When Frankie Holley applied to Memorial University in 2007, the application form asked him whether he is aboriginal. He checked the "No" box.
"I said no because I was never ever made to feel, despite the fact that I held this card which said I was an aboriginal person, nobody ever made me feel like I was," said Holley on Saturday at the weekend Inuit Studies Conference at Memorial University.
Holley spoke on the subject of identity, which he said is a "highly charged subject" for the NunatuKavut people.
Holley said the question of whether he — and other southern Inuit like him — are aboriginal is constantly asked, by people both inside and outside the community, by people who have a "pre-existing definition" of who an aboriginal person is.
"Because I didn't have the brown skin, I didn't speak a different language, I was never made to feel that I was an aboriginal person, so what benefit would it have been to me to say yes to that question?" he told CBC.
Nearly a decade later, Holley says he has a greater understanding of who he is and where he comes from.
'Because I didn't have the brown skin, I didn't speak a different language, I was never made to feel that I was an aboriginal person, so what benefit would it have been to me to say yes to that question?' - Frankie Holley
"My family has always been tied to Labrador and tied to the area of NunatuKavut," he said. "It was a greater understanding of that in a university setting, really, that enabled me to more strongly identify as an aboriginal person."
Holley is the executive assistant to the president of the NunatuKavut Community Council, which is negotiating a land claim with the federal government, but stressed he was speaking from his personal experience and not on behalf of the council.
Nunatsiavut gov't a success story: Holley
He points to the Nunatsiavut government of northern Labrador as a success story of people reclaiming their culture and identity from the effects of hundreds of years of European colonialism, and hopes the NunatuKavut will be able to do the same.
"There are issues that are unique to each and every individual community and to us as a community," he said. "Education, really, would be the best way for us to promote and propagate the further development of our land claim, and to get to where Nunatsiavut is right now."
The conference, which began Friday and runs through Monday, is co-hosted by Memorial University and the Nunatsiavut government, the first time an Inuit government has co-hosted the event, which brings together more than 400 elders, students, community leaders, researchers, artists and policy-makers.