'I will be a little bit more at peace': Inuit leader reflects on report of CFL team changing name

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, says if the reports are true that Edmonton's CFL team will have a new name, Inuit can move on to tackling other issues without this 'distraction.'

Natan Obed hopes to begin 'repairing relationships' broken through discourse over name

Natan Obed says the issue was never just about a team name. 'This was about social justice. It is about systemic racism. And it is really about Inuit self-determination.' (Adam Scotti/Prime Minister's Office)

Natan Obed doesn't feel that he, himself, made the Edmonton football team change its name.

But the national Inuit leader — whose 2015 op-ed in The Globe and Mail brought the discussion into the national spotlight ahead of the team's Grey Cup victory — says if the reports are to be believed, Inuit can now move on to tackling other issues without this "distraction."

CBC News has not been able to verify the reports from TSN and Postmedia suggesting Edmonton's CFL club has come to an internal decision to change its name, with an announcement expected as early as this week.

A team spokesperson said, as of Saturday, there was no update regarding the name change.

But if the reports are true, it brings an end to a bitterly divisive debate that has played out not only in Southern Canada, but among Inuit across the country.

"That's something that weighs heavily on me because I hate to see our community and our people fight with one another over any issues. But let alone something that seems to be so personal," Obed, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), told CBC News.

Repairing relationships

Support and opposition for the team's name across Inuit Nunangat largely depended on demographics. Inuit in the Western Arctic were generally more supportive of the name, along with older Inuit; while those farther East, and the younger generations, predominantly supported a change.

In the fight for Inuit self-determination, we all want to feel like we're part of it.- Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami

Duane Smith, the chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation — and an ITK board member — told Sportsnet radio earlier this month many of his constituents found pride in Edmonton's team name.

The issue even reached Nunavut's Legislative Assembly in February, when cabinet minister Lorne Kusugak told opponents of the team's name to "take a Valium" and to stop being "so sensitive" during his member's statement.   

Obed acknowledged there will be some who are upset with him over the reported outcome, comparing it to former Nunavut MP Nancy Karetak Lindell's voting in favour of same-sex marriage legislation, despite strong opposition from her constituents at the time.

"When the name changes, I will be a little bit more at peace and I hopefully will be able to now start repairing some of these relationships that have been broken through this discourse," Obed said. The issue for him, he said, was never over what Inuit think of the term, but rather about a business using it as a moniker.

"It was never about just blatantly criticizing and ridiculing anyone. This was about social justice. It is about systemic racism. And it is really about Inuit self-determination.

"I think that in the fight for Inuit self-determination, we all want to feel like we're part of it."

Other issues to focus on

During a phone-in show on CBC Nunavut's Tausunni radio program on Friday, one caller suggested there are more important issues facing Inuit than a football team's name.

Obed agreed, but said this issue is important, too.

"Systemic racism has all sorts of different ways that it presents itself to Inuit," he said.

"And by this name being replaced, it ends one of those avenues for systemic racism to exist. And that to me is just so heartening in the face of so many other things that Inuit face every day."

Obed also said this issue proved Inuit have a voice for change in this country.

"The fact that this name can change I think also shows that when we mobilize and when we use our voices and we stand up for things that we do right," he said.

"And it'll be hard. And our own community may not be with us at all steps along the way. But we're doing things that matter for Inuit, and for all Inuit coming in the future."

According to TSN and Postmedia, Edmonton's CFL team has decided to change its name, with an announcement expected as early as this week. The team has not confirmed the report. The team applied for the trademark 'Edmonton Empire' in 2018. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Ending the use of the term in non-Inuit discourse

Asked if this reported decision from the CFL team is the turning point for non-Inuit to stop using the term altogether in social discourse, Obed said: "Yes."

"That is a huge victory for Inuit and for Inuit self-determination," he said.

"If Inuit within our communities want to use that term to describe themselves or describe their friends, or use the term, that is the pure discretion of Inuit and Inuit alone.

"I don't want my children being called [that term] by government, or by anyone that they interact with. And this decision by the Edmonton football team will make sure that it is not socially acceptable anywhere, for any non-Inuit, to use that term for any reason to describe us."


Nick Murray


Nick Murray is a CBC News reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He specializes in investigative reporting and access to information legislation. A graduate from St. Thomas University's journalism program, he's also covered four Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports.