The national Inuit representative is the most important leader many Canadians haven't heard of
- by Samia MadwarSamia Madwar Updated 9:00, Sep. 7, 2023 | Published 12:35, Jun. 21, 2018This article was published over a year ago. Some information may no longer be current.
When Natan Obed ran for president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) in 2015, the organization that represents Inuit to the Canadian government, he was the youngest of the three candidates—and the only one who wasn’t fluent in an Inuit language.
Cathy Towtongie, now a representative in the Nunavut Legislative Assembly, was on the ITK board at the time. “What do you recall in your Inuit identity,” she asked Obed during the election, “that you have not lost while you’ve gone through the Western education and society?”
Obed’s family hadn’t spoken Inuktitut at home, and though he is from Labrador, he spent his teenage years in the United States. “The fact that I don’t have fluency in Inuktitut is only one small part of who I really am,” Obed replied. He spoke about the culture he was honoured to inherit and about what it meant to him to be Inuk: “Whether it’s not knowing who’s going to come over for supper because you have an open-door policy. . . . Or whether it’s learning by watching rather than learning by books. Or whether it’s the respect that we have for our elders. Or the respect that we have for the land. . . . All those things I appreciate and know.”
Obed went on to win that election, his first for ITK, with 54 percent of the vote. He reflects a new generation of Inuit in Canada: at forty-two, his youth makes him an apt leader for a population of 65,000 of which more than 50 percent are under twenty-five. Like him, many younger Inuit have family members who were forcibly relocated from their home communities, who were sent to residential school, and who were separated from their families by churches, the government, or both.
The exchange with Towtongie struck a nerve among Inuit who, like Obed, have similarly been asked about their knowledge of culture—who have been told they aren’t “Inuk enough”—and encapsulated long-standing trauma in a community where different people, and generations, are wrestling with the legacy of having their traditions stripped away.
“Those of us that have gained back our identity and gained back our skills as an Inuk,” Towtongie told me later, “can recognize a person who’s lost [their] own culture.” Forced into residential school herself, Towtongie says the Western education system often “teaches that Indigenous people like myself are savages, we are a little less intelligent, more like animals.” It isn’t that Western education today is necessarily bad, Towtongie says, but it changes your mindset and separates you from your community.
For many Inuit, much of this mindset is captured in language—and today Inuit languages, including Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, and Inuinnaqtun, are nearing a crisis point. According to the latest census, only 56 percent of Inuit children under fourteen years old speak an Inuit language as their mother tongue. Jesse Mike, who used to work with Obed in Iqaluit, argues that questioning an Inuk’s identity based on their language skills can be cruel, echoing colonial efforts to erase Indigenous culture. “Many Inuit and [I]ndigenous people were shamed and physically abused for speaking their own languages,” she wrote in a letter to the editor of Nunatsiaq News after the election, decrying Towtongie’s line of questioning. “Now we have ‘leaders’ abusing fellow Inuit for not speaking the language that was taken from them.”
Obed isn’t impervious to the concerns Towtongie raised. He’s been studying Inuktitut for years, and says he understands it better than he speaks. But as a leader, Obed doesn’t feel he can afford the inevitable stumbles that come with speaking a new language in public. “The fear I have,” he told me later, “is one of not wanting to . . . speak in a way that disrespects our language or [not wanting to] show any sign of weakness from this position to Inuit.” (He tends to only use common words—nakurmiik (ᓇᑯᕐᒦᒃ, thank you) and taima (ᑕᐃᒪ, finished)—in public.)
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