Since 2015, Natan Obed has served as the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), a national organization representing the more than 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 the social, cultural and environmental issues facing the Inuit.
Obed, who grew up in Nunatsiavut, N.L, and later, in Maine, graduated from Tufts University in Massachusetts, where he majored in English and Indigenous studies. In March, he was part of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations that travelled to Rome to receive Pope Francis’s apology for Catholic-run residential schools in Canada. He spoke to Penny Smoke.
Penny Smoke: How did your upbringing shape your identity?
Natan Obed: I’m the second of three children. My father is Inuk and grew up in Nunatsiavut, while my mother, who’s white, is from Maine. There was a lot of moving around during my childhood. Having a parent who’s from the United States while living in northern Labrador isn’t a normal thing, so people saw me and my siblings differently. Then, when I lived in Maine, I was somebody who was exotic because I was part of an Inuit and Indigenous culture that very few people understood.
No matter where I was, I was a bit of an interpreter, if you will. People would ask me a lot about the other place that I was associated with. This allowed me to shape the conversations about who I am, but also made clear that there were things about my community that I didn’t know about, and that I wanted to learn. It really spurred my interest in university to study land claim agreements throughout Inuit history, which in turn got me interested in working on behalf of the Inuit after graduating.
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PS: When did you decide to enter Indigenous politics?
NO: In 2008, I ran for president of the Nunatsiavut government. It was the first election of our self-government, and I came in second. But I was unprepared for the campaign, for the spotlight that was on me and some of the things that people said about me and who they thought I was. It was a good thing that it happened 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. Seven years later, I felt that I had a perspective that could be a positive contribution in the role of ITK president. So I put my name forward.
PS: What are the main issues you’ve brought forward during your time in office?
NO: The first one that was a priority for ITK was the creation of a national Inuit suicide prevention strategy. Our suicide rates are eight to 15 times higher than other Canadians, and we have huge struggles with mental health and suicide ideation. That strategy was created in 2016, and we’ve been implementing it ever since. We’ve also worked on a number of other key policies that address the housing crisis across Inuit Nunangat and improving our community infrastructure. On all the different policy areas that we work on, we combine an evidence-based approach that’s globally informed but also Inuit-specific.
PS: In March, you were one of 32 Indigenous delegates who travelled to Rome in the hopes of receiving a papal apology for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system.
NO: The lead-up to the trip was more than two years. It was something the Catholic Church wanted to do. I was very pleased that they created that opportunity.
PS: Can you take me to the moment when you actually spoke with the Pope?
NO: I immediately got a sense of Pope Francis as somebody who is a genuine and empathetic person and who was eager to have a meeting with us. I was there to say some very heavy things, especially regarding Rev. Johannes Rivoire, the French Oblate priest accused of sexually assaulting children in Nunavut. I demanded that the Pope intervene and ask Rivoire to return to Canada for trial. I tried to speak to the Pope as respectfully as I could, while maintaining the necessity of talking about difficult things.
It’s interesting how we as human beings are always cautious about speaking the truth, but it’s necessary for all of the people that we are representing.
“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 ways that are seamless — and also fit into the time that we’re in today.”
PS: What was your reaction to the Pope’s apology?
NO: I was thankful that he said those words, and I know that 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 had asked for the Pope to apologize — and that’s what he did. In the moment, there’s still a lot of work to be done, but from that 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 do think the trip also opened a lot of hearts and minds towards First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. That is a very good thing.
PS: Has your approach as president evolved during your time at ITK?
NO: When I first got to ITK, I didn’t appreciate as much that any path to unity is the best path.
There are all sorts of times when you can take shots at other institutions or political leaders, or when you’d get frustrated or angry with decisions. But we’re here to make life better for our constituents. Always having that at the forefront of my considerations has really heightened over time. It’s easy to get sidetracked by individual personalities; it’s a lot harder to just work through all of that and always put the positions forward first.
PS: As an Inuit politician and as an Inuit man, how important is your culture to you?
NO: It really is what keeps me grounded in the work that I do and the place where I fit in Inuit society. I always think about the foundations for how we think as Inuit. One core is that you try not to talk about things that you haven’t directly experienced. That makes things kind of difficult at the national level of politics, 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 about every last thing that is in conversation. Or if I’m asked a question that I don’t have an answer for, then to have the respect for the knowledge to say, “I don’t know.”
More on Broadview:
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- Indigenous peoples have been here far longer than previously thought: Cree-Métis archeologist
- Rebecca Kudloo is fighting for a violence-free future for Inuit families
PS: How do you keep Inuit culture strong within Inuit youth?
NO: Our education systems need improving. Inuktitut, for instance, not being an official language in Inuit Nunangat allows for government services to be provided only in French and English.
All Indigenous politicians talk about how important youth are, but we live in such a different world than we did 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 ways that are seamless — and also fit into the time that we’re in today.
PS: Is it difficult to stay connected to your culture while living in Ottawa?
NO: Well, I’m fortunate that I travel a lot and get to go to many parts of our homeland. There are also a lot of generous people who send me country food like arctic char, caribou and muktuk (whale skin and blubber). My two sons live in Iqaluit, and just hearing about their day and about things that are going on in town is quite grounding.
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 sorts of conversations with the residents there. And, of course, I have the connections with my family in Nunatsiavut.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. It first appeared in Broadview’s September 2022 issue with the title “Born leader.”
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