Canada 2017·So, Canada...

The True North — or rather True Inuit Nunangat — strong and free

When O Canada was informally adopted as the national anthem in 1939, the term “True North strong and free” had little practical application to Inuit. Natan Obed reflects on what it could mean today.

'If Canada is a northern nation, then everyone can claim to be a northerner. However...'

'North' is relative. Inuit leader Natan Obed says true northerners are too often ignored, misunderstood and minimized. (National Film Board of Canada. Phototheque / Library and Archives Canada / e00226563)

So, Canada...: Canadian writers, musicians, educators, poets and leaders riff on big and little topics inspired by our anthem's lyrics. 

When I think of my most indelible associations with Canada's national anthem, I think first of hockey and the pre-game anthems of my sporting youth. Every time O Canada is played, a part of me is still standing at the blue line facing the flag, grasping my helmet with my left hand, with my left handed glove tucked under my right arm and the heel of my stick blade resting quietly on the ice as I bow my head and close my eyes in one last respite before the impending action.

This comfortable association of O Canada with routine and choreographed rituals remains, but I have graduated to another arena: working as Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President (National Inuit Leader) for Inuit self-determination and social equity. My association with O Canada's lyrics, especially in relation to the phrase "True North strong and free" has gradually evolved from blind acceptance as a child to questioning whose "True North" is being celebrated when so much difficult work still remains between Inuit and the Crown to implement a strong and self-determining Inuit society.

When O Canada was informally adopted as the national anthem in 1939, the term "True North strong and free" had little practical application to Inuit. We didn't have the right to vote. We did not enjoy the self-determination that would have been necessary to stop the unilateral Government actions — relocations, residential schools, dog slaughter, and World War II and Cold War-associated militarization of our homeland — that would transform our society in the coming decades.

Inuit are now gathering strength, and our comprehensive land claim agreements with the Government of Canada structure the way in which we implement our Inuit democracy, co-manage our lands and resources and protect the rights of our people in our vast regions of Nunavut, Nunavik (Northern Quebec), Nunatsiavut (Northern Labrador) and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region of the Northwest Territories. We call our collective lands Inuit Nunangat, which comprise approximately 35 per cent of Canada's land mass and over 50 per cent of its coastline.

Despite positive steps towards self-determination in recent years, there are many challenges that we still must overcome. One challenge is the term "North" and how its popular, almost universal definition allows our interests to be ignored, misunderstood or minimized within Government legislation, policy and programs.

If Canada is a northern nation, then everyone can claim to be a northerner. However when it comes to the Inuit Nunangat region of Canada, the historical and uneducated view of an empty and barren "north" often prevails that neglects Inuit history, rights and political realities. This view is reflected in Canada's clumsy definitions of the "North" in public policy, which often is defined by a certain latitude, or relational north to other parts of a province or sometimes the application of the term North to the country as a whole.

One very simple solution to this terminology challenge is to adopt an Inuit Nunangat policy space. Separate, single-window solutions for this vast but specific geographic and political space would clarify and define all legislative, policy, administrative and funding decisions that affect our lands and people. It would bring us closer to an inclusive "True North."

In this time of reconciliation, we have the opportunity to better articulate this country to ourselves, and find practical solutions to better realize the rights-based roles of Inuit and other Indigenous peoples as partners in the future of this country. I am encouraged that we are strong enough to have this reconciliation conversation. The future of Inuit Nunangat depends in large part on redefining the "North" in ways that practically include Inuit and respect Inuit governance.

By doing this, we are one step closer to a country that is strong and free.

Next in So, Canada...: Ian Foster's take on "from far and wide:"


Natan Obed

Freelance contributor

Natan Obed is the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national representational organization for Inuit in Canada. He is originally from Nain, the northernmost community in Nunatsiavut. He has devoted his career to working with Inuit representational organizations to improve the well-being of Inuit in Canada.