Meet the six winners of this year’s Wise Women award in the NWT: Eunice Nasogaluak, Vicky Orlias, Bertha Rabesca Zoe, Betty Harnum, Lois Philipp, and Tina McNeill.
The six received their awards in the same week that the territory’s new female premier, Caroline Cochrane, took officer alongside four female cabinet members.
Several newly elected female and male MLAs were in the crowd for the Wise Women award ceremony at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, alongside Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty and Councillor Stacie Smith.
Winners this year ranged from lawyers to advocates to cultural keepers. All have in common a passion for, and leadership in, their community and culture.
They join 119 women who have received the award since it began in 1992 – including present Commissioner of the NWT Margaret Thom, Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos, and former MP Ethel Blondin-Andrew.
Here is a short introduction to each of 2019’s Wise Women.
From the Beaufort Delta, Eunice Nasogaluak
Nasogaluak is a singer, dancer, and drummer as well as a sharer of cultural knowledge and language with youth in her community of Tuktoyaktuk.
When she first heard she had received the award, Nasogaluak was surprised. “There are probably ladies out there who deserve it more than I do,” she initially thought, asking the Status of Women Council of the NWT – which issues the awards – if she could have the weekend to think about hers.
“I never thought of myself as a wise woman,” she said. In the end, she decided to come to Yellowknife to receive it.
Nasogaluak spends time teaching students to prepare dry meat or prepare geese for eating and collect down. “And then I make little feather helicopters for them from the goose,” she said. “Kids really enjoy it … because some of them don’t get to go out to the spring camps to see these kinds of things.”
Nasogaluak is passing on her culture in other ways. She has recorded drum songs for youth who use them to learn the stories and songs of their ancestors. She teaches Inuvialuktun as a volunteer.
Tired of sitting on the sidelines waiting for her late husband to finish playing with his band, Nasogaluak taught herself how to play the bass guitar. She still, once in a while at services or gospel sing-a-longs, can be found playing.
From the Sahtu, Vicky Orlias
A “tireless advocate for women, children and youth,” Vicky Orlias of Fort Good Hope also works to help people who are homeless. She bakes bread and cooks hot meals for those who don’t have family support.
She shares on-the-land knowledge and crafts, as well as awareness of traditional medicines, with her community and local youth.
“Vicky is passionate about her language, her culture, and her home community,” presenters said.
Orlias is a two-time cancer survivor and winner of the 2015 Minister Responsible for Persons with Disabilities Award.
From the Tłı̨chǫ, Bertha Rabesca Zoe
A lawyer who has helped lead the Tłı̨chǫ to self-government, Bertha Rabesca Zoe is a Behchokǫ̀ resident and fluent Tłı̨chǫ speaker.
“If you love what you do, you get the energy and you get results,” said Rabesca Zoe, who sits on several of her government’s committees and is its laws guardian.
Rabesca Zoe believes she got involved with the Tłı̨chǫ process at the perfect time, as self-government was being negotiated. In 2005, the Tłı̨chǫ became the first in the territory to have negotiated a comprehensive land claim and self-government agreement.
“To be able to be part of self-government, to see it grow and flourish, and working with our treaty partners in making sure that our obligations, the obligations in the agreement are met… It’s been a real honour to be involved in that process,” she said.
Now a grandmother, Rabesca Zoe said she went to university when her children were young. “We do what we need to do as women. We multitask. We still need to get laundry done and dishes clean and make sure we have food in the fridge, regardless of what we do professionally and all the volunteer work that gets done,” she said in her acceptance speech.
From the North Slave, Betty Harnum
“I’ve learned so much and I just feel so honoured to have been able to share in a totally different worldview,” said Betty Harnum as she accepted her award.
Living in the North, in all three territories and Nunavik, “has changed me so much,” she said. “I was a little white kid growing up in Toronto, with no other cultural influences.
Harnum is a linguist and served as the first language commissioner for the NWT. She now leads the CBC’s efforts to archive 75,000 hours of recorded stories in eight Indigenous languages.
“She has learned northern Indigenous languages and taught them across the North, helping communities realize their vision of maintaining their traditional language, knowledge, and skills,” said newly elected Inuvik MLA Lesa Semmler, from remarks prepared by the Status of Women Council.
Harnum dedicated her award to Lucy Squirrel, the mother of a friend from Fort Providence, who passed away a few months ago. “She should have been getting this award and not me, but I appreciate being nominated.”
From the Dehcho, Lois Philipp
A Dene woman from Fort Providence, Lois Phillip is an educator whose “passion for youth, her community, and traditional culture and knowledge” were recognized on Thursday.
“Lois has worked with the Elders to ensure the continuity of the local language, culture and way of life. She has worked tirelessly with the youth in the school and on-the-land programs to ground them in their culture, language, and tradition,” said Martina Norwegian, a member of the Status of Women Council for the Dehcho.
Philipp has also mentored young people through post-secondary education.
She is a former principal and remains an active staff member at Deh Gáh Elementary and Secondary School. According to the Canadian Mountain Network, Philipp’s work to adapt programming and scheduling resulted in higher attendance and a “significant increase in the number of students attending post-secondary.”
From the South Slave, Tina McNeill
Tina McNeill’s dedication to the children, youth, women, and Elders of the Fort Smith community was recognized on Thursday.
Her involvement ranges from on-the-land youth programs to community drum circles, matriarchal healing gatherings, and leading the friendship centre movement.
McNeill is also a leader in advocating for people with disabilities, for which she received the 2019 Community Champion award. “Throughout more than 40 years, Tina has been of service to persons living with disabilities,” said Terry Hawkins, chair of the NWT Disabilities Council, presenting the award.
“Through her work as executive director of Uncle Gabe’s Friendship Centre, she has served to enrich the lives of countless children, youth, and Elders living with disabilities by providing hot and nutritious lunches, recreation opportunities, and sharing cultural knowledge.”
At 74 years old, McNeill said she has four walkers placed strategically to get her from place to place – and she still climbs the stairs to her office at the friendship centre every day.
“I was really surprised, blown away I was invited to come here and receive this award,” McNeill told the Status of Women Council’s Kristen Berkeley.
“I refuse to stay at home. I refuse to give up. I continue walking, I push myself.”