Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut November 17, 2016 - 4:10 pm

Former Nunavut MLA and man of the people John Ningark, dead at 72

"A down-to-earth person—that’s what I think of my buddy John”

LISA GREGOIRE
John Ningark, middle, with Uriash Puqiqnaq, left, and Ovide Alakannuak enjoying frozen Arctic char at Piita Irniq's home in Iqaluit in March 1999. (PHOTO BY PIITA IRNIQ)
John Ningark, middle, with Uriash Puqiqnaq, left, and Ovide Alakannuak enjoying frozen Arctic char at Piita Irniq's home in Iqaluit in March 1999. (PHOTO BY PIITA IRNIQ)
Piita Irniq in foreground with John Ningark and Paul Manitok making fish nets in a room at St. Therese Hospital in 1963. When boys outgrew their residence at Turquetil Hall while attending the Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School in Chesterfield Inlet, they would sometimes be transferred to spare rooms in the hospital. (PHOTO COURTESY PIITA IRNIQ)
Piita Irniq in foreground with John Ningark and Paul Manitok making fish nets in a room at St. Therese Hospital in 1963. When boys outgrew their residence at Turquetil Hall while attending the Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School in Chesterfield Inlet, they would sometimes be transferred to spare rooms in the hospital. (PHOTO COURTESY PIITA IRNIQ)

Ten short hours after he passed away overnight, condolences were already pouring in from Nunavut leaders and other Nunavummiut to honour the passing of John Ningark, a former politician, leader and, according to one man, a good friend.

Ningark lost his battle with cancer in Kugaaruk in the early hours of Nov. 17. He was 72.

“I’m very sad about the passing of my friend, my in-law this morning,” said Piita Irniq, on the phone from Ottawa, pausing to collect himself.

“People will remember him as a humble person, an ordinary person that people can relate to. A down-to-earth person—that’s what I think of my buddy John.”

Irniq, who grew up with Ningark in Naujaat and who has been a lifelong friend, said he spoke to Ningark’s wife Celine—Irniq’s cousin—early Nov. 17 to offer love and support.

“It seems to me that she was relieved, now that he was no longer suffering,” Irniq said, of his conversation with Celine.

“He suffered for a long, long time. She said ‘ajurnarmat’ It can no longer be helped. It’s accepted. It contains love and compassion and care and respect. We accept his death. We will see him again when it’s time. Ajurnarmat.”

Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson sent a late-day message from the House of Commons Nov. 17.

“John Ningark, with whom I served in the NWT Legislature, was beloved of his MLA colleagues in the NWT Assembly. He was both a ‘gentleman’ and a ‘gentle man.’ He was strongly supported by his colleagues to become a cabinet minister, but his gentle nature made it difficult for him to take a side with controversial decisions which ministers must make, inevitably displeasing one side,” Patterson said.

“John was one of the first and longest serving Settlement Secretaries when hamlets were first established in the NWT and he inspired many other Inuit to follow his example.”

Premier Peter Taptuna sent out a tweet expressing his sadness Nov. 17.

Nunavut MLA Hunter Tootoo also sent love to Ningark’s family.

George Qulaut, speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut issued a statement Nov. 17 as well.

“I am saddened today to learn of the passing of former Member John Ningark, who represented his constituents for many years with dignity and distinction. Our deepest sympathies go out to his family,” Qulaut said in the statement.

The flags for Naujaat, Kugaaruk along with the national and territorial flags, have been lowered to half-mast at Nunavut’s legislature in his honour.

Ningark’s parents died when he was young so Ningark and his older sister Alice were orphaned, Irniq said. Irniq’s mother always welcomed Ningark to their house like a son, offering him tea and food.

Ningark was a few years older than Irniq in Naujaat, back when it was known as Repulse Bay, which meant that Ningark went off to residential school in Chesterfield Inlet a year or two before Irniq did.

Despite the rules and forced assimilation of children at the school, Ningark never lost his traditional values and his love for hunting, camping and the beautiful land, Irniq said.

In fact, Irniq’s last conversation with Ningark, just a few days ago, was filled with reminiscing.

“He was obviously struggling to talk. But no matter what, he was happy to remember our days in Naujaat together,” Irniq said.

Ningark also spoke about a Catholic priest, Father Didier, and how Irniq’s parents and others taught Didier about Inuit culture, how to speak Inuktitut and how to go out on the land alone.

“That’s what he was remembering also, about our lives back in Naujaat. I always related to John because we are both simplistic people and we grew up with very simplistic things.”

As a young man, Ningark took a job as a settlement secretary—like a modern day senior administrative officer—for what was then Pelly Bay, now Kugaaruk, Irniq said, and he worked there for many years.

After Irniq was elected to the NWT legislature for the Keewatin Region in 1975, he began to encourage Ningark to run for office as well. Ningark eventually did, becoming MLA for the old NWT riding of Natilikmiot from 1989 to 1999.

Ningark later became a Nunavut MLA for the old riding of Akulliq from 2009 to 2013. That riding has been replaced by Netsilik.

“John was a very good man. He was a friendly man, always working hard to better the lives of people,” Irniq said.

“People will obviously miss him as one who was just like us, people from down at this level. He never thought of himself as a big shot when he was an MLA.”

He was a politician but he was also a very traditional man, Irniq said. He could be in the legislature one day and out winter hunting the next.

“It was good to grow up with him,” Irniq said.

“We didn’t agree on some things in politics but that’s politics. I could always relate to John and he could always relate to me.”

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