Cournoyea Nellie

Nellie Cournoyea is a contemporary Inuvialuit known for her diligence and dedication in her efforts to assist northerners, particularly the Inuit of the Northwest Territories, to keep pace with northern development while maintaining their traditional culture. She was one of the founders of the Committee for Original People's Entitlement (COPE), a negotiator and signatory to the Inuvialuit Final Agreement (IFA), member, minister, and premier of the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories and the first aboriginal woman to lead a provincial or territorial government in Canada.

In 1996, Cournoyea was elected chairperson/chief executive officer of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation and continues in that role. Inuvialuit-owned corporations are significant players in northern development. They are involved in preservation of their land base and in maintaining traditional cultural activities.

Activists Cournoyea and Agnes Semmler (a Gwich'in representative) founded COPE because they were concerned about how oil exploration activities were disturbing the environment and interfering with hunting and trapping activities. COPE helped unify northern aboriginals and determine common goals. Subsequently, COPE and other regional Inuit organizations formed the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (presently known as Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami).

Cournoyea was one of the negotiators of the 1984 IFA which gave the Inuvialuit mineral rights to 11,000 km of land, wildlife harvesting rights, wildlife and habitat protection measures, participation in land uses to an area of 90,000 km, as well as a cash settlement and other benefits. The Final Agreement however stopped short of self-government.

Cournoyea was twice elected and twice acclaimed to the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly in the riding of Nunakput district. She was a member for the riding of Nunakput for 16 years beginning in 1979. Her ministerial responsibilities included Renewable Resources and Culture and Communications from 1983 to 1985, Health, Energy, Mines and Resources and the Public Utilities Board in 1987, Public Works and Highways in 1988, and responsibility for the Workers' Compensation Board in 1988-1999 and the Northwest Territories Power Corporation in 1989.

As minister of Renewable Resources from 1983 to 1985 and Energy, Mines and Resources in 1987, she worked toward a Northern Accord that would transfer the control of Northern resources from Ottawa to the government of the Northwest Territories. The Northern Accord would have transferred such issues as subsurface management, issuing of rights and permits and other regulatory powers to the Territories as well as tax and royalty revenues. However, Northwest Territories towns and hamlets, with predominantly aboriginal populations, anticipated the settlement of land claims and self-government. They had concerns that the Accord would concentrate more power in the capital city of Yellowknife. Their representatives in the legislative assembly hence did not support the Accord.

Cournoyea was selected government leader by the members of the Legislative Assembly in 1991; until 1995 she continued to work toward a transfer of responsibility for oil and gas and minerals. In a time of reductions to federal funding to the Northwest Territories, she also devoted herself to streamlining government operations and handing over more responsibilities to community leaders. In order to provide employment opportunities to Northerners, she worked at linking income support payment to job training; she required capital projects to maximize employment and contracts with northerners; and she supported a strategy for community well being. These actions were designed simultaneously to cut costs and reduce government involvement in community affairs. Cournoyea's title of government leader was formally changed to premier in 1995, the same year that Yukon and the Northwest Territories were accepted at Canada's First Ministers Conferences. As premier she was a signatory on behalf of the Government of the Northwest Territories to the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement in which Canada agreed to the creation of a new territory, Nunavut, and which, in effect, would redefine the existing Territories.

Cournoyea was elected chairperson/chief executive officer of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation in 1996. The Corporation administers the benefits received by the Inuvialuit under the 1984 IFA. In January 2000, at the Berger Hearings, 25 years after the aboriginal people of the Northwest Territories had objected to a Mackenzie valley pipeline because of concerns with regard to erosion of traditional ways of living, Cournoyea joined with all Northwest Territories aboriginal leaders to support the building of the project. This time the anticipated pipeline would include aboriginal ownership.

Cournoyea has consistently acknowledged that northern development is inevitable and has worked to ensure that northerners receive the benefit of this development, but is adamant that it occur in an environmentally sound, socially responsible and culturally sensitive way. She supports traditional and sustainable practices of hunting, fishing, and trapping, and encourages sewing and traditional artistic endeavors. She has been an advocate of a traditional food diet.


Nellie J. Cournoyea was born in Aklavik in the Canadian Northwest Territories in 1940 to a Norwegian-born trapper and an Inuvialuit woman. She was the second of Nels and Maggie Hvatum's 11 children and traveled by dogsled with her family as a child while they hunted caribou, muskrat, seal, and other wildlife along the Arctic coastline. At 17, after completing Grade 10 through correspondence courses that she completed at the Federal Aklavik Day School, she met and married a Canadian Forces officer in Inuvik. Shortly after returning to the Mackenzie Delta in the early 1960s, they divorced. She worked for the Canada Broadcasting Corporation in Inuvik, first as a radio announcer and later as regional manager while raising two children. Cournoyea received honorary degrees from University of Toronto, Lakehead, and Lethbridge and in 1994 she won an Aboriginal Achievement award.

Doris McCann

See also Committee for Original Peoples' Entitlement (COPE); Inuvialuit Final Agreement; Northwest Territories

Further Reading

Bergman, Brian, "Guarding her territory." MacLean's, 8/10/92, 105(32) (1992)

Dickason, Olive, Canada's First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1992 Dickerson, Mark, Whose North?, Vancouver: UBC Press, 1992 Nemeth, Mary, "A great country," MacLean's, 10/16/95, 108(42) (1995)

Purich, D., The Inuit and Their Land: The Story of Nunavut,

Toronto: James Lorimer, 1982 Traynor, Fiona & Cooper, Langford, "The lost accord." Far North Oil and Gas Review (1999)

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