Since 2015, Natan Obed has been President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), a national organization representing over 65,000 Inuit across Canada, many of whom live in Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland. For more than 50 years, ITK has worked on federal policies and programs that address social, cultural and environmental issues facing Inuit.
Obed, who grew up in Nunatsiavut, Newfoundland, and later Maine, graduated from Tufts University in Massachusetts, where he majored in English and Native Studies. In March, he was part of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations that traveled to Rome to receive Apologies from Pope Francis for Catholic boarding schools in Canada. He talked to Penny Smoke.
Penny Smoke: How did your upbringing shape your identity?
Nathan Obed: I am the second of three children. My father is Inuk and grew up in Nunatsiavut, while my mother, who is white, is from Maine. I moved a lot during my childhood. Having a relative who is from the United States while living in northern Labrador is not a normal thing, so people saw me and my siblings differently. Then, when I lived in Maine, I was an exotic person because I was part of an Inuit and native culture that very few people understood.
Wherever I was, I was a bit of an interpreter, if you will. People asked me a lot of questions about the other place I was associated with. It allowed me to shape conversations about who I am, but also made it clear that there were things about my community that I didn’t know and wanted to learn. It really sparked my interest in the university to study land claims agreements throughout Inuit history, which made me want to work on behalf of Inuit after graduation.
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PS: When did you decide to get into aboriginal politics?
NOPE: In 2008, I ran for the presidency of the Nunatsiavut Government. It was the first election of our autonomous government, and I came second. But I wasn’t prepared for the campaign, for the spotlight that was on me and some of the things that people were saying about me and who they thought I was. It was a good thing it turned out that way, though – I realized I needed to learn a lot more about what it takes to be a politician and be more at peace with who I am. am. Seven years later, I felt I had a perspective that could be a positive contribution in the role of President of ITK. So I offered my name.
PS: What are the main issues you have raised during your tenure?
NOPE: The first who was a ITK’s priority was the creation of a national Inuit suicide prevention strategy. Our suicide rates are eight to 15 times higher than those of other Canadians, and we have huge mental health issues and suicidal ideation. This strategy was created in 2016 and we have been implementing it ever since. We also worked on a number of other key policies that address the housing crisis in Inuit Nunangat and improve our community infrastructure. In all of the different policy areas we work on, we combine an evidence-based approach that is globally informed but also Inuit-specific.
PS: In March, you were one of 32 Indigenous delegates who traveled to Rome hoping to receive a papal apology for the role of the Catholic Church in Canada’s residential school system.
NOPE: Preparation for the trip took more than two years. It was something the Catholic Church wanted to do. I was very happy that they created this opportunity.
PS: Can you take me to when you actually spoke with the pope?
NOPE: I immediately had the impression that Pope Francis was an authentic and empathetic person who was looking forward to having a meeting with us. I was there to say very weighty things, in particular concerning Reverend Johannes Rivoire, the French Oblate priest accused of sexually abusing children in Nunavut. I demanded that the pope intervene and ask Rivoire to return to Canada to stand trial. I tried to speak to the Pope as respectfully as possible, while maintaining the need to talk about difficult things.
It’s interesting how careful we as humans are always when it comes to telling the truth, but it’s necessary for everyone we represent.
“It will be a challenge for us to figure out how to ensure that we pass on our knowledge, our stories and our language to the next generation in a way that is seamless and relevant to the times we find ourselves in today.”
PS: What was your reaction to the Pope’s apologies?
NOPE: I was grateful that he said those words, and I know those words resonated with a lot of people. I also know that there were people who didn’t appreciate his words, and that’s an individual choice. But we asked the pope to apologize — and he did. For now, there is still a lot of work to do, but from this point of view, I think the trip was quite successful. Once you have a relationship with another person or group, it’s much harder for them to ignore you. I think the trip also opened a lot of hearts and minds to First Nations, Inuit and Métis. It is a very good thing.
PS: Has your approach as president evolved during your time at ITK?
NOPE: When I came to ITK, I didn’t appreciate that any path to unity was the best path.
There are all sorts of times when you can shoot other institutions or political leaders, or when you’re frustrated or angry with decisions. But we are here to improve the lives of our constituents. Always having that at the forefront of my considerations has really grown over time. It’s easy to get distracted by individual personalities; it’s much more difficult to work through all of this and always come up with the positions first.
PS: As an Inuit politician and as an Inuit man, how important is your culture to you?
NOPE: It’s really what keeps me grounded in the work that I do and in my place in Inuit society. I always think about the basics of our way of thinking as Inuit. A core is that you try not to talk about things you haven’t directly experienced. It makes things a bit difficult on a national political level, but the idea is that you respect what you don’t know. I always make sure that I try not to just jump in and have opinions on every single thing that’s in the conversation. Or if I’m asked a question that I don’t have an answer to, then have the respect for knowledge to say, “I don’t know.”
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PS: How do you keep the Inuit culture strong among young Inuit?
NOPE: Our education systems need to be improved. Since Inuktitut, for example, is not an official language in Inuit Nunangat, government services are only offered in French and English.
All the aboriginal politicians talk about the importance of young people, but we live in such a different world than we lived in even when I was younger. The ability to be immersed in a different place, even if you’re in your own living room, has never been easier. It will be a challenge for us to figure out how to ensure that we pass on our knowledge, our stories and our language to the next generation in a way that is seamless and relevant to the times we live in today.
PS: Is it difficult to stay connected to your culture while living in Ottawa?
NOPE: Well, I have the chance to travel a lot and to go to many parts of our homeland. There are also many generous people who send me traditional food such as Arctic char, caribou and muktuk (whale skin and blubber). My two sons live in Iqaluit, and just hearing about their day and what’s happening in town is pretty ingrained.
Recently I was in Iqaluit for four days for my boys hockey tournament. Even though I was just a spectator, I was able to have all kinds of conversations with the residents. And, of course, I have ties to my family in Nunatsiavut.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. He first appeared in Wide view’s September 2022 issue with the title “Born leader”.
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