This Sunday is International Women’s Day, and what better time to share the story of Mary Panigusiq Cousins, an extraordinary figure from the Arctic.
Mary was one of the few females to travel aboard the St. Roch, but history will remember her for so much more than that. She was a nurse, a teacher, an artist, an ambassador for the North, an Inuit rights activist and a Nunavut elder.
She was born in 1938 in Saattut, an Inuit camp on Baffin Island. The family later moved to Pond Inlet when her father, Lazaroosie Kyak, was appointed a special constable with the RCMP.
In 1944 Henry Larsen, captain of the St. Roch, hired Joe Panikpak and his family as temporary crew for the return leg of the St. Roch’s trip across the Northwest Passage. Mary’s grandmother was to work as a seamstress on the ship, and since she wouldn’t go anywhere without her granddaughter, six-year-old Mary Paniqusiq joined the historic voyage.
Henry Larsen maintained a relationship with Mary and her family, and even helped place Mary in a school in Hamilton in 1953 when her father wanted to further her education. Mary planned to learn nursing but changed her focus to teaching.
Her nursing experience was helpful when she travelled on C.D. Howe, a medical ship heading to Pond Inlet. She was trying to get home for a visit and ended up helping as an interpreter. She eventually became the chief medical interpreter on C.D. Howe and spent five summers travelling to remote Inuit communities helping with tuberculosis screening.
Mary went on to get job editing Inuktitut, the Department of Northern Affairs Inuit-language magazine in 1958. She also wrote articles and did illustrations for the magazine.
In 1969 she was appointed to Vanier Institute of the Family, a charitable organization. She later founded Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), a national organization that today continues to advocate for the health and wellbeing the Inuit.
Mary’s work on Inuit rights led her to realize that many Inuit were unable to speak Inuktituk. This inspired her to begin teaching the Inuit language in schools. She also taught about the Inuit way of life. Among her many teaching tools were her own paintings of Inuit daily life.
Mary dedicated her life to preserving Inuit language and culture, both in the North and abroad, travelling as far as Ghana to share the Inuit way of life with the rest of the world.
Mary Panigusiq Cousins died in 2007, but her important contribution to Arctic communities will never be forgotten.