Willie Adams, first Inuk senator, receives Order of Canada

Former Nunavut Senator Willie Adams stands outside the Senate building in Ottawa in 2009. (Photo submitted by Mary Hands )

Before Willie Adams became a senator, Inuktitut wasn’t spoken in the Senate.

The first Inuk senator in Canada, Adams spent 32 years in the Red Chamber serving the Northwest Territories and then Nunavut.

The now 89-year-old from Kuujjuaq, Que., was awarded the Order of Canada Thursday, one of the highest honours in the country.

He was recruited to the Senate in 1977 by then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau. He represented the N.W.T. until 1999, when he became Nunavut’s first senator. In 2009, he retired.

Being a senator wasn’t something he ever pictured himself doing, he told CBC.

“They said, if you don’t like it you can quit,” Adams said from his home in Kemptville, Ont.

Willie Adams on his last day in the Senate in 2009, after serving 32 years representing both Nunavut the N.W.T. (Photo submitted by Mary Hands)

Adams and Charlie Watt, a senator from Nunavik at the time, realized that although they were selected to represent Inuit, they couldn’t speak their mother tongue in the Senate.

“We were the only two who were speaking Inuktitut,” Adams said.

The main issue was that the Senate didn’t have an interpreter who could understand Inuktitut, and the two Inuit senators were told it would take at least two weeks to get one, Adams said.

So they put a report before the Senate to change that. To this day, the Senate allows the use of Inuktitut in its proceedings.

As for the Order of Canada, Adams said he isn’t used to receiving awards, but that he wanted to dedicate this one to Inuit in Canada.

“We’re Canadian and we’re proud of that,” Adams said.

Charlie Watt (left) and Willie Adams fought to have Inuktitut spoken in the Senate. (Photo submitted by Mary Hands)

Before his time in the Senate, Adams was an electrician and the chairman of Rankin Inlet’s hamlet council for two terms. He also founded several businesses, including Kudlik Electric and Kudlik Construction in Rankin.

In 1970, he became a member of the Northwest Territories Council, now known as the Legislative Assembly.

In an interview with CBC in 2008, Adams said he wasn’t particularly excited when he was first asked to join the Senate by Warren Allmand, then minister of Indian and northern affairs.

“I asked him, ‘What’s the Senate?'” Adams recalled.

When Allmand told him it was easy work with an annual salary of about $60,000 — far more than the $7,500 he was making at the time — Adams said he’d take it.

Adams was considered a strong advocate for Inuit in the Senate, voting against the Liberal party’s firearms bill in 1995 because it clashed with Inuit hunting rights. He resigned from the Senate committee on Aboriginal peoples over the same issue.

Adams left the Senate in 2009 when he turned 75 — the mandatory retirement age for senators.

Adams said today, he’s watching with some worry as mining companies continue to break ground in Nunavut.

“We are concerned about our land and what we have,” he said.

Despite this, he said he’s looking forward to what the future of Nunavut will bring.

“I am hopeful. I really am hopeful,” he said.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canada honours Arctic’s last known WW II bone collector, CBC News

Canada: Meet the 3 northerners being named to the Order of Canada, CBC News

Greenland: International Inuit organization announces youth leadership award winners in honour of Hans-Pavia Rosing, Eye on the Arctic

CBC News

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