National Inuit leader skipping premiers' meeting over matter of respect

The leader of the national organization representing Inuit turned down an invitation to meet with Canada’s premiers next week over the inclusion of non-rights-holding Indigenous groups.

Natan Obed says relationship with premiers still a ‘long ways away’ from one needed for true reconciliation

Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, attends a meeting of the Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee (ICPC) in Nain, N.L. on Fri. May 12, 2023.
Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, hasn't attended a meeting with the Council of the Federation since 2017. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

The leader of the national organization representing Inuit turned down an invitation to meet with Canada's premiers next week over the inclusion of non-rights-holding Indigenous groups.

Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapirit Kanatami (ITK), told CBC News it was disrespectful for Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson, who chairs the Council of the Federation, to also invite groups that do not represent land claim regions or Indigenous nations. 

"Ultimately, it comes down to respect," Obed said.

"What I and my peers within the national Indigenous peoples space are looking for is the respect back for our governance and the people who are elected to lead our people."

Stefanson extended invitations to the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP), which was created to represent the interests of urban Indigenous people, and the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC). 

The Council of the Federation represents Canada's 13 provincial and territorial premiers, who are meeting next week in Winnipeg. The council was scheduled to meet with Obed and other Indigenous groups on Monday.

Only one national Indigenous leader is expected to attend the meeting with the premiers. 

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson answers a question as Canada's premiers hold a press conference following a meeting on health care in Ottawa.
Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson said she respects the decision from Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, not to attend the Council of Federation's meeting. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Métis National Council President Cassidy Caron told CBC News she will participate on Monday when she will present conditions for direct dialogue between the premiers and national Indigenous organizations. 

The Assembly of First Nations, which represents the interests of First Nations, will be represented by Manitoba Regional Chief Cindy Woodhouse. RoseAnne Archibald, the former national chief, was ousted last week following a workplace investigation

Indigeneity questioned

Stefanson said Thursday ITK has declined meeting invitations before.

"It's happened in the past, unfortunately, but it was very important we reach out and invite them," she told reporters in Winnipeg. "I still hope that they will come because I think they add a lot to the discussion."

In an earlier statement to CBC News, Stefanson said she respects Obed's decision. 

Carol McBride, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, called Obed's move "very unfortunate" and said they would be stronger if they worked together. 

"These are our brothers and sisters," McBride said.

"I can't see why they would object to us bringing forth the needs of our women."

National Vice-Chief Kim Beaudin of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) called Obed's decision "disheartening."

"We have so many issues to address in this country when it comes to Indigenous people," Beaudin said.

"To play a political game of exclusion — that's not the direction we should be going."

Cassidy Caron, President of the  Métis National Council, takes part in an announcement in Ottawa on Jan. 12, 2023, regarding funding to support Métis-led engagement that will inform the development of an Indigenous Justice Strategy.
Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council, said she will bring forward conditions at the Council of the Federation's meeting for future participation. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Beaudin said relationship-building with the premiers is important for his organization, which represents Indigenous people living off-reserve, including those struggling with homelessness, food insecurity and the justice system. 

CAP does not claim to be a rights-holding organization, according to Beaudin. He said it has board members who are treaty descendants. 

Beaudin said national Indigenous organizations are not rights-holders either — communities are.

But Obed said the Inuit Tapirit Kanatami is categorically different from CAP because ITK is made up of board members from the four Inuit land claim regions: Nunatsiavut Government, Makivvik Corporation, Nunavut Tunngavik and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation.

Each of those four institutions have modern treaties with the Crown, and Obed's job is to implement the decisions directed by the board members.

Short-haired individual wearing glasses and a blue and black shawl, looking upwards.
Carol McBride, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said she wants the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami at the table. (Lindsey Gibeau)

The ITK has taken a strong stance against one of CAP's member organizations, the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC). Obed has questioned NCC's legitimacy. 

"We do not believe that the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples should be speaking on behalf of Inuit in any way shape or form," Obed said. 

"It is often very dangerous just to take the word of any Indigenous organization."

'Huge pushback from certain provinces and territories against the respect for existing rights'

Obed said sometimes it feels as though Inuit are held "hostage" against the interests of provinces and territories.

"I believe we are still a long ways away from the type of relationship that we demand from provinces and territories," Obed said.

"There still is a huge pushback from certain provinces and territories against the respect for existing rights and the meaningful relationship that we are looking for."

A portrait of a man leaning on a railing.
Kim Beaudin, national vice-chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, said it's important for his organization to build a relationship with premiers since it represents Indigenous people living off-reserve. (Congress of Aboriginal Peoples)

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu declined to comment on the specifics of the situation, but did say her Liberal government determined that the three national Indigenous organizations were ITK, MNC and the AFN at the political level. 

"Those institutions had a transparent and democratic process to determine how leadership was decided and how individual members' voices were reflected," Hajdu said.

"It really was about rights holders and who was responsible to have the voice of rights holders."

In July 2017, leaders of the AFN, MNC and ITK collectively chose to reject meeting invitations from the premiers until they were invited to the table for the entire duration of the talks.

Obed said he would only join Monday's meeting under a jointly developed agenda with the premiers focused on health care and the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

"We want to be able to have meaningful conversations and ones that lead to action," Obed said.

"So far, there really hasn't been an interest in creating that sort of environment within the Council of Federation's relationship with Indigenous Peoples; therefore, I will spend my time elsewhere."


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.