I would win,” Gagné said after the competition.

“I wanted it to be fair, and we’ve become friends with everyone here, but I was still competitive and I knew. I just thought, why not just ask? And then I won, which was cool.”

Teachers from all four regions said that moment may have been the biggest success of the day.

“That was a big moment, it meant a lot to see her do that,” said Annette Stehouwer, literacy coordinator for the Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency.

“It really proved that there’s a real camaraderie between these students, but they ultimately are still competing against each other. Her standing up for herself and voicing that was a big deal.”

June Sanspariel and Divine Sanspariel travelled with Stehouwer from Behchokǫ̀. June, an eighth-grader, placed third, winning an iPad. She says she’ll be back next year.

“It doesn’t feel good. Being in first place would be better,” she said.

“But I got an iPad. And the prizes are why I wanted to start spelling. I did a lot of studying, so I always knew I’d get to the finals, because everyone who participated in my category didn’t study at all. I made cards and everything, so first would have felt better.”

Divine Sanspariel spells a word at the NWT Spelling Bee finals. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio

June still walked away with a smile on her face, saying she would do better next year.

“I’ll read my cards more, and I’ll practise more, probably,” she said.

“I’m going to win first place next year. It’s all I want.”

In first place for the grade 11 and 12 category, in his first and last spelling bee, was Kyle Tuyishime, also from École Allain St-Cyr. The 12th-grader was proud of himself and the work he put in to win a MacBook.

“It’s good to be alive. Sometimes the overbearing feeling of success, it really drowns you,” he said.

“I was a little concerned going into this, because I slept in yesterday and other people were studying so hard, and my contestants did make me question myself a little bit, just for a split second.

Kyle Tuyishime spells his winning word. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio

“But I was just that good, you know? And man, I sure do love my laptop. It’s looking real nice.”

For some of the students, this trip was the first they’ve made with their school. Watching the students build friendships with others from around the territory was a highlight for Michael McClocklin, a teacher with East Three Secondary School in Inuvik.

“Some of our students get to travel often for sports, but for those who don’t, this was a great opportunity,” he said.

“It’s just another reason to mix it up with different communities, and participate in events that are a little bit more on the academic side.”

The night before the competition, the students and chaperones walked around the town and alongside the Mackenzie River. McClocklin said that was a moment he won’t forget.

“It was really neat to see the giant and beautiful Dehcho river as it’s chugging along, making its way up north, where we are on the East Three branch, before it empties into the sea,” McClocklin described.

“It was all so great, and I hope that next year we’ll try to garner more interest and reach out toward our more remote communities, and make this a type of cultural shift and a move towards another facet of competition in academics.”

Bigger plans

For some students, this was their first time competing outside their community.

Adrian Allen represented the Dehcho Divisional Education Council with one goal: to make his parents proud.

“In my home country, Jamaica, my mom and dad encouraged me to go into spelling bees,” he said.

“I want to say thank you, mom and dad, because it got me here and got me the experience of travelling by myself, which I haven’t done before.”

Allen placed third in the grade 11 and 12 category. Although lower than his target, he says that will motivate him for the future.

“I’m coming back here next year and I’m taking first place,” he told Cabin Radio.

Philippe Brulot and Marty Leach, the Dehcho Divisional Education Council’s superintendent and assistant superintendent respectively, said the camaraderie between students makes them want to start planning for next year already.

“Did you see the pride on their faces? This is unique. They are the stars of the day, and we need more of that,” said Brulot.

“Every single child is capable in the NWT, and we need to continue our efforts to really work all together. We need to do everything that we can to give our students opportunities to shine in one way or another.”

June Sanspariel (left), Bisikha Dhungel (centre) and Queen Ajibade from the grade seven and eight category. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio
Adrian Allen (left), Kyle Tuyishime (centre) and Divine Sanspariel from the grade 11 and 12 category. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio

Leach has already begun proposing ideas and changes for next year’s spelling bee. For example, he and Brulot say they hope to include a public speaking competition.

“We want to make this bigger – maybe more social stuff in the evenings for the kids, more bonding opportunities,” Leach said.

“For some of these kids it’s their first time out of their community, or on an airplane, so it’s a good opportunity for them to build friendships with people from all over the territory.

“We hope that’s something that lasts them a long, long time.”