Indigenous Success Stories

Health (18-24)

Noah Carpenter, Canada’s 1st Inuvialuk surgeon, has died

September 27, 2023

Carpenter remembered for lifetime of hard work and determination, called ‘an inspiration to many northerners’

A man with a moustache and a white coat sits at a desk in an office.
Dr. Noah Carpenter, seen here in a still image from a 1983 CBC-TV profile, has died. Originally from Sachs Harbour, N.W.T., he was celebrated as the 1st Inuvialuk surgeon in Canada. (CBC)

CBC News: Dr. Noah Carpenter often defied expectations.

In a 1983 CBC-TV profile, Carpenter — an Inuvialuk man originally from Sachs Harbour, N.W.T. — spoke about his arrival in Winnipeg years before, as a young student from the North enrolled at the University of Manitoba. “They had a welcoming party,” he recalled, with amusement, about what greeted him.

“They were expecting someone with dark hair and Oriental-looking features, wearing a big fur parka and carrying a big spear. And it must have been a great disappointment that they didn’t find this.”

Carpenter, who died this month, is being remembered for his lifetime of hard work and determination, his accomplishments as a skilled surgeon, and the inspiration he gave to many fellow Northerners.

“He was always on top of his game, in every way,” said his brother, Joey Carpenter, in Sachs Harbour. “He was always somebody to look up to.”

Noah Carpenter went to residential school in Aklavik in the 1960s before moving to Inuvik for high school, and then later the University of Manitoba to study chemistry. The 1983 TV profile said his original goal was to become a high school science teacher, but somewhere along the way he decided on med school. In 1971, he was said to be the first Inuk doctor in Canada.

His education and training didn’t stop there, though. He’d go on to study surgery, and go to school in Scotland to specialize in thoracic surgery. “You know, 50 years ago, you couldn’t imagine anyone of us becoming a doctor. 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— expected Noah to 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 instead, Noah recalled.

A black and white photo of a young boy standing on board a docked boat that's named 'North Star.'
A young Noah Carpenter on board his father Fred Carpenter’s fur-trading boat, the North Star of Herschel Island. (Inuvialuit Regional Corporation)

“As the years went by, I think he began to understand that perhaps I made the right move,” Noah said in 1983. “He’s quite proud, actually, that I am a doctor.”

In that profile, Noah would reflect more on his decision to carve a different path for himself, and the compromises it required. He spoke bluntly about “surrendering” to a system that’s often at odds with Northern culture and tradition. “You can’t expect to devote a lot of time to hunting and fishing and maintaining the old ways of life, and expect to become a first-class thoracic surgeon,” he said.

“There’s alway talk about breaking through and beating the system. Well, you know, the system isn’t out to beat you. I think you have to just accept it. Surrendering to it. And that way you’ll succeed. You have to work at it, you have to do your studies, you can’t do it half-heartedly.”

From 1983: Inuvialuit surgeon Noah Carpenter appears on Focus North – Part I

WATCH: CBC featured Noah Carpenter in a 2-part series in 1983: Duration 10:48

In 1983, Dr. Noah Carpenter, who became the first Inuvialuit doctor in 1971, appeared on Focus North, to talk about his career, and why he never worked in the North. Host Marie Wilson introduces the segment.

From 1983: Inuvialuit surgeon Noah Carpenter appears on Focus North – Part II: Duration 7:40

Dr. Noah Carpenter became the first Inuvialuit doctor in 1971. In Part II of this Focus North segment from 1983, he talks about how education changed his life, but led him south. ‘One of the tragedies about the North and I … is that after trying for so long, it hadn’t worked out.’

Click on the following link to view the videos:

‘An inspiration’

In 1995, Dr. Carpenter was recognized with an Indspire Award for his many ground-breaking accomplishments 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 the youth, 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, B.C., and later Brandon, Man., but he always maintained his connection to the North. His last visit to Inuvik was in 2019, for a high school reunion. He would have liked to work in the North, he said in 1983, but described how he never had the opportunity. 

“I don’t know what it is about the North and I. It’s certainly something that I wanted to do,” he said. “The fact that I’m not working there will always remain a mystery.”

A close up of a man in a coat and tie sitting at a marina.
‘You can’t expect to devote a lot of time to hunting and fishing and maintaining the old ways of life, and expect to become a first-class thoracic surgeon,’ said Dr. Noah Carpenter in a 1983 interview. (CBC)

The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC) paid tribute this week to Carpenter, noting his “great success and strong determination,” and calling him an inspiration. “We are proud of Beneficaries who have since followed in pursuing areas of medicine and science, like Noah Carpenter, who dedicate themselves to complete advanced schooling and show Inuvialuit what we can achieve in our lives and careers,” said IRC chair and CEO Duane Ningaqsiq Smith, in a statement.

Speaking to CBC News 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 gonna take me a while to, you know, to think about it. It never really hit me yet.”

With files from Wanda McLeod