Joe Enook’s death the evening of Friday, March 29 – made public the next morning – devastated his friends and colleagues, and saddened many Nunavummiut.
The following Monday, when the Nunavut Mining Symposium opened, it couldn’t be business as usual. Baffin Region Chamber of Commerce president Victor Tootoo held a moment of silence before guest speaker Bank of Canada Governor Stephen S. Poloz was introduced. A pained hush blanketed the room.
Minister of Finance George Hickes then stood before those assembled and spoke of Enook.
“He was a very close friend and it’s been a rough couple of days,” said Hickes.
“I probably wouldn’t have been in cabinet, at least as early as I was, without his guidance and direction. He never took no for an answer. I said no many times about joining cabinet, and look where I am. Obviously, he’s very persistent and very loved.”
Professional, polite, and stern, he never took no for an answer when he believed in something.
Enook was 15 years old when Fred Hunt, then an adult educator, met him in 1971.
“I travelled to Pond Inlet for the very first time with him on board the aircraft,” said Hunt.
“I’ve been analyzing this friendship since his passing, trying to figure out what it was that was so special about him. I’ve come to the conclusion that we were actually like brothers, even though he was quite half my age … he was like my younger brother.”
Hunt and Enook would go on to work together, building the Tununiq Sauniq Co-operative, then its hotel. Enook was the hotel’s first manager.
“I started pushing him, at a very young age, into the world of Inuit politics. I urged him to go as far as he could. When he became chairman of the board of the Baffin Divisional Board of Education, he was very, very proud of that. But I continually hammered at him that this was step one,” said Hunt.
“I said, ‘This is step one, buddy. You can go all the way to Ottawa if you want to, and represent your people in the federal government.’ I never stopped pushing for that.”
Hunt says what drove Enook was his passion for his community and his people.
“He was driven from a very young age to preserve the culture of the Inuit, and the language, and the way of life. He was very driven to dedicate his life to making sure that that was retained in whatever was going to happen. That thread ran through everything he did.”
A time away from Pond Inlet
Enook first left Pond Inlet for Iqaluit in 1994. He worked at Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. as president Jose Kusugak’s executive assistant, then rejoined Hunt, who had taken on the task of turning the debt-laden Nunasi Corporation around. Enook would become vice-president of Nunavut operations, and head up the head office in Iqaluit. He also served on several boards.
Once a year, Enook returned to Pond Inlet to live a more traditional, relaxing way of life, according to Nunavut News archives.
“I try and do some Eskimo living for a couple of weeks every year,” he said in August 2001.
“I go home, leave my cell phone behind and eat, sleep and hunt whenever I feel like it.”
He also said: “There comes a point when you have to decide what you want to do. Sometimes you have to leave home to acquire a job or education. I’m honoured to be given that choice.”
Hunt says, while he introduced Enook to a world of growth and change, Enook made sure Hunt stayed grounded in accomplishing positive change for Inuit.
“We had each other,” said Hunt.
A defenceman at heart
Tununiq voters chose Enook as their representative in a September 2011 by-election. One campaign promise was that he’d move back to Pond Inlet. This he did, despite the fact he and his wife Mary Kilabuk had to live in a shack for quite some time. From then on, he repeatedly brought attention to the housing crisis in Nunavut.
Enook was re-elected in 2013 and 2017, and was subsequently named Speaker of the legislative assembly.
Veteran politician and Nunavut land-claim negotiator Paul Quassa first met Enook during the latter’s board of education days, and worked with Enook when he was a regular member, then Speaker.
“I admired him for his desire to speak Inuktitut only, even though he was bilingual,” said Quassa, adding both as a regular member and as Speaker, Enook used his language.
“He truly was promoting that Inuktitut is a working language and we should use it every day.”
Quassa also recalls Enook as welcoming, always making those around him comfortable, including in his distinctive way of carrying out his Speaker’s duties.
“Every morning he’d come around before we went into session, asking each and every one of us if we were going to do a member’s statement or if we were going to ask a question,” Quassa said.
“He always had this little piece of paper, and he’d go around with his Speaker’s attire just before the session, and that was unique. In the previous Speakers, I’ve never seen that. It was so welcoming, knowing that he cared.”
Quassa calls Enook a true Tununiqmiut, who “represented that constituency so well.”
Hudson Bay MLA Allan Rumbolt agrees.
“He always put others before himself. His main goal was to take care of his community and do what he felt was best for his community and secondly, what was best for the people of Nunavut. He worked hard that way,” said Rumbolt.
The $41.2 million Pond Inlet small craft harbour project, currently under development, was his primary pursuit. He never took no for an answer on that matter either.
“It was something he fought for from day one. I thought he’d be barking up a tree trying to get one. He managed to convince the government it was a need for the community. Any opportunity he got he brought it up to whoever, whether it be ministers, whether it be to the federal government … Whoever he talked to, the port was on his mind. All the time,” said Rumbolt.
Rumbolt says Enook did not have qualms about advising fellow MLAs or letting them know when they were doing something wrong.
He loved hockey, and preferred to watch it live at the local arena rather than on TV.
Larry McGowan recalls his floor-hockey teammate much the same as described by the people in Enook’s professional life. They began playing together not long after Joamie School burned down in 2003.
“We kept it up for a few years and stayed friends ever since,” said McGowan, who recalls the easy, friendly hugs Enook was always quick to give, right to the last time they saw each other, a month before Enook died.
“He was funny. When we were playing floor hockey, he didn’t mind telling people, making sure they were in the right position, making sure they did this, they did that. We had a special kind of relationship.”
McGowan played goal, with Enook as his defenceman.