Live & Learn: Nellie Cournoyea

The CEO and chair of Inuvialuit Regional Corp. on survival.

Born March 4, 1940, in Aklavik, N.W.T. &#8226 CEO and Chair of Inuvialuit Regional Corp. • Survival expert

In the last 60 years there’s been so much change. It’s important that people adapt and have enough information so that they can move with those changes and not get lost.

Though Inuvialuit, or Inuit, businesses have survived and grown over the years, there’s always a feeling of doom and gloom: “Oh, they won’t survive, it’s a blip.”

The biggest problem we have is the patronizing attitude toward our involvement, not only in business, but in decisions about our own personal well-being. We’re going to be here forever, and our children are going to be here forever.

We’ve taken on a lot of the responsibility, but what we need is the respect. We don’t get the respect for the kind of responsibility we take on.

No one ever suggested we live in a cocoon. That was never something that any of us thought would continue to happen — that we would be left alone.

In the ’60s, companies from the oil and gas industries were being licensed from Ottawa, and we really couldn’t get a handle on working with them. It just kept getting worse and worse.

We were told we would have to institutionalize ourselves in order to combat and speak as a group. We thought, well, we’ve got too many changes and not enough attention paid to the voice of the people. So we put together the COPE.

COPE wasn’t liked very much. We had to step on a lot of toes. The government didn’t like it. They thought they were doing the best for everybody, and everybody should be happy about their programs and services — we should be grateful.

Negotiating a land claim in that time of history was a major accomplishment. I played a significant part in it, but it was not my accomplishment alone.

We have to look to some economic base to provide a range of opportunities to individuals for employment, to businesses and to the corporate group, otherwise we won’t survive.

Our economy is based on oil and gas. We don’t have a lot of mining potential, and the harvesting economy has been kicked to pieces by the protectionist organizations.

Business tends to be more isolated and focused on looking at the bottom line. You have to do that, but here we have to understand the connection between everyday life and operating the bigger business. We make the bottom line attractive so we can do more things for the community.

For us, the little gains you make in individual people and their understanding matter a lot to the success of the bigger business. You have to take the time so that people have an opportunity to understand what’s going on.

I’ve always been a person who’s liked to see things done. I’ve always been very inquisitive about how do you succeed and, no matter what it is, how do you do things better?

A lot of my mentors adopted me because I was willing. I got excited about what they wanted to do, and I was willing to do the work that was necessary to be successful.

I know my mother was going to Aklavik when I was born. I don’t know if she ever got to the hospital exactly, but I always say I was born there. That was not unusual, because you’re harvesters and you’re always travelling. You didn’t live in town, because you’d starve.

I got excited when new people came in — people were always moving around — and learned what they knew. Our elders knew the environment, they knew how to read the weather, they knew — just from their experience — where they should be moving next to follow the animals and the wildlife.

Survival is business. Most people don’t see it like that, but it is your business to survive. If you didn’t make enough from your own or your family’s efforts, you would lose. That type of living teaches you the strength you need, and to respect people around you who know better than you.

Running the IRC is always going to be a challenge. We’re still struggling to catch up in understanding all the hurdles that we have to face every day. Just when we’ve overcome a major barrier, another one comes up. Our main objective is to keep the IRC stabilized, so that the changes around us don’t tear it apart.

Failure is death. When people didn’t pay due attention to what others could teach them and what they could learn, they didn’t last long.