Charlie Panigoniak is shown in a photo from a GoFundMe web page organized by Lorna Q. Panigoniak. An ailing and aging Inuit singer-songwriter whose name is a household word in Nunavut has turned to the public in a plea to keep the heat and lights on in his own home. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Legendary but ailing Inuit singer pleads for help to keep heat, lights on

RANKIN INLET, Nunavut — An ailing and aging Inuit singer-songwriter whose name is an Arctic household word has turned to the public in a plea to keep the heat and lights on in his home.

“I didn’t know how else to do this on our own,” said Lorna Panigoniak, the wife and longtime musical partner of Charlie Panigoniak. “It’s hard.”

She started a GoFundMe campaign just after Christmas from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, where the couple lives.

Charlie Panigoniak, 72, has been singing songs about Inuit life in the language of his people since the 1970s. Born on the land, he didn’t move into a community until the late 1950s and learned to play the guitar on an instrument his father made from a tin can.

A stay in Brandon, Man., in 1967 for tuberculosis treatment opened his ears to the sounds of country and folk music. He began writing Inuktitut songs about his friends, family and daily life.

He made his first recording in 1973. He has been filling radio airwaves and community halls across the North ever since.

“He definitely draws a crowd,” said John Main, an organizer of local music festivals and the local legislature member. “Everybody knows his name.”

About 10 years ago, Panigoniak got sick. He suffers from Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

“He’s not so good,” said his wife.

The couple has depended on his pension and her salary. Unlike most Inuit, they own their own home and are on the hook for the costs of running it.

Lorna’s job was transferred recently out of Rankin Inlet and she decided neither she nor her husband could move.

They have six grandchildren in Rankin Inlet, three of whom live with them. Charlie has already rejected a move to a southern care facility.

“He wants to be home in Nunavut, not in the south.”

Lorna Panigoniak has yet to receive an employment insurance cheque. Without any income other than her husband’s pension, the two can’t afford the high cost of fuel oil to run the family furnace.

“He has no clue that I’m doing this, with his condition,” she said. “I’m trying to do this on my own.

“We just don’t want to ask for help from our relatives. They got their own family to look after.”

Main said it’s not unusual for Nunavut homeowners to be squeezed by the North’s high home heating costs at this time of year.

“In the winter, your utility costs go through the roof. This is the tightest time of year.”

But Panigoniak, he said, deserves better.

“He’s a living legend and he deserves all the support we can give him. He had a big influence on the current generation of Nunavut musicians just because his music was so pervasive.”

His songs are sometimes religious, sometimes rooted in traditional stories such as the one featuring a talking seal. In another, he taps his fingers on a guitar to imitate the sound of a traditional Inuit drum.

Then there’s his Inuktitut version of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which translates as “Rutami tuktugaqalaunipuq.”

“He wasn’t a performer who would come up and just play the same songs,” Main recalled. “He would always be different — something that he was working on, themes he would perform around … he had that natural performer’s gift where he was so naturally creative that you couldn’t put him into a box.”

Panigoniak was given the Order of Nunavut in 2012, the territory’s highest honour.

His wife is asking for $5,000. That should be enough to fire the furnace until the EI arrives, she said.

“It’s going pretty good. It’s almost halfway.”

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