Early Life, Education and Career

Nellie Cournoyea was raised in the traditional lifestyle of her people, the Inuvialuit of the Mackenzie Delta and Beaufort Sea region, travelling and hunting along the Western Arctic coastline. Her father was a trapper and immigrant from Norway; her mother was an Inuvialuit woman from Herschel Island, Yukon.

In the late 1940s, Cournoyea attended residential schools for a brief period and later took Alberta correspondence courses provided by the Aklavik Federal Day School from her family’s bush camp. During the 1960s, Cournoyea worked for CBC Radio at Inuvik, Northwest Territories, as an announcer and regional manager.

Political Career

In 1969, Nellie Cournoyea co-founded, with Agnes Semmler, a Loucheux Métis, the Committee for Original People’s Entitlement (COPE) to act as a political organization to speak for the Inuvialuit. Subsequently, COPE and Cournoyea played active roles in negotiating the final settlement of the Inuvialuit land claims in 1984. The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC) was established one year later to receive the lands and funds from the settlement. Cournoyea was the IRC’s chair and chief executive officer from 1996 to 2016.

In the 1970s, Cournoyea also worked as a land claims field worker for the organization now called Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Cournoyea has served in a number of other leadership roles in Indigenous organizations, including in the Inuvialuit Petroleum Corporation and the Inuvialuit Development Corporation.

She is currently appointed as the vice-chair of the Nutrition North Canada Advisory Board and as a board member of the Aboriginal Pipeline Group. She is also a member of the selection committee for the Arctic Inspiration Prize.

Legislative Career

Nellie Cournoyea was first elected to the legislature of the Northwest Territories in 1979 as a member for the Western Arctic riding, and then for the Nunakput riding. She held numerous cabinet portfolios between 1983 and her selection as government leader in November 1991. She is the first Indigenous woman to lead a provincial or territorial government in Canada.

As leader, she was particularly concerned with streamlining the territorial administration, shifting more responsibility to community leaders. She played a key role in negotiations leading to the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. Cournoyea retired from politics after her one term as government leader.

Community Work

Nellie Cournoyea is a founding member of the organization now known as the Northern Games Society, which encourages the practice and promotion of traditional Indigenous games. She has also served as a board member of the Ingamo Hall Friendship Centre, which is an organization in Inuvik that aims to assist Indigenous youth in the town and also functions as a community hall.

Personal Life

Nellie Cournoyea has two grown children, John and Maureen. In her varied roles, she continues to support Indigenous rights, land claims and economic development in the North.

Awards and Honours

Nellie Cournoyea has won several awards and honours from various institutions, including:

  • Woman of the Year Award, Northwest Territories Native Women's Association (1982)
  • Wallace Goose Award, Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (1986)
  • National Aboriginal Achievement Award (1994)
  • Honorary Doctor of Laws degrees from Lakehead University (1995), Carleton University (1996), University of Toronto (1996), University of Lethbridge (2001) and University of Alberta (2004)
  • Energy Person of the Year, Energy Council of Canada (2004)
  • Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame (Lifetime Achievement Award), Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business (2008)
  • Northern Medal, Governor General of Canada (2008)
  • Officer, Order of Canada (2008)

In 2013, an Arctic research facility at the University of Manitoba was named after Cournoyea.