Former Pauktuutit executive director Tracy O’Hearn is being remembered as a passionate advocate for Inuit women. She died on Dec. 11 in Ottawa after experiencing heart-related health issues. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Campbell)

Pauktuutit executive director Tracy O’Hearn remembered as a humorous, hard-working leader

O’Hearn, who is credited with helping Pauktuutit grow as an organization, died at 62 in Ottawa on Dec. 11

By Jeff Pelletier

Samantha Michaels was a staffer in the office of then-Liberal Indigenous affairs critic Carolyn Bennett around 2014 when she heard Tracy O’Hearn, the executive director of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, speak to a House of Commons committee about issues Inuit women face in Canada.

Michaels said that O’Hearn’s remarks inspired her to apply for a position at Pauktuutit. For the next six years, she worked closely with O’Hearn, and watched as Pauktuutit grew from a small office, scrambling for funding, to an organization able to tackle many projects and issues with a larger staff.

Michaels described O’Hearn as a hardworking, caring leader, who listened to her team and cared deeply about Inuit women.

On Dec. 11, O’Hearn died at the age of 62 in Ottawa, following a series of heart problems.

Tracy O’Hearn, at the podium, is seen in this undated photo, speaking in her role as executive director of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Campbell)

Her death was unexpected, family and friends say, but they’ll always remember her dedication to her work, the compassion she showed to the people she met, and her “stubborn” Irish sense of humour.

O’Hearn was born on Oct. 31, 1959, in Ottawa. She was an only child, and she was raised by her single mother, Doreen O’Hearn.

From an early age, O’Hearn grew up surrounded by women who were involved in the advancement of gender equality in Ottawa, says lifelong friend Bonnie Diamond, who Diamond worked with at Ottawa City Hall with O’Hearn’s mother.

In the 1980s, Diamond was the director of research with the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women and hired O’Hearn to join her research team. During that period, she found her passion in working with Indigenous women to make sure their voices were heard and their issues were prioritized.

“She travelled the North during our consultations, met with many, many leaders and women of all natures in the North,” she said. “She was absolutely committed to the work she was doing.”

In the 1990s, O’Hearn became involved with Pauktuutit, where she worked with Inuit women to facilitate a platform for them to discuss their issues. Diamond said women’s organizations often left Indigenous voices out of the conversation, and that O’Hearn helped change that.

More recently, as Pauktuutit’s executive director, O’Hearn was an “amazing” co-worker and mentor, and passionate advocate for the prevention of violence against Inuit women and children, Michaels said.

When Michaels joined Pauktuutit, she described the organization as having a small office and limited resources. But Michaels said that O’Hearn helped lead many successful initiatives, including a public service campaign to address child sexual abuse.

Michaels said one of the lasting legacies O’Hearn spearheaded was the 2017 memorandum of understanding between Pauktuutit and the federal government.

Michaels said O’Hearn’s behind-the-scenes work helped ensure the Canadian government would provide consistent and long-term funding for Pauktuutit.

“It established that the government would give us core funding of a million dollars, and that’s something Pauktutit never had because we were funded project-to-project,” she said.

O’Hearn was also described as a loving family member.  An only child, she was very close with her cousins, who treated her like a sister. By extension, Kelly Campbell says she looked up to O’Hearn as an “aunty” she was fortunate to have in her life.

Campbell said O’Hearn’s passion for social justice and her humorous Irish charm rubbed off on the family, and that she went above and beyond to show her care.

Over the years, something Campbell says she noticed about O’Hearn was her humility. As a white woman at the top of an Inuit organization, Campbell says her aunt never wanted to take the place of an Inuit woman at conferences and events.

“It’s always been something that I have admired so much because it shows there’s no ego,” Campbell said.

While O’Hearn spent much of the past year in hospital, unable to have large groups of visitors due to the pandemic, Campbell said she was still in bright spirits in her final days.

Due to the COVID-19 situation in Ontario, O’Hearn’s family is planning a virtual celebration of life to take place mid-January. Instead of flowers, they are asking people to donate to the Ottawa Heart Institute and the Ottawa Humane Society.

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(7) Comments:

  1. Posted by Harry Adams on

    My Condolence to Tracy O’Hearn Family and relatives! As a member of the Canadian Aboriginal HIV/AIDS Network (CIHAN). Tracy was always Welcoming to her Committee members and direct on the programs and issues that had to be delivered and resolved during our meetings. Tracy was accommodating and reassuring that the right information provided. She will be surely missed!

    Thank you Tracy, may you rest in peace.

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  2. Posted by Claudette on

    This is the Tracy I knew since working with her on the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women. Her absolute commitment and dedication to Inuit women never waned. May she Rest In Peace. She will be missed🙏🏼

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  3. Posted by Mosesie on

    Oh No! God be with you. Such a humble and easy to laugh person. Fierce advocate. May you rest well gentle soul with warrior spirit.

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  4. Posted by David Boult on

    I first met Tracy at a Pauktuutit AGM in Goose Bay in 1989. I borrowed the van we had rented and took a group of delegates on a tour of Northwest River. Tracy was with the Panel on Violence Against Women at the time and I invited her to come with us. We had a lot of laughs that day and we became immediate friends. That friendship lasted right up until she passed. She worked tirelessly to advocate for Inuit women for over 30 years. Through good times and bad, she never lost her focus and fought to make the world a better place for Inuit women and children. I will toast her memory tonight and will always remember her humour and dedication.

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  5. Posted by Minnie Grey on

    I am saddened to hear of Tracy’s passing. My condolences to all those that knew and worked with her. She was a great supporter to Inuit women.
    Rest in Peace Tracy O’Hearn.

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  6. Posted by Inuk woman on

    Bittersweet. Now we can see her rest in peace. We can also look forward to bringing back Inuit women as heads of Pauktuutit. So many are hurting so many Inuit women need to be redeemed for years of being ousted from this organization. Inuit women once dominated the roles in upper management as well as middle management. Time to restructure this place as a true representation of who we are as Inuit in the workplace. It’s time to pick up the pieces. This is not an attack on this woman, it is a reflection of what went on while the board of directors past and present were ousted because they raised their voices. Inuit women in the workplace matter, especially one that represents us.

  7. Posted by Susan on

    I had the privilege to work a bit with Tracy over the years and I was always struck by her passion, diligence, and calm but strong voice for improving the lives of Inuit women. She was such a warm and well-spoken person. She will be greatly missed.

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