It was an honour to serve Nunavummiut: outgoing commissioner
“Use your role to educate and advocate”
Over her five-year term as Commissioner of Nunavut, Edna Elias has given her time, her energy and her hair.
The latter Elias has shaved off in years past, and she did so last weekend, ahead of the Women in Action — Steps of Hope walk she helped found to raise money and awareness of breast cancer in the territory.
The simple but dedicated act is done to “respect and honour” those who have lost their hair during their own battles with cancer, Elias said.
It also draws a crowd and helps raise money for the group’s upcoming walk from Hall Beach to Igloolik.
“I’m glad to be wrapping up my role as commissioner with a walk,” Elias said from her home in Iqaluit last week.
“But it’s become a thing of its own and something I will carry on.”
Her term as commissioner comes to an end May 11.
The Commissioner of Nunavut is considered the vice-regal head of state for the territory, acting in a role similar to that of the Governor General of Canada and provincial lieutenant governors.
“It has been a very honourable position that’s had so much support from Nunavummiut,” she said. “Especially elders, because they really understand the role as a representative of the Queen.”
“Although I also did a lot of presentations in high schools over the years to explain the role of commissioner to youth,” she added.
“We needed to educate the public. It’s pretty much a ceremonial role, but it’s still critical to how the territory functions.”
An educator and language specialist from Kugluktuk, Elias began her career as an elementary school teacher in the Kitikmeot community, where she also served as mayor for a time.
Through the 1980s, she served as director of the Northwest Territories Department of Culture and Communications, and later as co-chair of the territory’s Aboriginal Language Task Force.
In the 1990s, Elias owned and operated her own interpretation, translation and consulting business in Edmonton, where she also founded the Edmonton Inuit Cultural Society.
More recently, Elias worked an interpreter for the Government of Nunavut.
But it was her years serving as Commissioner that opened her eyes to the wealth of talent across Nunavut, despite the challenges the territory faces.
Honouring Nunavummiut across the territory for their accomplishments brought so much pride and satisfaction to the job, Elias said.
“There are so many caring and sharing people in Nunavut,” she said.
Her most memorable moment as commissioner was an impromptu visit to Cape Dorset in late 2012 to deliver the Order of Nunavut to famed artist Kenojuak Ashevak, who was ill at the time and unable to travel to Iqaluit to receive the honour.
Kenojuak, who died just months later in January 2013, was still very aware at the time, Elias said.
“When we told her what it was for, the smile and the sparkle in her eyes,” Elias said. “She was very surprised and appreciative.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced earlier this month that the five-member advisory committee on vice-regal appointments has begun its search for candidates for the territory’s next commissioner.
To the next commissioner of Nunavut, Elias encourages he or she to spearhead projects that correspond with their own interests and goals for the territory.
“My passion has been raising awareness of healthy living,” she said.
“It’s important not to just stick to the job title. Use your role to educate and advocate in a non-political way.”