A federal cabinet member, a Hollywood star, a public service worker. They come from many facets of life, but all have one thing in common: They are beacons of success not only to fellow aboriginals but are stellar role models in any light.
Fifteen people received National Aboriginal Achievement Awards on February 24, including Hollywood Salteaux star Adam Beach, respected Anishinaabe elder Dave Courchene and Lifetime winner Senator Gerry St. Germain, Métis of Manitoba, are just three of the accomplished who were celebrated.
The black-tie fete and ceremony in Vancouver, hosted by hockey legend Theoren Fleury and actress Carmen Moore, also featured musicians Robbie Robertson and Derek Miller, among many other artists.
Biographical summaries and awards are below, with fuller bios available at the site of the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards Foundation, which on February 24 was renamed Indspire, a combination of the words indigenous and inspire.
Adam Beach, Lake Manitoba First Nation, has been acting since age 14 and is today a well-known actor, producer and political activist, as Indspire described it.
“Between appearances in movies and on television, Mr. Beach is committed to raising the profile of Indigenous Peoples through inspirational speaking engagements and his support of the many events he has hosted or been part of,” Indspire said. He recently won a Gemini award for Best Performance or Host in a Variety Program or Series for his work hosting last year’s achievement awards.
Dave Courchene, Anishinaabe, Manitoba, “has touched many lives through his teachings,” Indspire said in awarding him for Culture, Heritage & Spirituality. Turtle Lodge, which he founded in 2002 to bring his message of peace and hope to the world, has an “international reputation as a place of learning, healing and sharing for all people,” Indspire said.
On January 24 he opened the historic Crown–First Nations Gathering with a prayer urging all peoples to have “the courage to do the right thing” and work together to preserve the future.
Lifetime winner Senator Gerry St. Germain, Métis of Manitoba, “was instrumental in achieving a formal residential school apology from the Government of Canada to open the future for Indigenous youth,” among other achievements, Indspire said. He was the first self-identified Métis to serve in Canada’s cabinet. He won elected in 1983 as a member of parliament and was reelected in 1984. In 1993 he was appointed to the Senate in 1993. He now chairs the Senate’s Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, Indspire said.
Richard Stewart Hardy, K’omoks First Nation, British Columbia, has worked hard to protect aquaculture and preserve his First Nation’s shellfish harvesting grounds, the awards foundation said. He won for Environment & Natural Resources.
Leona Makokis, Saddle Lake Cree Nation, Alberta, won for Education, partly for the diligence and dedication that “has allowed numerous students to obtain diplomas in indigenous knowledge, ceremony, and language,” Indspire said.
Dr. Janet Smylie, Métis of Ontario, was one of the first Métis doctors in Canada. She is an expert in indigenous health and has practiced and taught in urban, rural and remote communities, Indspire said.
Attorney Violet Ford, Inuit of Newfoundland & Labrador, is the first Inuit woman in the country to become a lawyer, Indspire said. She is also the first aboriginal to do so in Newfoundland and Labrador. Her award is in Law & Justice.
Richard Wagamese, Wabaseemong First Nation, Ontario, won for media and communications for sharing “his incredible gift of writing,” Indspire said. “These works tell a story of his victory over numerous struggles including childhood abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and the intergenerational impacts of residential schools.”
Leona Aglukkaq, Inuit, Nunavut, is best known these days as Canada’s Minister of Health. She is also Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, and Member of Parliament for Nunavut. Her 2008 election made her the first Inuk to hold a position in the federal cabinet. She won for Politics.
Grand Chief Edward John, Northern Dene, British Columbia, has “dedicated most of his life to champion the rights and interests of Indigenous Peoples in the pursuit of social and economic justice across Canada and the world,” Indspire said. “A passionate leader, Grand Chief John continues to be instrumental in significant legal arguments involving Aboriginal and treaty rights.”
Minnie Grey, Inuit, Quebec, “is devoted to improving the quality of life for Inuit People in Nunavik and across the Arctic regions of Canada, the United States, Russia and Greenland,” Indspire said in awarding her for Public Service.
Richard Peter, Cowichan Tribe, British Columbia, has been honing his wheelchair-basketball skills since he was 15. In 1994 he started playing for Team Canada, Indspire said, and has represented the country at four Paralympic Games. He won the Sports award.
Perhaps the most poignant recipient is Earl Cook, whose award is posthumous.
“Born prematurely with a number of health challenges and diagnosed in 2007 with bone cancer, Earl Cook overcame considerable adversities to lend his life to inspiring others,” Indspire said, adding that he was a sought-after speaker who delivered messages about the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome.
“His irresistible optimism joined with his love of sports led him to become an honorary coach for the Detroit Red Wings as well as a team motivator for Winnipeg Blue Bombers.”
The 23-year-old Youth award winner passed away on September 18, 2011.
The other youth winner, Métis Candace Sutherland, “has set an exceptional example to young people across Canada,” Indspire said. “Knowing what it was like to be poor and hungry, she devotes her time to helping others.”