Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami lays out 5 key priorities for parliament

With a new Liberal government set to take power, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami hopes the issues most important to Canada's Inuit will be on the agenda.

Language preservation, suicide prevention, aboriginal education, cited as priorities by ITK president

Natan Obed, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, says Inuit across Canada are facing some complex systemic problems, but there are a number of issues he hopes the new government will take immediate action to address. (Mitchel Wiles/CBC)

When the 43rd Parliament of Canada sits, there will be a record number of aboriginal MPs and a prime minister who has pledged to renew a "nation-to-nation relationship" with indigenous people. 

Natan Obed, the newly elected president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, hopes the change will bring with it a renewed dedication to tackling systemic issues facing Inuit across the country. 

While large-scale issues, such as food insecurity and housing shortages may take time to address, Obed says there are "a number of things" Ottawa can take action on right away. 

Suicide prevention

With the suicide rate among Inuit radically higher than average, Obed hopes the new government will create a national suicide strategy. 

In Nunavut, where residents are 10 times more likely to take their own lives, the chief coroner called an inquest to look into the issue.

"It's an issue that affects all of us and it's an issue that we can make a positive difference on if we invest and if we put the time and effort into it," Obed says.

He has also pledged to "finalize and release" an Inuit-specific national strategy during his first nine months as president.

"From a moral standpoint, we just have to do this."

Aboriginal education

During the election campaign, prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau pledged to boost spending for First Nations education, in a move designed to address quality of life issues for people living in indigenous communities.

But Obed says the government needs to understand that this is a complex issue.

"First Nations, Métis and Inuit all have different education systems and different needs," he says.

Inuit have some of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country and schools in Nunavut continue to struggle with poor attendance rates.

Obed says the government needs to find a way to close the gap, "whether it's access to more funding, the creation of a university in the Arctic, improvements of outcomes for K to 12, a bilingual education system which focuses on Inuktitut as one of the primary languages of instruction, or universal early childhood education."

National MMIW inquiry

Trudeau told reporters on Tuesday that he will move "quickly" to call a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. 

For some voters, this was a wedge issue during the lengthy campaign, with both the Liberals, NDP and Greens all pledging to call for an inquiry and the Conservatives maintaining it wasn't necessary.

Obed says he hopes an inquiry will bring some clarity to those who have lost loved ones, but he also wants to make sure it will elicit positive changes for life in Inuit communities.

"I hope that it's going to be fair and inclusive and that the Inuit regions in Canada can also participate fully," he says.

"We know that women and children are the most vulnerable parts of our society, especially in Inuit society. And we need to do more to ensure safety and also prosperity."

Truth and Reconciliation

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report in June, Trudeau pledged his "unwavering" support for its recommendations.

Now, Obed hopes the Liberal leader will address all of those 94 recommendations.

"This is a great opportunity," Obed says. "There actually is a very clear roadmap that has buy-in from across the different aboriginal groups in Canada, from Métis to First Nations and Inuit." 

Language preservation

Supporting the revitalization of aboriginal languages, including Inuit languages, is also one of Obed's key issues. 

"There's power and healing and wisdom in our language that we need to preserve," he says, adding that people who are fluent in their native language are often happier, healthier and have a better sense of identity. 

"Hopefully [it's] something I can work on with the federal government in a way that has never been worked on before," Obed says. 

"So that there is parity in the way in which the federal government funds Inuktitut versus the way that it funds other languages in Canada, such as French or English."

Obed, who has received some criticism for his inability to speak fluent Inuktitut, adds that everyone can fight for language revitalization, regardless of their proficiency in their native language. 

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