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The Arctic’s Emerging Young Leaders

A Powerful Advocate for Inuit Youth

Maatalii Okalik wants Canada’s Inuit to enjoy the same quality of life as other citizens. But the president of Canada’s National Inuit Youth Council knows big shifts are required to overcome gaps in health and education outcomes.

Written by John Thompson Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
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Maatalii Okalik in Arviat, Nunavut, in Feb. 2016, shortly after harvesting her first caribou. Photo Courtesy of Maatalii Okalik

Maatalii Okalik has her eye on the big picture.

The 27-year-old president of Canada’s National Inuit Youth Council addressed her country’s parliamentarians as well as delegates at the United Nations climate talks meeting in Morocco in November 2016. But, asked if there’s been a defining moment to her work, she says the answer is no.

After all, Okalik knows much more is needed before she’s accomplished what she seeks – “to ensure that Inuit live the same quality of life as fellow Canadians.” But improving the health and education outcomes of Inuit requires overcoming deep-seated social problems that have their roots in Canada’s colonial past. It also requires, in Okalik’s view, a more active role from federal government in helping to prevent suicides and revitalize the use of native languages and cultural practices. The lack of high-speed internet connections and incredibly expensive air travel to Inuit communities are other obstacles Okalik identifies.

Okalik, who lives in Iqaluit, Nunavut, was recently named an Indspire laureate, an honour bestowed upon Canadian indigenous professionals and youth who demonstrate outstanding career achievements. She’s also a recipient of the Qulliit Nunavut Status of Women Council’s Outstanding Young Woman Award. We spoke to her recently as part of our ongoing series on the Arctic’s emerging leaders.

Arctic Deeply: What are some of the most pressing issues for Inuit youth?

Maatalii Okalik: The first is Inuit language. Attendees at residential school were unable to speak Inuktitut and were forced to speak English. That was the first step of language degradation. Due to that being an assimilation policy, that came from Ottawa federal government; I think that they should play a very active role in ensuring that Inuit youth have access to quality materials in Inuktitut as well access to equitable education, like our fellow Canadians. That’s with the understanding that education is in the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories or Inuit self-government. This is something separate from that being not a fiduciary responsibility. I think there needs to be a concerted effort to ensure that all Inuit youth can speak Inuktitut fluently.

The second is Inuit culture and practices. The assimilation policies of the federal government have equated to the identity crisis that currently exists today for Inuit youth. Similar to access to Inuit language, culture and practice access have been on a really steep climb for Inuit youth today. The dynamics have changed. Inuit youth are going to school, or going to work to pay bills, being the youngest population in Canada and fast growing and raising young families. That reminds me of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to action #66, which calls on the federal government to invest in Indigenous communities across Canada for youth programming.

Ultimately, Inuit youth live in two different worlds. I always say that you don’t have to compromise on tradition and modernity. We can live in harmony with both. Inuit youth are pleading for access to our culture and traditions.

The third is suicide prevention. This is definitely an imminent crisis that we are currently facing. Inuit have the highest instances of suicides – not only nationally, but internationally. We contributed to the release of the national Inuit suicide prevention strategy in July 2016, which identifies the history of suicide in our communities, as well as steps to address them.

One of the first steps to bring Canadians to a common understanding is that there are a number of social inequities that we face on a daily basis, whether it be education, whether it be housing, food insecurity, cultural access, cultural continuum or access to equitable and quality health care. We’re in the deficit in all of those areas, which contributes greatly to our quality of life on a daily basis, coupled with the identity crisis. To me it just doesn’t make sense for Inuit in our particular communities to be living in Third-World conditions. There should be a priority of Canada to address that inequity. It would be a proactive measure that would prevent some of the dire statistics, including our suicide rates.

Arctic Deeply: Do you think that there has been a defining moment in your career?

Okalik: No. I don’t think so, because I know that it will take a long time to ensure that Inuit live the same quality of life as fellow Canadians. When that’s achieved, that’ll be the defining moment. We’re just continuing on that work. I’m able to do this because so many have created that path for this generation.

I think I’m happiest when I see understanding in someone’s eyes – whether that’s an Inuk youth who learned about the history of colonization, or a federal bureaucrat or high-level minister who decides that this should be a priority and it’s a basic human right, and tries to figure out how that they can influence policy decisions or program decisions that would positively impact Inuit, or when an elder is pleased with the progress or I think when the federal government admits to wrongdoing of the past. These are areas that make me feel like we are making progress, but I won’t really be satisfied until Inuit have the same quality of life as others in this country.

Arctic Deeply: Where do you see the Arctic in 10 years?

Okalik: I definitely want to see the federal government honor the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to action #66, to give the power back to indigenous communities across Canada, but specifically Inuit communities in the Arctic. And for youth to be self-determined as they would like in their communities, and for reconciliation to occur within communities. That is something that I believe can be achieved within 10 years, being very realistic. The other thing that I think that I’d like to see is the telecommunication of the Canadian Arctic to be at par with southern Canada, including internet and phone. We recognize that these are essential services. It’s not at par in the Arctic. That influences education. It’s really important. Especially when, across the Arctic, we don’t have hospitals in all of the communities. Telehealth for example, is something that’s being explored. We should have access all across the board. As well as internet.

The other thing is that air services should become essential services, specifically in Canada. Between Nunavut’s communities, we do not have road transportation, and air services contribute to our high cost of living. Some of the social inequities, including food insecurity, are impacted by that.

Maatalii Okalik testifies before Canada’s Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Issues in June 2016. (Photo Courtesy of Maatalii Okalik)

THIS Q&A IS PART OF OUR SERIES ON YOUNG LEADERS IN THE ARCTIC. READ MORE:

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