Dr. Noah Carpenter often defied expectations.
In a 1983 CBC-TV profile, Carpenter, an Inuvialuk man originally from Sachs Harbour, NWT, spoke about his arrival in Winnipeg years earlier, when he was a young student from the North enrolled at the University of Manitoba.
“We had a welcome party,” he recalled, amused, about what greeted him.
“They were expecting someone with dark hair and oriental features, dressed in a large fur parka and carrying a large spear. And it must have been a great disappointment that they didn’t find this.”
Carpenter, who died this month, is remembered for his life of hard work and determination, his achievements as an expert surgeon and the inspiration he provided to many fellow northerners.
“He was always at the top of his game, in every way,” his brother, Joey Carpenter, said in Sachs Harbour. “He was always someone to look up to.”
Noah Carpenter went to residential school in Aklavik in the 1960s before moving to Inuvik for high school and then to the University of Manitoba to study chemistry. The 1983 television profile said his original goal was to become a high school science teacher, but at some point he decided on medical school. In 1971, he was said to be the first Inuk doctor in Canada.
However, his education and training did not end there. He would go on to study surgery and attend school in Scotland to specialize in thoracic surgery.
“You know, 50 years ago, you couldn’t imagine any of us becoming doctors. You know, times were different and it was an aspiration that most of us couldn’t even dream of,” said his brother Joey.
Noah would later describe how his father, Fred Carpenter, a successful trapper in the North, hoped that Noah would follow in his footsteps in what was then still a booming business in the North. Fred didn’t understand why his son would become a doctor, Noah recalled.
“As the years went by, I think he began to understand that maybe he had made the right decision,” Noah said in 1983. “He’s actually quite proud that I’m a doctor.”
In that profile, Noah would reflect more on his decision to forge a different path and the commitments it required. He spoke bluntly about “surrendering” to a system that is often at odds with Northern culture and tradition.
“You can’t expect to spend a lot of time hunting and fishing and maintaining the old ways of life and expect to become a first-class thoracic surgeon,” he said.
“There is always talk about breaking and beating the system. Well, you know, the system doesn’t want to beat you. I think you have to accept it, surrender to it. And that way you will be successful. You have to accept it. To work on it you have to study “You can’t do it halfway.”
WATCH: CBC featured Noah Carpenter in a two-part series in 1983:
In 1995, Dr. Carpenter was recognized with an Indspire Award for his many groundbreaking achievements as “the only Inuvialuit specialist surgeon to emerge from the Northwest Territories.”
“He has been an inspiration to many northerners and returns there to speak to young people, motivating them to understand the importance of achieving higher education,” reads the Indspire website.
Noah Carpenter would enjoy a long career as a surgeon in Comox, BC, and later in Brandon, Man., but always maintained his connection to the North. His last visit to Inuvik was in 2019, for a high school student reunion.
He would have liked to work in the North, he said in 1983, but described never having the opportunity.
“I don’t know what it is about the North and me. It’s certainly something I wanted to do,” he said. “The fact that he’s not working there will always be a mystery.”
The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC) this week paid tribute to Carpenter, noting his “great success and great determination” and calling him an inspiration.
“We are proud of the recipients who have since pursued areas of medicine and science, like Noah Carpenter, who are dedicated to completing advanced education and showing Inuvialuit what we can achieve in our lives and careers,” said the president and IRC executive director, Duane Ningaqsiq. Smith, in a statement.
Speaking to Breaking: this week, Joey Carpenter said he was still absorbing the news of his brother’s death.
“He was always on the good side of everything…We looked up to him,” Joey said.
“It’s going to take me a while, you know, to think about it. I never really realized it yet.”