Community 'was everything' for Millie Kuliktana, who died last week

Millie Kuliktana in a file photo from 2020. She's being remembered as a fiercely passionate community leader and an advocate for her language and culture. (Millie Kuliktana/Facebook - image credit)
Millie Kuliktana in a file photo from 2020. She's being remembered as a fiercely passionate community leader and an advocate for her language and culture. (Millie Kuliktana/Facebook - image credit)

A woman from Kugluktuk, Nunavut, is being remembered as a mother, grandmother, language teacher, knowledge holder and perhaps most of all — someone who lived for her community.

Millie Kuliktana died in Edmonton on Friday from complications related to a double lung transplant. She was 58.

"Our community is just, it's everything to her," said her daughter, Wynter Kuliktana Blais. "Our community has always stood by and supported my mum as well. And my mum's done countless initiatives within our community. And I think it's just a reflection of her love for the people and, and the people love her too."

Millie was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension in 2010. At the time, she was only given about a year to live. In October 2019 she had a double lung transplant.

Submitted by Millie Kuliktana
Submitted by Millie Kuliktana

After the procedure, she spoke with CBC about how grateful she was to have received the transplant.

"We give a lot of things in our lives. But to be gifted with another chance at life is something that you can only say you're grateful for, saying the words thank you are just not enough," she said at the time.

'That's just what mum did'

Wynter said her mother instilled a sense of community in all of her children from a young age.

"We've always made sure that we, too, were active members of our community," she said. "She made it look so effortless."

Wynter also said her mother has been a huge source of the family's strength over the years.

"Mum always led us in faith and in hope and positivity, regardless of how heavy or challenging or difficult it had been," she said.

Submitted by Millie Kuliktana
Submitted by Millie Kuliktana

Simon Kuliktana, Millie's husband, said the family was warned from the start that her body may one day reject the new lungs. But, he said, that didn't diminish her spirit and belief that being together as a family and community should be prioritized.

"We always looked at her strong points in life … that family is everything. And also community is everything," he said.

A leader in language

Millie has made news over the years for a variety of reasons — including helping with the Truth and Reconciliation Committee and creating an Inuinnaqtun dictionary. In July 2017, she received the governor general Sovereign's Medal for Volunteers award.

But it's her community initiatives that many will remember first-hand, including her work with the community Christmas committee. That involved hosting a radio show to raise money to make sure that every child in the community had a toy on Christmas morning. The same fund helped as many households as possible enjoy a Christmas dinner.

Millie Kuliktana/Facebook
Millie Kuliktana/Facebook

"Over the years that [initiative] had grown and grown and grown," Wynter said. "It was built to be so inclusive and to honour the people that had gone before her."

Simon said Millie was seen as a leader not only in Kugluktuk, but right across the North.

"She was a strong [advocate] for our culture and language," he said. "[People] looked at Millie as a mentor in reviving their language and culture and … giving them hope."

Grandchildren a 'driving force'

Millie received both bachelors and masters's degrees in education.

"She was always trying to improve herself," Simon said, in part "to show her family that anything is possible."

Wynter said her mother also spent her last several years of her life devoted to spending time with her grandchildren.

"The last couple of years, just again, looking at the photos like, wow, we really did a lot — it was boating trips, it was hunting, it was camping, it was fishing, and just simply being present amongst her grandchildren," she said.

Submitted by Millie Kuliktana
Submitted by Millie Kuliktana

"I think her grandchildren have always been her driving force."

A funeral will take place in Kugluktuk on Jan. 25.

Wynter said Geoffrey and Rosalind Dixon from the Anglican mission will offer the funeral service in Inuinnaqtun, a request made by Millie before she passed on.

"Our family was sure to make that happen for her."

Wynter also thanked all those across the country that provided support to her family.

"And I think a very special thank you goes out to the University of Alberta hospital, to the pulmonary ward," she said.

"There are just no words to describe the gratitude that we have for the care that she received, not just herself but for the care that our family received through all of our experiences within the hospital."