Origin: Chesterfield Inlet, Hudson Bay, Nunavut
Charlie Panigoniak, ONu, singer, songwriter, guitarist (born 7 March 1946 in Eskimo Point, NWT [now Arviat, NU]; died 6 March 2019 in Rankin Inlet, NU). Charlie Panigoniak was one of the first people to write, record and perform music in Inuktitut. Often referred to as the “Johnny Cash of the North,” he is considered by many to be the father of Inuktitut music. (See also Music of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.) He was a Member of the Order of Nunavut and a recipient of the Nunavut Commissioner’s Performing Arts Award.
Early Years and Career
By vocation, Panigoniak was a carver and a hunter. He was initially based at Eskimo Point, North West Territories (now Arviat, Nunavut). After 1985, he made his home in nearby Rankin Inlet. As a boy, he played a guitar made by his father. In 1967, while receiving treatment for tuberculosis at a sanatarium in Brandon, Manitoba, Panigoniak purchased his first real guitar and began to write songs. His first effort, about the sanatorium, was in English. His many songs since, composed in a country-folk style, have been written in Inuktitut and concern family, friends and everyday events in his life.
Panigoniak was heard in 1973 by a CBC producer, Doug Ward, who arranged a recording session in Toronto that summer. Panigoniak’s albums for the CBC’s Northern Service, made at intervals into the 1980s, included two EPs (11 songs) and the LPs Inuktitut Christmas & Gospel Songs, My Seasons (issued commercially by Boot) and Just for Kids. The last was recorded with Lorna Panigoniak, his wife and frequent musical partner after 1977, and reflects Panigoniak’s preference for singing to audiences of children. He has also made two CBC broadcast EPs.
A popular figure in the North, Panigoniak was heard on radio and TV and at festivals in the Northwest Territories (such as Yellowknife’s Festival on the Rock), Yukon, Nunavut and Labrador. He has also travelled to Alaska, Ireland and Greenland. In 1990, he appeared at WOMAD (Harbourfront) in Toronto. Panigoniak also worked for many years as a broadcaster for CBC Radio in Rankin Inlet. He retired in 2011.
Later Years and Legacy
Panigoniak was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the early 2000s and struggled with the illness for many years. He lived for much of that time in a senior living facility in Ottawa. In 2016, he and his wife Lorna travelled to their hometown of Arviat for a tribute concert and fundraiser for Panigoniak. He performed for the last time at the concert, which raised $3,400 for him. Before his death, his daughter brought him back to his longtime home of Rankin Inlet, where he died the day before his birthday at age 72.
Following his death, Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq said in a statement, “Charlie’s legacy across Nunavut is one of great joy, good humour and inspiring others. His music is more than well-known in Nunavut; it is beloved and treasured in our communities. I am thankful to have known Charlie for many years… I have and will always remain a fan of his songs, his spirit and his many talents. Though we mourn his passing, we hold on to his music to inspire and move us for years to come.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.
Member, Order of Nunavut (2012)
Commissioner’s Performing Arts Award, Nunavut Territorial Government (2016)