Fourth time’s a charm
Cathy Towtongie ran for the presidency of NTI three times before finally winning in December. Now she has a vision to change the organization
Cathy Towtongie says there’s been a change in the wind. “Saqiyuq,” she says, explaining that the word is old, but appropriate for the atmosphere today at Nunavut Tungavik Incorporated.
On Dec. 10, Towtongie was elected president of the Inuit organization charged with ensuring beneficiaries get what they are promised under the Nunavut land claim agreement.
She moved into her office at NTI’s Iqaluit headquarters just a month ago, but she has been on a whirlwind ride ever since.
Today, she’s running a bit late. But the lobby is roomy and comfortable, and has lots of magazines. Many of them still bear labels with former president Paul Quassa’s name.
Quassa was suspended by the NTI board of directors in October 2000 because of irregularities in his use and reporting of petty cash, travel expenses and an NTI credit card. He was reinstated after re-paying almost $26,000. Then, in July, he resigned citing personal reasons.
Towtongie has taken the helm of an organization that, she admits, has been going through a period of instability.
“We have to build a lot of credibility back into the organization, not only for the Inuit, but for the federal and territorial governments,” she says. “The credibility that was lost has to be gained back.”
She says the best way to do that is to adopt proper policies and procedures so beneficiaries can see what is going on in the organization and how their money is being spent.
“More confident each day”
Art hangs on the walls of the president’s office, and large intricate carvings grace the table tops. Light streams in through windows onto an enormous desk and a long meeting table.
“It’s opulence,” Towtongie says. “I was very quiet when I got here.”
Towtongie ran for president three times before winning and had never seen the president’s office, nor the house and car that come with the job.
“I’m feeling more confident each day,” she says. “I’ve always owned my own car, my own house. I’ve never been a welfare recipient. Things that I’ve worked for I’ve earned, so this is a new experience for me.”
At the same time, she says, she’s aware that her job comes with huge responsibilities and high expectations. In March, she will be playing host to international guests during the Arctic Winter Games and in the next few days she’ll have to charm the Icelandic ambassador, who is in town for a visit.
Helping her manage her massive new role is her new executive assistant, Caroline Anawak. One of two doors in Towtongie’s office connects with Anawak’s office. Her experience in the field of suicide prevention made Anawak a natural addition, Towtongie says, as social problems and Nunavut’s economy are the issues she has chosen to tackle during her two-year term.
“I’m interested in small Inuit firms, like carvers and seamstresses, and to see how we can get some of the sewing skills back,” Towtongie says. There is little in place to help these artists market their wares. “They are going table to table, office to office and they are devaluing their labour.”
She has asked her staff to look into strategies on how to jump-start Nunavut’s economy. “Economics in Nunavut is the key,” she says. “We need an infrastructure, we need docking facilities, we need housing.”
“The foundation is there”
Towtongie walks through the halls of the NTI offices, boasting the organization has the cream of the crop of Nunavut talent.
“I’m actually glad I lost the first three elections because now the internal structures and the offices are put in place,” she says. “The foundation is there.” Towtongie won’t have direct responsibility for her staff. The NTI board has adopted the Carver Model of management, in which the CEO is responsible for operational concerns and the president handles the big picture.
And that’s not easy work. Towtongie has been working hard in her first month on the job. Aside from having read the land claim agreement article by article, she says she has regularly been putting in 12-hour days.
She walks down a corridor and quietly closes the door on a meeting room. It’s a think-tank she explains. The group is brainstorming ways to make the NTI newsletter more informative.
“I want more information so people can actually see the dollars, actually see the resolutions and see what happened to the resolutions,” she says.
Just around the corner is the legal department, which looks out over Federal Road. She points out that legal advice is important for implementing new policies, such as the declaration of conflict of interest now required at the beginning of each board meeting. She says the staff want to see things done properly as well.
“I told them it’s for their protection and my protection,” she says. “As president, I can’t screw around with beneficiaries’ dollars.”
Heading back toward her office, Towtongie takes a turn into a dimly lit conference room. “I didn’t even know this was here until last week,” she smiles.
She sits at the table and looks up, explaining the domed roof is symbolic of an igloo and the colored lights part way up the wall represent the northern lights.
She puts her head on her hands and becomes philosophical. She says there are things she would like to see done differently in the territory.
“I’ve always said Nunavut is two, not one,” she says. There is the land claim deal which started eight years ago, serving Inuit beneficiaries, and there is the government of Nunavut, which started in 1999, serving all of Nunavut. “It’s the two processes at the same time interacting with each other. There are overlapping concerns, issues, so nobody has a clear vision.”
But Towtongie does. She says she wants to see beneficiaries benefit from the land deal whether monetarily, socially or in the employment realm.
“It’s making the land deal be a tool [for beneficiaries]. Not just for themselves today, but for their unborn children” she says.
Creative thinking is required, she warns, if Inuit beneficiaries are to get more money from the federal government and the rights they are entitled to as aboriginals.
“I’ve told our staff it’s going to be an interesting two years. Saqiyuq — the wind shifts and it has shifted. There are hunters out there who can hunt with the change of the wind,” she says, a grin spreading across her face, “and I’m on the prey.”