• Louie Kamookak, Nunavut, Gjoa Haven, obituary, tribute, RCGS, explorer, Franklin

    Louie Kamookak’s efforts to collect and pass on the stories of Inuit Elders directly contributed to the discovery of Sir John Franklin’s HMS Erebus, proving the value of oral history, says Leona Aglukkaq. (Illustration: Robert Carter)

On March 22, 2018, I learned of the passing of my friend and fellow Uqsuqturmiut (Gjoa Haven citizen), Louie Kamookak. 

There are no words to describe Louie’s contribution to validating the presence of Inuit traditional knowledge and oral history in research. Only time will demonstrate the impact that his work will have on future efforts to incorporate the vast knowledge held by Inuit of Canada’s Arctic into history and science.

I want to share with you a moment I had following the discovery of HMS Erebus: my recollection of sharing that news with Louie.

On Sept. 10, 2014, after Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced to the world that one of Sir John Franklin’s lost ships had been found, I made the long trip home from Ottawa, where I was serving as Minister of Environment and Parks Canada, to share with my community what had transpired, but also to celebrate and acknowledge the many years of oral history collected from our ancestors that contributed to the discovery. 

At the community celebration, I took the time to explain in Inuktitut what had happened. You could see the pride and excitement on the faces of people both young and old. You could also see hope — hope for what future opportunities this discovery could hold for our community and our youth.

For Louie in particular, however, this was about much more than the moment of the discovery. Just as I had realized when my staff first showed me the ship’s location on a map, he knew that Inuit oral history was about to take on a huge role in a national and international preoccupation. The ship had been found exactly where Inuit have always said it would be. 

As I spoke in the Gjoa Haven community hall, Louie sat to my left, modestly taking it all in, listening and watching. When I announced where the ship had been discovered, I turned to him, to thank him for his lifelong commitment to collecting oral history from our Elders. He could not have been more proud; I could not have been more proud; the entire community could not have been more proud. Louie was taken with emotion, because that moment was proof that Inuit stories and knowledge could not be refuted; his life’s work held true.

After all the speeches had been made at that community celebration, I shared a private moment with Louie, where I asked him, “So, Louie, which ship is it?” Without hesitation and with a grin on his face, he said “Erebus.” He was right, of course. Months later, scientists confirmed this to be the case.

Since the discovery, Louie has travelled the country, proudly sharing the value of Inuit oral history and knowledge. He was recognized by the Commissioner of Nunavut, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society and many other organizations for his life’s work. Louie, a great ambassador for Inuit, will be remembered fondly.