Gail Cyr’s computer recently ate her résumé. The time she had to spend reconstructing her career partly explains her admission to the Order of Canada.
Yellowknife resident Cyr was on Wednesday appointed a Member of the Order of Canada by Governor General Mary Simon. A ceremony at Ottawa’s Rideau Hall, on hold because of Covid-19, will take place at a later date.
Cyr is recognized, the governor general’s office said in a news release, “for her distinguished career in municipal politics and for her advocacy on behalf of missing and murdered women and victims of abuse.”
Since moving to Yellowknife from Manitoba in the 1970s, Cyr has served as a tireless advocate for Indigenous people, particularly those left vulnerable or without a voice.
Asked which among her many roles stands out, Cyr confided: “My computer crashed and I lost my résumé, and I had to really sit down and write out all of the different things that I had done over the years.
“I’ve enjoyed my life. I have enjoyed everything that I’ve done. I’ve been really lucky, finding jobs the way I have – or making them.”
One of the most important jobs Cyr made was her creation of the Native Court Workers Association and her role as executive director.
She left a job at what was then the Indian Brotherhood of the NWT – now the Dene Nation – to form and lead an organization that helped Indigenous people navigate the territory’s justice system. She remained in charge of the association for more than a decade.
“It was fairly new after the GNWT had moved in,” Cyr said this week, describing a time shortly after the establishment of the territorial government, “and so there were a lot of laws being passed. A lot of people were kind-of taken aback by, suddenly, all the charges they were going to be facing. Even the judges at the time wanted this program to get started.
“Forty years later, I still have people call me when they’re having issues.”
Cyr subsequently spent a decade on Yellowknife’s city council. She used that experience to help NWT communities run their local elections in the 1990s and 2000s, then in 2007 became special advisor to the minister responsible for the status of women – at the time Charles Dent and subsequently Bob McLeod.
Cyr and Dent are now reunited as members of the NWT Human Rights Commission.
Acknowledging her role as a lifelong advocate for others, Cyr attributed her life’s path to the injustice she saw around her as a young woman in Manitoba and the North.
“When I was growing up, things were pretty tough on us,” she said.
“We were either held back, underestimated, not given chances to do things, or overlooked… and sometimes violently. That’s the reason why I became an advocate. I could see what was happening to other people.
“You’d try to talk about it and people would say you misunderstood, downplaying everything and any emotions you had about it.”
She says things are “getting much better” but maintains that tokenism persists in some quarters and people fail to understand life in the NWT’s smaller communities.
Cyr said she will now spend time advocating for other northerners to be similarly recognized.
“I’m overwhelmed,” she said. “I was stunned, and then honoured. There must be more people that deserve it more than I do.”
Other northerners honoured on Wednesday include Cambridge Bay’s Charlie Kakotok Evalik, recognized for his vision as a negotiator and “architect of the social and economic development of Nunavut,” and former Nunavut MLA Red Pedersen, appointed following his contributions “to the growth and development of public government in the North.”
Graham Farquharson, who developed and managed Canada’s first mine north of the Arctic Circle – Nanisivik, on Baffin Island – also becomes a Member of the Order of Canada.
Two people are made Companions of the Order of Canada, the Order’s highest level. They are Yann Martel, the author best known for his novel Life of Pi, and Murray Sinclair, who chaired the residential schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 2009 to 2015.