Inuit leader Natan Obed on working with the Liberals—and his vision for the future

ITK’s president talks to Paul Wells about dealing with the Liberals, what angers him about the SNC-Lavalin scandal and his roots from Maine to Nain
ITK President Natan Obed. (Photograph by Jessica Deeks)

In March, the Prime Minister was in Nunavut, apologizing for the role that previous governments played in taking Inuit from their families and sending them to tuberculosis sanatoriums in the south. Next to him was Natan Obed, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national group representing Inuit. Obed was critical of the media’s lack of attention to the Prime Minister’s apology, amid the furor over the SNC-Lavalin scandal. He spoke to senior writer Paul Wells about this issue and the challenges of working with governments to build a new relationship.

Q: I have been at announcements with politicians, and the questions from the press gallery are never about what the announcement is about. You reminded us that sometimes there are higher obligations.

A: In this particular instance, we’d just been through a really powerful apology by the Prime Minister of this country, where he not only apologized and talked about the political conditions and the attitudes of Canada during the time, but then also pivoted and talked a bit about today and the future. So we were not only talking about an apology, we were also talking about a way forward to eliminate tuberculosis.

So these fundamental, groundbreaking things are happening that are stories, and then also the passion and the hurt from families who had been trying to get the government to apologize, trying to find their lost loved ones for decades. That the media rushed right past that was unacceptable.

Trudeau apologized for the government’s role in taking Inuit away to sanatoriums in the south (Adam Scotti/PMO)

Q: Tuberculosis is not simply a human rights disgrace of the middle part of the 20th century, it’s a public health catastrophe that’s continuing. The TB prevalence rate today in the territory that ITK covers is 290 to 300 times the TB prevalence rate here, right?

A: Right. Last year Inuit leadership and the government of Canada pledged to eliminate tuberculosis by 2030, and halve the active rate by 2025. We need massive investments in Inuit Nunangat to ensure that we can meet those targets.

Q: What is Inuit Nunangat?

A: Inuit Nunangat is a term that Inuit have created very specifically. It is our homeland: the Inuvialuit settlement region in the Northwest Territories; the entirety of Nunavut; the Nunavik region of Quebec, which is through the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement; and the Nunatsiavut region of Newfoundland and Labrador. Those four settlement regions comprise Inuit Nunangat. It’s about a third of Canada’s land mass and it encompasses about half of its coastline.

Q: The long-term goal for this Inuit Nunangat is a contiguous political space with similar jurisdiction to the provinces in the south. Is that right?

A: Well, we’ll see where our self-determination takes us.

Q: You have been the president of ITK for 3½ years. Let’s start with how you got there. I mean, you spent a large part of your teenage years living in Maine, correct?

A: Correct.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your background.

A: My mother’s American, from Maine in the U.S. I have to say that very specifically because my father is from Nain in Nunatsiavut. But my father is Inuk, and he is where I get my Inuit identity from.

I grew up all over the place, actually. I was born in Fredericton, on the way back to Labrador, because my father was in a trade school there, and he had also been studying to become a minister. So that’s what it says on my birth certificate. But we were in Nain and in Nunatsiavut, and that’s really where I say I’m from, because that’s where I feel that my identity lives and breathes.

I also lived in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, North West River, in Labrador, and then, when I was 12, my mother took my brother, my sister and I, and she separated from my father and we moved to Maine. I went to high school in Maine, and I played junior hockey in Montana and New Hampshire. And then I went to university in Boston, at Tufts. All the way through that, though, I was Inuk. I knew that I always needed to come back.

Q: There are some statistics about the life of Inuit in the North that give an indication of the challenge that we’re all facing as a country. The percentage of the population that live in crowded homes is 52 per cent, versus nine per cent here in the south. The number of families who are food insecure is 70 per cent in the North, versus eight per cent here. How do you go about addressing challenges like that?

A: It’s sometimes overwhelming to go every single day to another major societal foundational issue, from suicide prevention to TB to climate change to just the very basic political fights about Inuit and our place in this country. So we try to create practical solutions that move us forward in the path to self-determination and that, wherever possible, are realistic in terms of what governments can do. It would be easy for me to be hard-line: we need everything now. It’s much harder to be a politician who tries to work hand-in-hand with governments to figure out what the next step is, in the right direction.

Q: You were elected in the middle of 2015, so you had a few months of working with the Harper government and a few years of working with the Trudeau government. Did you notice a difference?

A: There are massive discrepancies between the way in which different governments work with Indigenous peoples. I’m very fortunate to be at a point in time when the government of the day has expressed interest in reconciliation as one of its key platform items. We’ve had some remarkable success. And I would like to think, as a non-partisan leader, that it’s the mobilization of Inuit, not necessarily the benevolence of any government of the day, that has led to a number of our really big wins. But at the same time, I think there is a basic level of respect and an openness to consider new ways of doing business that have unlocked the potential of Inuit self-determination.

Q: There is a current of thought to the effect that the new relationship is only a talking point.

A: After four years, this government is still not necessarily understanding how to transform the working relationship. And I’ve focused way more on the working relationship than on the political relationship, because that can come and go, but how the public service acts and the advice that it gives to any particular minister of the day has been entrenched for so long that we end up fighting that more than we fight the good intentions of ministers.

Q: I should also ask about your relationships over the last year or so with the leaders of the NDP, the Conservative Party and the Green Party. Do you ever see those folks?

A: I see Elizabeth May more than I see the other two leaders. And she’s always been very effusive and very supportive of ITK. With the leaders of the NDP and the Conservative Party, there hasn’t been as much of a connection, and I do hope that there can be more of an ongoing conversation.

Q: Are you surprised sometimes that you don’t hear as much from the other parties?

A: Well, the nature of federal politics is confounding to me. I don’t understand 90 per cent of it. I especially don’t understand question period.

Q: Come and work for us, then. You’ll fit right in!

A: It was really surprising to me that the Liberal Party didn’t necessarily reach out to Inuit in setting up their platform when they were all-in on Indigenous people and reconciliation. It wasn’t until we saw the mandate letters and the real focus on reconciliation and the willingness for ministers to come and engage with us that we started to tell them who we were.

I don’t necessarily think that it’ll be any different for any party in any government. No matter what government is formed in October, I’m not losing sleep about the fact that I’m not lobbying right now on our interests, because there will be random new people who’ve never heard of Inuit that I’ll be talking to, who are ministers of very important portfolios. I can guarantee you that.

Q: What would you say to someone who’s never been to the North?

A: Our communities are very diverse. And they’re heavily influenced by colonization: which church denomination, what random whaling captain was there in the 1800s. There are all sorts of weird permutations of what sort of culture we have today that is Inuit culture. Like, square dancing is a very traditional thing, or being Moravian in Nunatsiavut is very traditional. So we have the effect of colonization, but we also have the resilience of Inuit. We have our language, we have our culture, we have our traditions, we have our food, we have the way that we raise our children, we have a love for not only the land but all things that live within it.

Also, most people are amazed at how welcoming and warm Inuit are and that there isn’t so much bitterness on the surface toward the colonial relationship and those powers that sometimes still do come in and exert undue influence. It’s not to say that it’s not there. There’s a lot of historical trauma, there’s a lot of bitterness. But the way in which we greet people and try to see people for who they are and welcome them is also a hallmark of any Inuit community that you’d ever go to.

Q: I want to ask about the fallout from political events here in Ottawa. Since the beginning of the year, the only Indigenous member of cabinet has left the cabinet; the former minister of Indigenous services, Jane Philpott, has also left. Is this something of direct concern to you as you try to push your agenda?

A: It is. I think it’s a direct concern to anyone trying to do any business with the federal government at this point in time, let alone what the implications are post-June, when everyone rises and you go into election mode.

I’ve thought a lot about this, because what this issue is all about is the rule of law, and the attack on the rule of law by individuals working for a government. And I bring that back to what I’m expected to put up with as a national Inuit leader in my day-to-day, and the government of Canada and its unwillingness, in many cases, to uphold UN declarations or UN human rights law, the Constitution and Supreme Court rulings, all in relation to Inuit. And it is not in the same category. It is not talking about offences in a Criminal Code, but it is still government not complying with what Canadians would expect government to comply with.

And I think of the First Nations Caring Society and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, and the fact that there have been, I believe, six or seven non-compliance orders that have been issued, but somehow nobody in cabinet walked away from cabinet over that; and that somehow an incremental approach was always the approach that was good for cabinet and good for Canada. This is, I think, where I’m truly trying—trying hard—to understand why everything falls apart over this particular issue, but not about the myriad different cases where the government of Canada has not lived up to its expectations or its duty in relation to the implementation of land claims or its compliance with things such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

So again, it’s turning the conversation into saying something about what members of cabinet, what members of the press, what Canadians think is important and what they’re okay with.

You talk to somebody about SNC-Lavalin, and somehow everything’s over. And I think that gets to what I was saying about our stories not being told. It’s also our rights not being upheld, the rule of law not applying to Inuit in the same way it applies in other workings in the government.

Q: It sounds like what we need is a work plan of some kind. What do you think that would look like?

A: The work plan would start with knowledge—there is a lack of understanding about the complexity of Indigenous peoples, our governance and the way we fit into Confederation. So accepting that it is complex, and also accepting that it is not Indigenous people who created the complexity, it is the government of Canada, it is the rulings of supreme courts, it is the Constitution, it is the fabric of the colonial legacy. Expecting Inuit to know all of this and everyone else to ignore it is a continuation of that colonial mindset.

Everyone in Canada would accept that Indigenous peoples have rights, and we have the right to self-determination. Figuring out how to implement those rights, that’s the conversation we need to have.