Difficult childhood shaped my Inuit identity, Natan Obed says
A former resident of Nain is emerging as a strong voice for indigenous interests as one of Canada's youngest national Inuit leaders.
In September, Natan Obed was elected president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the organization representing some 60,000 Inuit.
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Obed spoke to CBC Radio's The Current from Paris, where he's taking part in the climate change conference and discussing the impact global warming has on those who live in Canada's North.
Obed said being a university student in Boston helped form his Inuit identity.
"People would come up to me and ask, 'Where are you from?,'" he said.
"[They meant,] 'What culture do you come from, what ethnicity are you?' I was very aware of that … so I'd want to give them an answer that made them learn about Inuit and learn about the diversity of indigenous people in the world."
Growing up, Obed's father was a prominent Inuit leader who managed land claim negotiations for the Labrador Inuit Association. He also worked as a minister and counsellor.
It really is the proudest achievement that I have as a parent that my children are speaking Inuktitut.- Natan Obed
But at home, Obed said his father was abusive and an alcoholic. Obed believes his father's destructive behaviour was informed by his difficult childhood.
"He and his family were relocated when he was five years old and then both of his parents died within two years after relocation," he said.
"He was then sent to an orphanage in St. Anthony in Newfoundland, away from his family, away from his culture."
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At an early age, Obed said he decided to make very different choices in his own life.
"I think because of his experiences, and I'm not making excuses for him, he grew up in a time when he was the star person who was going to come back and save his people," said Obed.
"At the same time he had huge anguish, I believe, over his childhood and his identity."
Historical trauma passed on
Today, Obed lives in Iqaluit, Nunavut, with his wife and two sons.
"It really is the proudest achievement that I have as a parent that my children are speaking Inuktitut," Obed said of his kids, who are being schooled with Inuktitut as their first language.
In addition to climate change, Obed regularly speaks out against suicide, calling it "the major social issue of our time" affecting everyone living in the Arctic.
He said the period between the 1940s and 1960s in which many indigenous people experienced public health epidemics like tuberculosis, resettlement, relocation and residential schools — even living in communities for the first time — has caused a lot of dysfunction.
"Historical trauma is something that I talk about where if you don't get support and help, and you're not a well person, you're most likely going to carry on that to your children."