'I am Inuk': Natan Obed on his complicated childhood, challenging questions and the future of the Inuit

Natan Obed can count on one hand the number of times he's been angry. This, despite the fact that the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami has been called out for "not being Inuk enough," for not speaking Inuktitut fluently, and for growing up in the United States. 

The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president discusses growing up, becoming a leader, and his hopes going forward

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, talks about his upbringing and how it shaped the leader he is today. (Adam Scotti/Prime Minister's Office)

Originally published on April 7, 2019.

Natan Obed can count on one hand the number of times he's been angry. 

This, despite the fact that the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami has been called out for "not being Inuk enough," for not speaking Inuktitut fluently, and for growing up in the United States. 

"I'm trying to be me, and I am Inuk ... I'm trying to break down these artificial barriers that people have about who Inuit are and who they can be," he said.

"I'm not a stereotypical politician and I'm totally fine with that."

Obed also fights misconceptions and fields difficult questions from the public about Inuit daily. And through it all, he maintains his calm, approachable demeanour.

Obed sat down with Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild to talk about his family, becoming an Inuit leader, and his hopes going forward. Here's part of that conversation.

Do you ever get tired of this role as a cultural ambassador and government intermediary for the Inuit?

On certain topics I do, and also in certain situations, but largely I relish the role that I play. I think we are all here for certain purposes and I'm very fortunate to be given the opportunity to be a national leader.

I think the hardest part for me is when people push right to really difficult topics with no sympathy or empathy about how those topics affect me.

If somebody comes right up and just wants to start talking about suicide prevention or suicide and is not from our society and is just wanting to be like, "Why do you have these rates of suicide?" or, "Why are you people deficient?"

We are people and we're human beings and that we are directly affected by a lot of these really challenging topics isn't something that a lot of people stop and pause and think about.

Natan Obed talks to Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild about wanting action over sympathy on real concerns to Inuit, like the high rates of tuberculosis.

Sometimes you wear a suit in the public eye, other times you dress in a more traditional Inuit way. Is that a conscious decision about how much Inuit identity you want to present publicly?

It's a combination of a number of things. I don't want to be a token and often we have to, as leaders, know the dynamics of an invitation into a certain space and the work that's going to happen in that space.

Obed wears traditional Inuit clothing he calls an atiki. He says he's thought about when he chooses to wear traditional clothing and when not to. (Submitted by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami)

If I'm asked to go to an event and I feel like it is just for a photo op so that you can get the splash of colour and the intrigue of Indigenous traditional clothing, I often will push against that and will try to say I'm here for work.

You have been criticized for not being Inuk enough. What was that like to hear from your own community?

I'd been hearing that a lot from a young age. In Labrador, growing up, I had a white American mother and everyone thought that because I had that, that I was somehow rich and I was American. Then I went to the United States and all of a sudden I was an obviously brown kid from Canada and not an American.

It did hurt as well that that my own community would be so eager to basically judge me as incompetent before even seeing me in action.

And it also is not reflective of where we're at. There's so many young Inuit now that are not completely fluent in Inuktitut, that have grown up with one parent who's not Inuk and one parent who has grown up outside of it.

I think sometimes that's lost in the debate. That if you don't have Inuktitut, that somehow you can't be an advocate for it or that you are not ever going to be a good one. I think we need to use all of our strengths.

This idea of language and loss or retention, reclamation goes a little deeper for you than just not being able to speak it yourself. Tell me about your father.

My father … was relocated at six from the small place where his family lived. And within a year of his relocation, his mother passed away and his father passed away, and he was sent to residential school in Newfoundland.

So he grew up not speaking Inuktitut fluently as well, and having to relearn it as an adult and went through a lot of hardship.

Obed says his upbringing allowed him to have a level of empathy needed for his line of work.

He and my mother met actually at the residential school. My mother was a dorm mother for another dorm and she was just two years older than he was. They didn't start dating in that space, but then she went back to Labrador and was a teacher at the residential school in Northwest River and he ended up there because of a younger brother that was attending the residential school there.

Obed (bottom left) pictured with his family in 1980. (Submitted by Natan Obed)

So I come from all sides of this awful history of colonial attitudes and of residential schools and relocations. And then on the other side, on my mother's side, on a person who actually was working in a residential school.

What's interesting to note is at the apology by the prime minister in Happy Valley-Goose Bay about a year and a half ago there are a number of residential school survivors from Newfoundland and Labrador that came up to me and said — I'll probably choke up here — that my mother was one of the only people that showed them love in their childhood.

To have that complexity of ... my mother feeling just devastated and always telling me, 'I didn't know. I had no idea that these abuses were happening. If I knew, I would have said something.'

To have that on both my mother's side and my father's side, who couldn't be a father because of all the things he went through … has given me a perspective and a level of empathy for all of this that I think has allowed for me to do a better job in my world.

Obed is hopeful he'll be able to connect further with the land in the future. (Submitted by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami)

What are your hopes for the next 10 to 20 years for Inuit?

I hope that we continue to implement self-determination. I hope that Inuit continue to pass on our traditional skills to our children and for those of us who still are learning traditional skills even later in life that we have platforms and ways to do it that are inclusive and build Inuit unity.

I hope that we aren't going to be celebrating outliers in the next 20 and 30 years — that we are going to be celebrating classes of people of Inuit who are doing amazing work.

I hope that we can reduce violence in our communities. I hope that we can respect our women and girls in a way that we are not respecting them today.

I hope to be outside more. I hope to be on the land. I'd love to do more things that make me feel connected to Inuit Nunagat and the environment and hopefully over the next 20 to 30 years that can come to pass.

Q&A edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our full interview with Natan Obed.

This week's playlist: 

Tanya Tagaq — Rabbit

Elisapie — Out of Desperation