Canada recently announced it would support the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which calls on governments to work alongside Indigenous groups in solving national issues. When the UNDRIP was introduced in 2007, Canada was one of four countries to oppose it.
To Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the organization that represents Inuit in Canada, this is a welcome announcement. Yet he remains wary.
Canada’s newly elected Liberal government, he says, has made promises to work alongside Indigenous peoples, including Inuit, on national issues. But “if the government decides that it is going to interpret the declaration on its own terms, and impose those interpretations on the Indigenous peoples of Canada, then nothing has changed.”
Yet something has to change, and soon. Many young Inuit have parents or grandparents who were forced to attend residential schools, where they were not allowed to speak their own languages and certain cultural practices were forbidden. That history has created a cultural gulf for younger generations that Obed, whose own father was deeply scarred by residential school, understands well.
Arctic Deeply: Young Inuit today are expected to straddle both the modern world and their ancient heritage. What challenges does that expectation present?
Natan Obed: The generation that is growing up now has complete exposure to southern media. The language of power is mostly English across Inuit Nunangat [the Inuktitut name for all Inuit lands in Canada], and our education system does not systematically produce Inuktitut-speaking graduates.
The expectations we place on our young people are unrealistic when it comes to cultural continuity, language preservation and excellence in the southern world. The education system that we have in place is the southern Canadian model. Our language and culture are infused into the curriculum as add-ons, cut-and-pasted here and there. For the most part, we are pushed into a wage economy and a southern set of values that we then have to use throughout our lives. We don’t have the same sort of support structures for our own culture and our own language.
Arctic Deeply: Does that reflect your own education?
Natan Obed: When I was in kindergarten we learned Inuktitut songs and we had Inuit culture in the classroom as an add-on. The English curriculum was dominant. It was only in my kindergarten year that I had more Inuit than non-Inuit classmates. There was no expectation in any of my subsequent education that Inuit language or society would have any role to play in what we learned in school.
Arctic Deeply: You were also educated in the U.S. How did that shape your experience?
Natan Obed: My mother’s American, and when my parents split when I was 12, my mother took my brother, sister and me to Maine. I went to high school in Maine and played junior hockey in New Hampshire and Montana. I was able to leverage my hockey into a university education [at Tufts University in Boston]. I majored in English and in American studies, with a focus on Native American Studies.
I always knew I was Inuk and I always wanted to live in the Arctic, but circumstances dictated that I didn’t have that opportunity. When I graduated from university I worked in Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and within a year went back to Nain to work in Nunatsiavut [the Inuit region of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada].
Children don’t choose where they live or where they study, but children do have a very strong sense of their identity. I always had identified as an Inuk and always wanted to come home, so it’s been a wonderful journey since my graduation.
Arctic Deeply: What do you think needs to be done for Inuit to have a stronger voice in national issues?
Natan Obed: The idea that government knows what is right for Indigenous people, for Inuit, is outdated. [The newly elected Liberal government in Canada] is talking about that very concept because it appears to be in step with the time. But governments still do not know how to partner with Indigenous people to bring about long-lasting change. There is no history. There’s no roadmap.
Often when new logical ideas are presented to government, there is a knee-jerk reaction that swells up from legal counsel, from senior bureaucrats, from people who are afraid that if Indigenous people become partners, and Indigenous priorities become government priorities, there is no end of money and time and requests that Indigenous peoples will have.
It’s my job to figure out how to get beyond that space of fear and thinking that Indigenous expenditures are empty expenses rather than investments in a better Canada.
Arctic Deeply: Suicide prevention is a crucial issue for Inuit, particularly in Nunavut, which has the highest suicide rate in Canada. What do you think needs to be done to stem the high suicide rate among Inuit youth?
Natan Obed: ITK will be releasing a national Inuit suicide prevention strategy in July.
We have thought about it in two different streams. There is the societal stream, which [focuses on] the foundations of society that need to be improved. Many people still ask, “Why did this person die by suicide? They had a good family, they went to school everyday, they seemed happy.” If we have an overcrowding rate of 40 percent, if we have food insecurity rates of up to 70 percent, if we have many times the level of violence in our communities than southern communities, if we have many times the sexual and physical abuse of children than in the south, if we don’t have the education results that many other jurisdictions have, if we have poverty, if we have exposure to suicide – those are all risk factors that an individual is going to be exposed to whether they go home to a loving family or not. We are creating an environment of risk for all of our society that needs to be addressed.
That’s going to take money. Our communities were never given a chance. From the time Inuit were coerced off the land and into communities, there was never adequate housing. There was never adequate education. There was never respect for our language or our culture. Bringing all those things into a new reality is going to take a huge shift in how people think about what is expected for our communities.
We also have the individual, the family piece. We need to ensure that anyone at risk can be identified and linked to services that will help them. We can do things within the education system or within the early childhood development system that build resilience, build coping skills, provide cultural continuity, identify mental health issues, create a continuum of care for mental health.
Arctic Deeply: What do southern Canadians and the rest of the world need to understand about communities in Canada’s North?
Natan Obed: The first thing that I want any Canadian to consider would be that they don’t have the answers for us. When they meet someone from the Arctic or they are being educated about Inuit, they should not tell them what their priorities should be, or where they should live, or what they should do or how they should act. They should listen to the priorities and the perspectives of the Inuit.