Inspiring Inuit leadership
Inuk Woman of Year builds cultural, community support cornerstone
Nikki Komaksiutiksak has always had a fire in her belly and passion in her soul for helping people.
The 39-year-old, originally from Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, and now living in Winnipeg, was recently named 2023 Inuk Woman of the Year by Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada.
“These awards recognize the important contributions recipients are making within their communities and the inspiration they provide to other Inuit women,” Pauktuutit president Gerri Sharpe said in a statement.
Nikki Komaksiutiksak, executive director of Tunngasugit Inuit resource centre in Winnipeg, was recently honoured by the Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada. Tunngasugit has grown rapidly since its launch three years and will be moving to a larger location later this year.
“As an organization, we believe in strengthening the leadership capacity of Inuit women, particularly those who are bridging the gap for women across Inuit Nunangat and Inuit Nunangiit (urban).”
Komaksiutiksak has made it her life’s work to advocate for Indigenous peoples, specifically Inuit, because she says many come to the Manitoba capital and are not met with adequate supports and are falling through systemic cracks.
Sitting at her desk in the converted apartment building adjacent to Tunngasugit, at 818 Sargent Ave., she is humble about the honour.
Komaksiutiksak is no stranger to the spotlight, having performed across North America as a throat singer (including at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics with her sisters) and lending her voice to the advocacy work of issues that have touched her life.
In 2016, she was one of the 2,280 witnesses to testify during the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Komaksiutiksak spoke about her cousin (who she refers to as her sister) and throat-singing partner, Jessica Michaels, who was found dead in a Winnipeg rooming house in 2002 at 17.
On this day, Komaksiutiksak is all smiles as she describes how just three short years after opening, the centre is bursting at the seams with clients.
“We started off with just one staff member and 48 members three years ago, and we’re over 500 now,” she said. “We outgrew this space. We completely outgrew it, we didn’t think we ever would, but here we are.”
Later this year, the centre will move to a larger location in Winnipeg’s North End, but for now, staff and community members are comfortable and have everything they need in their little piece of home.
The non-profit organization is Western Canada’s first Inuit resource centre.
It opened its doors in 2019, after Komaksiutiksak, her former foster parents Steve and Jackie Massey, Maxine Anguk, and Gail Wallace saw a need in the community and worked together to create a welcoming space for Inuit people navigating a move (for school, better housing or in pursuit of opportunity) to Winnipeg from Nunavut.
Tunngasugit is a multifaceted resource centre that serves as a hub for Inuit living in Winnipeg. It offers a drop-in centre, cultural activities and workshops, including language lessons and access to cultural food.
The staff also work tirelessly with community members, including helping newcomers find safe and affordable housing, access health and social services, employment, and social assistance.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Tunngasugit installed a washer and dryer and arranged for families to come in and do laundry in a way adhering to provincial mandates.
Getting to this point in her life hasn’t been easy. Komaksiutiksak has navigated through systems her whole life.
She was born in Winnipeg but raised in Nunavut for six years, before returning to the provincial capital. After suffering what she describes as torturous abuse at home as a young child, she and her sisters were placed in care.
“I was a kid in care here in the city, and as a teenager, I had absolutely no family and I was lost in the system,” she said. “I ran away from abuse and was put into care and rather than, you know, (Child and Family Services) understanding the importance of me being with my family, they kept me in group home after group home after group home.”
When Komaksiutiksak was 14, she was placed with foster parents the Masseys, who are care providers for Inuit and have worked with the community for more than 25 years.
Back then, she said, there was a mandate Indigenous children in care had to partake in programming that had identifiers of their culture. However, there was no Inuit program, Komaksiutiksak said, so she was made to partake in Indigenous cultural activities that weren’t hers.
“My foster parents were told that if I wasn’t (going to take part) that I was going to be taken away from them, because I was going against their policy,” she said. “So, how damaging that is to my identity and that the impactful things that have transpired as a result of that?”
She became a mother at 15, and by the time she was 19, she had three young children — and the determination to complete her schooling. Komaksiutiksak enrolled in the social work program at the University of Winnipeg, and during that time she also started a youth program, where she would teach other Inuit about their culture.
Throughout her career, Komaksiutiksak has worked in the social services. She has stayed connected to her culture and says she is still learning about it.
The journey to get to this point has been hard, but Komaksiutiksak never gave up. At this stage of her life, she is finally the person who she has needed for her entire life.
“It feels really amazing to be recognized, especially given the uphill battle and all the twists and turns I’ve had to navigate; all the systems I’ve had to navigate, all on my own,” she said, tears brimming in her eyes.
“Being recognized (by Pauktuutit) means that my (Inuit) community can be supported a little, but more than that, people can understand and learn more about my culture, and learn and educate themselves about who we are and where we come from, and our stories.”
Shelley Cook Columnist, Manager of Reader Bridge project
Shelley is a born and raised Winnipegger. She is a proud member of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation.