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Two Nations, One Love

Two Nations, One Love

When Harry met Mary Rose
By Herb Mathisen
Feb 01

Harry Maksagak still remembers what Mary Rose was wearing the first time he saw her. It was around Christmas 1970. Harry and his family were staying overnight at the Gold Range Hotel in Yellowknife, on their way to visit his grandfather in an old folks home in Aklavik. (Back then, you had to fly south from Cambridge Bay to Yellowknife, then back north to Inuvik, before jumping on a small plane to get to Aklavik.)

Harry was walking down the hotel stairs, when he saw a striking young woman bringing a ballot box up to elections officials. “She was in a white pleated jacket,” recalls Harry. “Believe me, she caught my eye.”

Interestingly enough, Mary Rose remembers Harry that day too. Or at least, the tassel swinging on his shirt. “I thought, I wonder how they make that,” she says.

As fate would have it, she would see that same tassel a few weeks later at a student assembly at Fort Smith’s vocational training centre. “I looked at his face and said, ‘Oh, there’s that Inuit guy,” she says, laughing. Harry had just arrived for the junior business administration program. He had designs on getting to know Mary Rose Sangris, before learning she was the daughter of longtime Yellowknives Dene First Nation Chief Joe Sangris. “I thought, ‘Oh my lord, she’s way out of my league now,’” says Harry. “’I can forget any thoughts of a relationship here.’” (Harry comes from an Inuvialuit family of great influence too. His mother, Helen, for instance, was Nunavut’s first commissioner.)

Mary Rose made the first move. She and a friend were waiting to play badminton that first week of classes and were chatting in Dogrib. Harry was seated nearby. Mary Rose tapped him on the shoulder. 

“Do you know what language we’re speaking?”

“No,” responded Harry.

“Japanese,” she laughed.Harry didn’t miss a beat: “Tell me another one.”

For Mary Rose, that was it. “I fell in love with his voice, actually,” she says, smiling at

Harry, seated next to her in their comfortable Cambridge Bay home.

The two began their courtship: long walks together and even longer phone calls. But soon their six-week programs were over and Harry was back in Cambridge Bay and Mary Rose in Dettah. They promised to write each other over the winter and spring and they did. 

In the summer, Mary Rose got restless.

“She phoned me up one morning in August and said, ‘I’d like to come up and visit and meet your family,’” says Harry. “So I arranged to get her a ticket on Pacific Western Airlines. It cost me $65.” The plan was for her to visit for 10 days. But things moved quickly when she arrived: Harry was heading out on a boat for the commercial fishery and wanted to let Mary Rose know his intentions. “I proposed in September and we were married in October,” he says.

Forty-three years later, Harry and Mary Rose have six kids and 26 grandchildren, four great-great grandchildren and a fifth one on the way. “We’re starting our own tribe,” laughs Harry.

“The Dene-uit,” chimes Mary Rose.

At first, it was tough for Mary Rose to move away from her family. And it took some time for her to gain acceptance in the community. “A lot of people were offended that I was marrying outside of our clan, if you will,” says Harry. “They were telling her to go home, go back where you came from.”

“It was hard on me,” says Mary Rose. “But as long as Harry was at my side I could accomplish anything and I wasn’t afraid.”

And things haven't always been tea and roses. Coming from two different cultures, the opportunities for miscommunication were many.

But this is where Harry gets philosophical: “The Dogrib Nation and the Inuvialuit Nation, the customs and the traditions might have their variations to them. But when you come right down to it, the culture itself, the cultural aspects of who we are, we’ve learned and understood what it means to survive"—on the land, and as a couple.