The right person gets the prize


There are many awards, honours and medals that governments and quasi-government organizations bestow upon those whose work has improved the quality of our lives.

Sometimes they go to the right people; sometimes they don’t.

When undeserving people win them, it’s usually because of some shallow political motive — such as an insincere desire to give token acknowledgment to an ignored group or a ploy aimed at elevating the reputation of a dysfunctional institution.

Last Friday, however, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson presented an award to someone who actually deserves one: Elisapie Ootoova of Pond Inlet. For this, the governor general and the committee that made the selection deserve our praise.

The award has an unwieldy title — “Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Person’s Case” — and a simple purpose. The purpose is to honour people who have contributed to the equality of women. The “person’s case” refers to a famous decision made by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1929 that said women must be considered “persons” — as men always had been. The award was created in 1979, to mark the 50th anniversary of the person’s case.

In presenting this award, the governor general is reminding us that the real heros of Nunavut society aren’t necessarily among the small but highly visible clique of professional bigshots who are continually re-elected to the same positions year after year. Unlike many Nunavut award-winners, Elisapie Ootoova has never held high office, or wielded power as a member of a political organization or government.

But she has made bigger and more lasting contributions to the quality of our lives than many better-known public figures.

For example, her encyclopedia of traditional Inuit knowledge, published by Arctic College in 1990, uses the Inuktitut language to record her generation’s special knowledge on paper, before it is forgotten. It’s an important practical document — and an expression of cultural pride.

Another written work is her Inuktitut dictionary of the Tununirmiut dialect. In the English-speaking world, people who make dictionaries, such as the great Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century author of the first English dictionary, are revered as towering geniuses. Inuktitut dictionary-makers, who go through the same laborious process of recording and defining words, deserve the same kind of recognition, and it’s refreshing for someone to get it.

Ootoova has also contributed to the health of her community and to improving the lives of women and their families through the work that she has done in organizing counselling groups for victims of spousal assault and child sexual abuse.

Though she may not own a bachelor of education degree, or any other such piece of paper, Ootoova deserves the title “teacher” more than many of those who actually practise teaching as a paid profession within the school system.

We’re sure our readers will agree that it’s a pleasure to see the right person get the right award. To Elisapie Ootoova, we offer our unreserved, and unabashed, congratulations.


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