Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Ottawa July 18, 2016 - 10:30 am

Helping hands: Remembering Suzanne Signoorie

“She was like a grandmother to me. She was a grandmother to everyone she knew”

Suzanne Signoorie, with her great granddaughter Rose Signoorie, who supplied the stickers for this framed photograph. (PHOTO BY COURTNEY EDGAR)
Suzanne Signoorie, with her great granddaughter Rose Signoorie, who supplied the stickers for this framed photograph. (PHOTO BY COURTNEY EDGAR)


OTTAWA — Janice Oolayou remembers her hands the clearest. These were hands used to sew tents; hands that lit the qulliq.

When they first met at Tungasuvvingat Inuit, where Oolayou works, Oolayou had told Suzanne Signoorie about her own grandmother’s similar hands, and how when Oolayou was a child she would pinch gently at the skin at the top of her grandmother’s hand, in a loving gesture. Signoorie then offered her hand to Oolayou to do the same.

After that, whenever they would see each other, Signoorie would offer her hand and Oolayou would gently, and with affection, pinch, pull and play with the loose, wrinkled skin.

“She was like a grandmother to me,” Oolayou said. “She was a grandmother to everyone she knew.”

Her name hasn’t yet been passed on to a family member but almost a year after her death, Signoorie’s memory lives on in the ways she has touched the people she loved and in the teachings she has shared.

Signoorie was born just outside of Cape Dorset at Nurataq. She passed away Aug. 6, 2015 during a trip to Pond Inlet. She was, according to family, 89 years old.

Here is how her son, John Takawgak, remembers her, and some of the stories he told.

Takawgak says Signoorie’s family was relocated from Cape Dorset to Devon Island in the 1930s or 1940s. There, she took on the role of traditional teacher and elder to the other women who had also been relocated.

It wasn’t easy there. Signoorie wasn’t prepared for 24-hour darkness, says Takawgak, who spoke to Nunatsiaq News in Ottawa.

Inuit there learned to feel shame around eating raw meat, Takawgak said, so they hid that practice, and other traditions, when non-Inuit visited. Signoorie hadn’t been prepared for that either.

Signoorie’s father was a skilled hunter and that’s why the family was chosen, along with other North Baffin families, to be relocated to Devon Island, Takawgak said.

They were expected to hunt and supply pelts to the Hudson’s Bay Company. According to historical records, many of them went on to help establish the community of Spence Bay, later called Taloyoak.

Signoorie met her partner, and the father of her 13 children, on Devon Island. He was a member of the Anglican church and although she became a believer in the Bible and frequented the church, Signoorie also taught life skills to the other Inuit women who came to the area from small villages. According to her son, Signoorie served as a bridge between the cultures there.

“She taught them things like how to sew curtains and how to cook for the white men,” Takawgak said. “But she also helped to keep throat singing alive up there.”

But for the majority of her life, she kept her traditional beliefs inside, Takawgak said. It was only in her final decade that Signoorie opened up, describing her experiences with relocation and assimilation, sharing a history her son had never known.

He knew her as a very strong and independent woman — she would go anywhere by herself. When she wanted to do something, she would get it done, he said, adding she also made the best bannock.

She was brave even late in life, moving to Ottawa about 10 years ago, on her own, not knowing how to speak English.

She never spoke it fluently but learned enough to manage nonetheless and even worked with TI, the Ottawa-based Inuit service agency, on community projects that required Inuktitut translation.

In partnership with the Akausivik Health Centre, Signoorie also helped health care personnel translate the names of body parts and symptoms from English to Inuktitut to better serve Inuit patients in Ottawa.

Last year, she also collaborated with the Centre Ontarien pour la Prévention des agressions, taking part in discussions for their anti-bullying and child abuse prevention kit to ensure that the information package created was culturally-appropriate for First Nations, Métis and Inuit audiences.

Signoorie helped to narrate animated films that were part of COPA’s toolkit for children, educators and parents.

Unfortunately, she never got a chance to watch the film because she passed away before the project was completed.

Though she lived in Ottawa at the end of her life, she died in Pond Inlet.

She would often get pneumonia when she went up north in the last few years, after she had had a stroke, her son said. Takawgak believes she purposefully went there last summer to die.

“What I learned from her is that when people get old and start to accept death while still living, they talk about their friends who have passed on,” he said. “She would tell me about her dreams where her friends who have already died are calling her to join them.”

She would also invite him over just to give him things.

One of her final gifts to him was an eagle feather which she got from an Aboriginal elder she had worked with in Vancouver during ceremonial gatherings.

Before giving it to him, she told her son, “I have something very special for you.” She went into her room and brought back the feather explaining that it was meant to be a symbol for his father’s side of the family, who was First Nations.

Takawgak still has the feather. He likely always will. When he holds it, he thinks of both his parents.

Signoorie gave many gifts to the Inuit communities she was a part of — traditional knowledge, practical craft teachings, guidance for women and children, translations and throat singing.

During her full life that shaped them — and despite the challenges and hardships — her hands were busy and strong beneath the wrinkles. And for that these will likely not be forgotten.

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