‘Believe in yourself’: Inuit women share their ingredients for success on International Women’s Day

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In the days leading up to March 8 — International Women’s Day — Bernice Kootoo Clarke and five other Inuit women shared parts of their paths to becoming businesswomen, politicians and community leaders.

Bernice Clarke and her daughter Alethea. Bernice went back to school to learn to teach Inuktitut so she could teach the language to her daughter. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

International Women’s Day is Bernice Kootoo Clarke’s favourite day of the year — the day she gets to celebrate everything she and other women have accomplished.

That celebration is a vital ingredient, she says, in the recipe for reaching your dreams.

“We must celebrate ourselves,” she said. “When we’re reaching, reaching, reaching and we hit goals, celebrating yourself is part of it all.”

In the days leading up to March 8 — International Women’s Day — Clarke and five other Inuit women shared stories from their paths to becoming businesswomen, politicians and community leaders.

Clarke, who lives in Iqaluit, recalls how as a young girl, she dreamed of running a business. Now, as the owner of Uasau Soap, Clarke says she’s been on a journey of healing.

“I’ve learned to let go of that voice that says, ‘You don’t know how, you can’t do this,’ ” she said. “I am growing as a businessperson to find my voice and my confidence.”

She’s worth it, she says — though it has been a long road and she’s still trying to be the sort of person who inspires her children. A big part of that is embracing her culture and language.

Clarke says she went back to school to learn to teach Inuktitut so her 10-year-old daughter, Alethea, could learn it.

“If we lose that, we feel lost. And I got sick of that feeling,” she said.

“I’m going to heal, I’m going to learn my language, I’m going to learn my ways. I’m going to show pride. I’m going to wear my amauti, I’m going to wear my tattoos. This is me — I am grounded and rooted through my culture, through my language.”

Clarke with her daughter. Clarke says she is still trying to be the sort of person who inspires her children. (submitted by Bernice Clarke)

‘Women have so much to offer’

Clara Evalik, from Cambridge Bay, is the vice-president of economic development for the Kitikmeot Inuit Association.

She says there are many women out there who support each other by passing on their skills and teaching their traditional knowledge to younger generations. Evalik does a lot of sewing, and said she has taught her daughters how to do so as well. 

“Women have so much to offer,” she said. “I think if we promoted women in communities, our communities would thrive.”

As for women who are struggling to meet their own goals, Evalik’s advice is to reach out for help and look for a mentor.

“Focus on what you want to do. Focus on revitalizing your culture, because your culture is so important,” she said.

Clara Evalik and Agnes Panioyak at a puhitaq (sunburst) making workshop in Cambridge Bay, NU. Evalik is the vice-president of economic development for the Kitikmeot Inuit Association. (Submitted by Clara Evalik )

Women supporting women

Mary Simon, Canada’s Governor General, told CBC some of her earliest influences include her grandmother and her mother, both of whom were unilingual Inuit who taught her to understand and live her culture.

As she progressed through her career, Simon connected with and mentored other women. Sometimes, she faced challenges like being the only woman on a board.

“I have always felt that it’s really important to have the voice of women in discussions and also in the decision-making process,” she said.

Simon pointed to some of the barriers women still face in the workforce, such as income and daycare services — and noted the COVID-19 pandemic has created barriers of its own as women have had to leave their jobs to care for their children when school was cancelled.

“We have to remember — and more than that, bring them back into the workforce,” she said.

Governor General Mary May Simon said her grandmother and her mother taught her to understand and live in her culture. (CBC)

Sheila Flaherty is an Iqaluit chef who founded sijjakkut, a business that specializes in Inuit dishes. She’s also a city councillor.

She says throughout her life, women have inspired her and supported her — first, her late mother, who she says was her “biggest fan”; and later, women like Simon, who she worked with.

“It just goes on and on — with every venture, every pursuit that I’ve been in over the years, it’s always been a woman who’s inspired me,” she said.

“If you’re questioning yourself and your abilities, look to women,” she said. “There’s a lot of support.”

Sheila Flaherty is an Iqaluit city councillor and chef who founded sijjakkut, a business that specializes in Inuit dishes. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Pamela Gross is Nunavut’s education minister and MLA for Cambridge Bay.

She says Inuit women have adapted over the years to balance modern life with traditional knowledge.

“As Inuit women, we’re fortunate to have our ancestors who are so strong, have so much wisdom and lived experiences on the land that shapes us who we are today, and the path that we go forward,” she said.

“There’s women that are setting precedents and achieving milestones daily, and to have women across our territory and in our country that are moving mountains is always so amazing.”

Pamela Gross, the MLA for Cambridge Bay, pictured Nov. 17, 2021. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

Feed your creative side

Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, an Inuk artist based in Iqaluit, says the key for working with and for women is trust. That helps turn business relationships into something closer to a friendship, she said.

The message she wants to share is simple:

“Listen to yourself, rest and feed yourself with creativity on a daily basis, and you’ll be able to accomplish the things that you believe in,” she said.

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