Be­com­ing Natan Obed

The na­tional Inuit rep­re­sen­ta­tive is the most im­por­tant leader many Cana­di­ans haven’t heard of

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Samia Mad­war

The Inuit rep­re­sen­ta­tive is the most im­por­tant leader many Cana­di­ans haven’t heard of

When Natan Obed ran for pres­i­dent of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) in 2015, the or­ga­ni­za­tion that rep­re­sents Inuit to the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment, he was the youngest of the three can­di­dates — and the only one who wasn’t flu­ent in an Inuit lan­guage. Cathy Tow­tongie, now a rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the Nunavut Leg­isla­tive As­sem­bly, was on the ITK board at the time. “What do you re­call in your Inuit iden­tity,” she asked Obed dur­ing the elec­tion, “that you have not lost while you’ve gone through the West­ern ed­u­ca­tion and so­ci­ety?” Obed’s fam­ily hadn’t spo­ken Inuk­ti­tut at home, and though he is from Labrador, he spent his teenage years in the United States. “The fact that I don’t have flu­ency in Inuk­ti­tut is only one small part of who I re­ally am,” Obed replied. He spoke about the cul­ture he was hon­oured to in­herit and about what it meant to him to be Inuk: “Whether it’s not know­ing who’s go­ing to come over for sup­per be­cause you have an open-door pol­icy....or whether it’s learn­ing by watch­ing rather than learn­ing by books. Or whether it’s the re­spect that we have for our el­ders. Or the re­spect that we have for the land....all those things I ap­pre­ci­ate and know.” Obed went on to win that elec­tion, his first for ITK, with 54 per­cent of the vote. He re­flects a new gen­er­a­tion of Inuit in Canada: at forty-two, his youth makes him an apt leader for a pop­u­la­tion of 65,000 of which more than 50 per­cent are un­der twenty-five. Like him, many younger Inuit have fam­ily mem­bers who were forcibly re­lo­cated from their home com­mu­ni­ties, who were sent to res­i­den­tial school, and who were sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies by churches, the gov­ern­ment, or both. The ex­change with Tow­tongie struck a nerve among Inuit who, like Obed, have sim­i­larly been asked about their knowl­edge of cul­ture — who have been told they aren’t “Inuk enough” — and en­cap­su­lated long-stand­ing trauma in a com­mu­nity where dif­fer­ent peo­ple, and gen­er­a­tions, are wrestling with the legacy of hav­ing their tra­di­tions stripped away. “Those of us that have gained back our iden­tity and gained back our skills as an Inuk,” Tow­tongie told me later, “can rec­og­nize a per­son who’s lost [their] own cul­ture.” Forced into res­i­den­tial school her­self, Tow­tongie says the West­ern ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem of­ten “teaches that Indige­nous peo­ple like my­self are sav­ages, we are a lit­tle less in­tel­li­gent, more like an­i­mals.” It isn’t that West­ern ed­u­ca­tion to­day is nec­es­sar­ily bad, Tow­tongie says, but it changes your mind­set and sep­a­rates you from your com­mu­nity.

For many Inuit, much of this mind­set is cap­tured in lan­guage — and to­day Inuit lan­guages, in­clud­ing Inuk­ti­tut, Inu­vialuk­tun, and In­uin­naq­tun, are near­ing a cri­sis point. Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est cen­sus, only 56 per­cent of Inuit chil­dren un­der four­teen years old speak an Inuit lan­guage as their mother tongue. Jesse Mike, who used to work with Obed in Iqaluit, ar­gues that ques­tion­ing an Inuk’s iden­tity based on their lan­guage skills can be cruel, echo­ing colo­nial ef­forts to erase Indige­nous cul­ture. “Many Inuit and [I]ndige­nous peo­ple were shamed and phys­i­cally abused for speak­ing their own lan­guages,” she wrote in a let­ter to the ed­i­tor of Nu­natsiaq News af­ter the elec­tion, de­cry­ing Tow­tongie’s line of ques­tion­ing. “Now we have ‘ lead­ers’ abus­ing fel­low Inuit for not speak­ing the lan­guage that was taken from them.” Obed isn’t im­per­vi­ous to the con­cerns Tow­tongie raised. He’s been study­ing Inuk­ti­tut for years, and says he un­der­stands it bet­ter than he speaks. But as a leader, Obed doesn’t feel he can af­ford the in­evitable stum­bles that come with speak­ing a new lan­guage in pub­lic. “The fear I have,” he told me later, “is one of not want­ing to ...speak in a way that dis­re­spects our lan­guage or [not want­ing to] show any sign of weak­ness from this po­si­tion to Inuit.” (He tends to only use com­mon words — nakur­miik ( ᓇᑯᕐᒦᒃ, thank you) and taima ( ᑕᐃᒪ, fin­ished) — in pub­lic.) A tru­ism in pol­i­tics: most com­mu­ni­ties aren’t ea­ger to be led by an out­sider. But, for Inuit, Obed says, there is an added layer of wari­ness, born of cen­turies of colo­nial­ism, against new­com­ers to the cul­ture. He agrees that guard­ed­ness is war­ranted, even when it’s di­rected at some­one like him, who didn’t choose to grow up away from their home­land. Those who newly claim Indige­nous iden­tity, Obed says — whether be­cause they feel they no longer need to hide it or be­cause they’ve only re­cently dis­cov­ered some Indige­nous an­ces­try in their fam­ily tree — may be re­garded with sus­pi­cion, es­pe­cially if they be­gin to iden­tify as Indige­nous with­out tak­ing steps to get to know their com­mu­nity. Which is why, over the past two decades, Obed has had to earn his right to claim a place among Inuit, let alone to be­come their na­tional leader. Though he’s not the first ITK pres­i­dent to strug­gle with Inuk­tut (the gen­eral term for Inuit lan­guages in Canada), Obed’s abil­ity to ar­tic­u­late the ten­sions that sur­round this cul­tural dis­lo­ca­tion dis­tin­guishes him from his pre­de­ces­sors. Obed has spent most of his life pro­tect­ing his iden­tity: al­most ev­ery­where he goes, he’s seen as an out­sider. In talk­ing about these strug­gles pub­licly, and with a savvy use of me­dia to ex­plain Inuit cul­ture and gov­er­nance, Obed is con­vey­ing a mod­ern, nu­anced idea of what it means to be Inuk — a pic­ture that in­cludes the ef­fects of colo­nial­ism across gen­er­a­tions and su­per­sedes long-held stereo­types.

Inuit Nu­nan­gat is the home­land of Inuit in Canada. Cur­rently, it is di­vided into four sep­a­rate land-claims re­gions, three of which are con­tained within the borders of an­other prov­ince or ter­ri­tory: Nu­natsi­avut, in north­ern Labrador; Nu­navik, span­ning north­ern Que­bec; the ter­ri­tory of Nunavut (which has a gov­ern­ment that serves both Inuit and non-inuit); and the Inu­vialuit Set­tle­ment Re­gion in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries and the Yukon. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami— the name means “Inuit are united in Canada” — is com­posed of rep­re­sen­ta­tives from each of these land­claims re­gions; it is cur­rently the main or­ga­ni­za­tion where they can work col­lec­tively and across ju­ris­dic­tional bound­aries. The long-term goal is for Inuit Nu­nan­gat to stand as its own co­he­sive en­tity along­side Canada’s prov­inces and ter­ri­to­ries, with sim­i­lar re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and pow­ers. Im­ple­ment­ing that vi­sion has been slow. Land-claims ne­go­ti­a­tions be­gan in the early 1970s; the most re­cent one was only fi­nal­ized in 2006. And, though the land claims now have their own gov­ern­ing bodies, they don’t yet have the re­sources re­quired to man­age

key pol­icy files, such as ed­u­ca­tion and health. Inuit in Labrador, for in­stance, still fol­low the New­found­land and Labrador pri­mary and sec­ondary school sys­tem; the Nu­natsi­avut gov­ern­ment hasn’t yet been able to cre­ate an Inuit-spe­cific cur­ricu­lum. Through­out his pres­i­dency, Obed has had to ex­plain to non-inuit of­fi­cials how ITK’S struc­ture could even­tu­ally sup­port a fully func­tion­ing sys­tem of self-gov­er­nance. Of­ten, those of­fi­cials, and the pub­lic in gen­eral, know so lit­tle about Inuit his­tory and iden­tity that he has to start from scratch. Some­times it is as sim­ple as ex­plain­ing that Inuit are dif­fer­ent from First Na­tions and Métis peo­ple — in the past, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has failed to dis­tin­guish be­tween them. When the 2016 bud­get was an­nounced, for in­stance, lit­tle money was specif­i­cally al­lo­cated for Inuit: fund­ing was, for the most part, di­rected to Indige­nous pri­or­i­ties broadly, with­out re­flect­ing the needs of dif­fer­ent groups. Be­cause ITK doesn’t have ju­ris­dic­tion over Inuit re­gions, Obed is aware that he can be per­ceived as a prop. “When I go to events, and when I pick out what I’m go­ing to wear, there’s al­ways a con­scious de­ci­sion that I make about how much I show of the Inuit iden­tity and cul­ture,” he says. Some­times, he’ll opt for his busi­ness suit rather than a sila­paaq ( ᓯᓚᐹᖅ), a hooded shirt tra­di­tion­ally worn as an outer layer to cover the parka, and dress shoes in­stead of kamiik ( ᑲᒦᒃ), boots made with seal or cari­bou skin: in a jacket and tie, he’s dressed in a way non-indige­nous politi­cians can bet­ter re­late to. In the short term, Obed hopes to per­suade the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to de­fer to Inuit lead­ers when mak­ing de­ci­sions that af­fect Inuit com­mu­ni­ties. For him, it’s not just about how much money the gov­ern­ment invests in Inuit but who gets to man­age that fund­ing. Lit­tle of what the fed­eral gov­ern­ment does in­vest, Obed says, in­volves “in­ter­ac­tion or par­tic­i­pa­tion with Inuit them­selves.”

On pa­per, at least, Obed is be­gin­ning to see re­sults: the 2018 fed­eral bud­get man­dated that just over $500 mil­lion be in­vested over ten years in Inuit-led, Inuit-spe­cific hous­ing and health pro­grams — pri­or­i­ties ITK had iden­ti­fied. It also ac­knowl­edged Inuit Nu­nan­gat by name, a first for the Inuit home­land in a fed­eral bud­get. This past sum­mer, Obed spent three days tour­ing Nu­natsi­avut with en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter Cather­ine Mckenna. It was her first time in the Arc­tic and the first time she’d learned that in the 1950s the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment forced sev­eral Inuit com­mu­ni­ties to re­lo­cate to new lo­ca­tions in the North. She also be­gan to learn about mod­ern Inuit life. Be­fore the trip, she says, “I didn’t re­ally un­der­stand the con­cept of Inuit Nu­nan­gat.” “It’s a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing, and it re­quires some imag­i­na­tion,” says Mckenna. “It’s hard, I think, for gov­ern­ment to do this, be­cause we’re re­ally reimag­in­ing how spa­ces are de­fined, how our coun­try is de­fined.” “We have reimag­ined it,” Obed says later. “Now it is up to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and the prov­inces and ter­ri­to­ries to re­spect and ac­cept the po­lit­i­cal and geo­graphic ar­eas of Inuit Nu­nan­gat rather than still try­ing to fig­ure out how to serve our pop­u­la­tions in a way that makes sense to them and not us.” The seem­ing re­luc­tance to fully em­power Inuit is a sore point for Obed, who has had to re­peat­edly point out how Inuit lead­er­ship is ex­cluded by gov­ern­ment. One re­cent case: the date of and agenda for last year’s an­nual first-min­is­ters meet­ing — in which pro­vin­cial and ter­ri­to­rial

pre­miers and As­sem­bly of First Na­tions, Métis, and ITK lead­ers gather to meet with the prime min­is­ter — had been set with­out con­sult­ing the Indige­nous lead­ers, a de­ci­sion Obed protested. “That is not a re­newed re­la­tion­ship,” Obed told the CBC at the time. “That is a pa­ter­nal way of imag­in­ing what the pri­or­i­ties are that one group wants to talk about to an­other.” Obed plans to run for ITK pres­i­dent again this fall. But whether or not he’s re-elected, af­ter mov­ing on from ITK, he says, he even­tu­ally might want to re­turn to Nu­natsi­avut. (Obed cur­rently splits his time be­tween Ot­tawa, where ITK is head­quar­tered, and Iqaluit, where his wife and chil­dren live.) One of his friends pre­dicts he’ll be a sen­a­tor some­day. Oth­ers hail him as a fu­ture prime min­is­ter. Obed him­self isn’t so sure: he tends to avoid large crowds and says the way par­lia­men­tar­i­ans treat each other dur­ing ques­tion pe­riod “turns my stom­ach....and I es­pe­cially don’t think it’s in­dica­tive of how Indige­nous peo­ples treat one an­other.” Last sum­mer, he joined a week-long leg of Canada C3, a voy­age by ship along the coun­try’s coast­line to mark the sesqui­cen­ten­nial. Even though he’d be par­tic­i­pat­ing in the por­tion of the trip that cov­ered the coast of Nu­natsi­avut, his home­land, Obed was ret­i­cent at first. “I was wor­ried . . . that I was go­ing to be used in a per­for­ma­tive man­ner. I didn’t want to be a tour guide or the colour” — he chuck­les — “to go along with the en­vi­ron­ment.” At one point that week, I asked Obed if he ever tired of his role as cul­tural am­bas­sador and gov­ern­ment in­ter­me­di­ary. “I signed up for this,” he said. “But I do feel some­times like I’m try­ing to ex­plain to ev­ery last Cana­dian about Inuit, and I don’t think I have that much stamina.”

“Chil­dren don’t choose where they grow up,” Obed told me when we met in his of­fice in Ot­tawa last fall. “They don’t choose the lan­guage they speak.” Obed’s par­ents met at a res­i­den­tial school. Enoch Obed was about seven years old when his fam­ily was re­lo­cated from Nu­tak, one of the north­ern­most set­tle­ments in Labrador, far­ther south to Hope­dale, in 1956; he spent the rest of his child­hood in the Gren­fell Mis­sion in St. An­thony, New­found­land. Obed doesn’t know much about his fa­ther’s ex­pe­ri­ences there. “It ob­vi­ously af­fected the way that he par­ented, the way that he saw the world, the way that he dealt with his emo­tions and af­fected his men­tal health,” Obed says. “But it was never some­thing that he could talk about.” When Enoch was sev­en­teen, he met Ellen Bryan, a twenty-year-old uni­ver­sity stu­dent from Maine who was vol­un­teer­ing at the school. By co­in­ci­dence, they met again soon af­ter in North West River — a town far­ther north, in Labrador, where Enoch was vis­it­ing his brother and where Ellen had moved to teach at the lo­cal school. The cou­ple mar­ried and ended up in Fred­er­ic­ton, where Natan was born. The fam­ily moved around of­ten when Natan was young, but his strong­est mem­o­ries are of Nain, in Labrador. It wasn’t an easy time: Inuit fam­i­lies that had been re­lo­cated had been placed in sub­stan­dard hous­ing; for some time, Natan’s fam­ily didn’t have run­ning wa­ter. But rel­a­tives who were around dur­ing Natan’s early child­hood still live in Nain; even now, he says it is where he feels most grounded. When Natan was twelve, Ellen moved back to Maine — she and Enoch had sep­a­rated sev­eral years ear­lier — and brought her chil­dren to live with her there; Natan wouldn’t re­turn to Labrador for an­other twelve years. But he al­ways iden­ti­fied as Inuk, and their home al­ways had touches of the land they’d left: carv­ings and wall hang­ings, mats and table­cloths em­broi­dered by Inuit Ellen had met dur­ing her time in Nu­natsi­avut. “She made sure that I had the un­der­stand­ing of my iden­tity and my right­ful role in the world,” says Obed. Enoch’s rel­a­tives vis­ited ev­ery sum­mer. Obed cred­its hockey with get­ting him through his child­hood. “I think we

moved eigh­teen or nine­teen times,” he says. “And I never had a peer group that stayed with me for more than one or two years.” On the ice, all that changed. “The world that you cre­ate within your team is some­thing . . . that is apart from any­thing else in your life. And there’s cer­tainty in that.” He was also good at it: Obed would go on to play in the New Eng­land col­lege-hockey cir­cuit and Ju­nior A with the He­lena Ice Pi­rates. But hockey wasn’t al­ways an es­cape. While play­ing, he was called “ev­ery name in the book,” he says. “I kind of lose track a lit­tle bit. Nig­ger and mon­key boy were the big­gest names for the peo­ple who thought I was African Amer­i­can, black. Sand nig­ger I think was for the Mid­dle East. And then spick and then chink, and then peo­ple who thought I was Na­tive Amer­i­can, there was all sorts of eth­nic slurs they would use for me.” When he talks about this pe­riod, his jaw tenses vis­i­bly, his eyes fo­cused on a spot in the dis­tance. He re­calls one par­tic­u­lar in­ci­dent at a rink in Mon­tana: “There was a woman in Billings who would make a sign, and it was Mon­key Boy #2, and she would have it right up against the glass, and she would put ba­nanas on the end of the hockey stick, and she’d dan­gle it over the bench.” The at­tacks didn’t de­ter him from hockey; he still plays to­day. In­juries pre­vented him from con­tin­u­ing pro­fes­sion­ally, how­ever — and Obed says he wouldn’t have made it to the NHL any­way. (His friends say oth­er­wise.) He even­tu­ally earned a schol­ar­ship to study at Tufts Uni­ver­sity, in Mas­sachusetts, where he was one of the only Indige­nous stu­dents in his pro­gram. As with hockey, few of his peers could guess his back­ground. Be­cause of his name, some as­sumed he was Jew­ish (“Natan” is the name of an Old Tes­ta­ment prophet; it means “gave” in He­brew), which might ex­plain why, when he ap­plied for a stu­dent job, he was as­signed a post in re­cep­tion at the cam­pus Hil­lel cen­tre. “That is ac­tu­ally an in­ter­est­ing way to go through the world,” he says. “Be­ing vaguely dif­fer­ent, vaguely eth­nic.”

Even though he’d al­ways iden­ti­fied as Inuk, for many years Obed hadn’t felt that he’d spent enough time in his home­land to speak about it with much au­thor­ity. His stud­ies pre­sented an op­por­tu­nity to change that. He’d cho­sen to ex­am­ine the po­ten­tial ef­fects of the Labrador Inuit land claim, which was still un­der ne­go­ti­a­tion, for his un­der­grad­u­ate dis­ser­ta­tion. When he re­ceived a grant for the project, he de­cided to use the funds to re­turn to Nain, where Enoch still lived. “Some peo­ple didn’t know that my fa­ther had chil­dren,” he says. “And then a lot of older peo­ple

“I do feel some­times like I’m try­ing to ex­plain to ev­ery last Cana­dian about Inuit, and I don’t think I have that much stamina.”

re­mem­bered me from when I was young and were re­ally happy to see me, and so it was a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent re­sponses.” Enoch had been a leader in his own right, as a min­is­ter and a ne­go­tia­tor on Labrador Inuit land claims while Natan was a child, and as a men­tal-health coun­sel­lor for Innu First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties later on. But he also suf­fered from al­co­holism. At home, Enoch had been abu­sive and dis­tant. (When he was eleven, Natan de­cided that he would never drink.) When Obed re­turned to Nain, he was shocked to find his fa­ther liv­ing alone in a nearly empty house, hav­ing been un­em­ployed for months. “He avoided my ques­tions, avoided me in gen­eral,” Obed later wrote in his dis­ser­ta­tion. “If I had been wel­comed back by my fa­ther, it would have been eas­ier to es­tab­lish re­la­tion­ships with my other rel­a­tives in­side the com­mu­nity, and eas­ier to be ac­cepted by the com­mu­nity as a whole.” Enoch passed away a few years later, still largely a stranger to his son. Though Obed is usu­ally very pri­vate, he pur­pose­fully se­lects some sto­ries to share — in­clud­ing ones about his fa­ther. “There are a lot of peo­ple, a lot of Inuit, who have gone through sim­i­lar things . . . who have grown up in abu­sive house­holds, who have had al­co­holic par­ents who have been to res­i­den­tial school, who have felt aban­doned by their par­ents,” he says. “Some­times, we don’t have peers or role mod­els within our com­mu­ni­ties. And I do hope that I can be a peer to a whole group of Inuit who feel like their per­sonal his­to­ries are in some way linked with what I have been say­ing.” But it isn’t straight­for­ward; Enoch was also re­spected in his com­mu­nity. “My fa­ther is loved by many peo­ple, and I don’t want to un­der­mine that,” Natan says. He still gets stopped by peo­ple who re­mem­ber his fa­ther, and he’s been told that, as a leader, he takes af­ter Enoch. Gary Baikie, a su­per­in­ten­dent at Torn­gat Moun­tains Na­tional Park in Nu­natsi­avut, has worked at dif­fer­ent times with both Enoch and Natan. “Soft-spo­ken, but very de­lib­er­ate,” he says of them both. “And [they] cer­tainly got their points across, even though they didn’t need to raise their voices.” Obed takes a long pause when I tell him this. “Peo­ple have talked to me about some of the sim­i­lar­i­ties, es­pe­cially in pub­lic speak­ing,” he fi­nally says. But he prefers not to make too much of it. “Hon­estly . . . I like there to be a sep­a­ra­tion be­tween who he was and who I am.”

Obed re­turned to Canada af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Tufts and worked for ITK in Ot­tawa for a year be­fore mov­ing to Nain to work for the Labrador Inuit As­so­ci­a­tion. He made his mark in his home­town, help­ing out with a men’s hockey league and coach­ing kids’ hockey. Richard Pa­mak, a friend and fel­low hockey player, took Obed un­der his wing, invit­ing him on hunt­ing and fish­ing trips so he could get to know the land. “I don’t think I felt that I needed to do it,” Pa­mak says. “It’s nor­mal for us to ask peo­ple to go along. ‘Wanna go huntin’?’ It was that.” And Obed usu­ally did.

In 2008, Obed ran for the pres­i­dency of Nu­natsi­avut, the Inuit land claim in Labrador. In do­ing so, he was chal­leng­ing the re­gion’s con­sti­tu­tion, which re­quires the leader to be flu­ent in Inuk­tut. He lost to Jim Lyall, a for­mer post­mas­ter and then mayor of Nain, who had lived in Labrador all his life. (It was only later that Obed learned his fa­ther had also run for the pres­i­dency, in the 1980s, and lost on the grounds of lan­guage abil­ity.) When­ever Obed speaks, he in­hales quickly, then pauses for a mo­ment. Though he rarely raises his voice or swears, it’s easy to tell when he’s frus­trated: the pause lasts mil­lisec­onds longer, and his words be­come more cau­tious. So when we talk about that cam­paign, I get the sense that he’s had this con­ver­sa­tion with oth­ers, and with him­self, many times over. “We’re at such an in­ter­est­ing place,” he says. “The sym­bol­ism of be­ing able to speak Inuk­ti­tut ver­sus the prac­ti­cal­ity of be­ing able to cre­ate a self-gov­ern­ment from scratch are two very dif­fer­ent things. We can get lost in this ar­gu­ment for the next gen­er­a­tion.” Though he doesn’t be­lieve Inuit should be ex­cluded from lead­er­ship po­si­tions based on lan­guage abil­ity, Obed has made pre­serv­ing and sup­port­ing Inuk­tut a pri­or­ity, both in his role as ITK pres­i­dent and in his per­sonal pur­suits. For years, he served on the board of Tu­miku­luit Saipaaqivik, an Inuk­ti­tut-lan­guage day­care in Iqaluit that opened its doors in 2007. Last June, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment an­nounced it would be work­ing (with ITK, among other or­ga­ni­za­tions) to de­velop leg­is­la­tion pro­tect­ing Indige­nous lan­guages. Fol­low­ing the an­nounce­ment, Obed pub­licly high­lighted ef­forts Inuit have made on their own to pre­serve their lan­guage, in­clud­ing an ITK task force that’s de­vel­op­ing a uni­fied writ­ing sys­tem for Inuk­tut, to fa­cil­i­tate pro­duc­ing ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­ri­als and of­fi­cial doc­u­ments while still al­low­ing var­i­ous Inuit re­gions to main­tain their lo­cal di­alects. “I think there should be more op­por­tu­ni­ties for all Inuit to con­nect to cul­ture and lan­guage,” he tells me later, “so that we don’t con­tinue to cre­ate gen­er­a­tions of Inuit that have an in­com­plete skill set and know it and feel bad about it them­selves and are made to feel bad about it by some other peo­ple.” Tow­tongie, the ITK board mem­ber who ques­tioned Obed when he ran for ITK pres­i­dent, comes from an older gen­er­a­tion. She grew up with Inuit knowl­edge passed on by both her par­ents — re­mem­ber­ing, for ex­am­ple, how her fa­ther had been con­di­tioned through­out his life to drink wa­ter only in small sips, in an­tic­i­pa­tion of times when fresh­wa­ter or ice weren’t al­ways avail­able. Tra­di­tional ed­u­ca­tion pre­pared Inuit from child­hood for a life of adapt­ing to the land, rather than try­ing to im­pose their ex­pec­ta­tions on it; with­out un­der­stand­ing these things in­nately, Tow­tongie be­lieves, it is very dif­fi­cult to fully rep­re­sent Inuit peo­ple. And then there are more ab­stract ideas that shape her think­ing — the very con­cept of truth is dif­fer­ent for her and many Inuit, she says. By way of ex­am­ple, Tow­tongie tells me to pic­ture an Inuk el­der in court; when asked to tell the truth, the whole truth, and noth­ing but the truth, she goes on, he de­clines to do so. “I can only tell you what I know,” would be the el­der’s re­sponse in such a con­text, she says. There are few top­ics on which one can speak the whole truth, Tow­tongie ex­plains, “for in­stance, the land, wa­ter, and moon.” She viewed Obed’s re­sponse to her dur­ing the ITK elec­tion as de­fen­sive — a qual­ity, she says, her el­ders of­ten at­trib­uted to non-inuit. “It’s too easy to re­act,” Tow­tongie says. “The cop­ing mech­a­nism we were trained [in was] to hold it. Hold it. Think it through. Don’t re­act at the mo­ment.” Tow­tongie worked with Obed for years at Nunavut Tun­ngavik, the or­ga­ni­za­tion that man­ages the Nunavut land claim. She says they had a good work­ing re­la­tion­ship and tells me that “Natan is a good per­son. I’m not putting him down.” How­ever, she says, be­cause of his up­bring­ing, he is out of touch with the Inuit world view. Two months af­ter be­ing elected pres­i­dent of ITK, Obed pub­lished an op-ed in the Globe and Mail. In it, he urged the Edmonton Eski­mos to drop their team name, calling it “an en­dur­ing relic of colo­nial power,” and he ex­tended his de­mand to sports teams such as the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins and the Cleve­land In­di­ans. Us­ing Indige­nous peo­ples as mas­cots, he wrote, mocked their iden­ti­ties and re­duced whole cul­tures to inane sym­bols. Inuit of all ages ques­tioned Obed’s pri­or­i­ties. Why worry about a foot­ball team when there are far more ur­gent is­sues to ad­dress — sui­cides among Inuit youth, alarm­ing rates of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, a hous­ing cri­sis? “West­ern so­ci­ety adores [Obed],” Tow­tongie says. “They love the way he talks, they love the way he writes ar­ti­cles. . . . [But], in the el­der’s mind, there would be gaps in what he’s speak­ing about, be­cause he hasn’t ex­pe­ri­enced it like an Inuk.”

In Inuit tra­di­tion, chil­dren are of­ten named af­ter re­spected fam­ily or com­mu­nity mem­bers. Pani­gusiq, Obed’s el­dest son, is named af­ter his ma­ter­nal grand­mother, who died a few months be­fore he was born. (Tra­di­tional Inuk­tut names aren’t gen­dered.) A beloved leader, Mary Pani­gusiq Cousins was one of the founders of Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, ITK’S pre­de­ces­sor, and worked as a teacher and an ed­i­tor of Inuk­ti­tut mag­a­zine for many years. Though the nam­ing prac­tice fol­lows tra­di­tion, Natan and his wife, Le­tia, wor­ried Pani­gusiq might get teased about his name once he was older. But they felt it im­por­tant to con­tinue the tra­di­tion, says Natan. As part of the nam­ing pro­to­col, he says, peo­ple ad­dress Pani­gusiq as though he were his grand­mother; char­ac­ter­is­tics of the de­ceased are thought to carry on through their name­sakes. “It’s a re­ally thought­ful and in­te­grat­ing way of en­sur­ing that a per­son’s legacy lives on and that the love that. . . peo­ple have for an in­di­vid­ual car­ries for gen­er­a­tions,” says Obed. Like Natan, Le­tia comes from a mixed back­ground: her mother was Inuk from Pond In­let, Nunavut; her fa­ther was white and born in Saskatchewan. “If there’s any­thing I can give my kids in re­la­tion to iden­tity, it’s to grow up in a place of strength,” Natan says. “They don’t have to con­form to one spe­cific iden­tity be­cause other peo­ple might want them to.” Natan and Le­tia met in 2005, dur­ing a meet­ing about the Kelowna Ac­cord —

a multi-bil­lion-dol­lar, ten-year plan to im­prove in­fra­struc­ture, health, hous­ing, and ed­u­ca­tion in Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties that has never been im­ple­mented. Le­tia lives with their two sons (Jushua, named af­ter Natan’s great-un­cle Jo­sua, is the younger) in Iqaluit. “I love that they’re grow­ing up in Iqaluit and that they are Inuit and they grew up with other Inuit chil­dren and they speak Inuk­ti­tut and they eat coun­try food,” Natan says. “I also make sure that they go visit my mom and my fam­ily in Maine and that they know they have rel­a­tives that are not Inuit that live in a very dif­fer­ent re­al­ity. I want them to cel­e­brate that too.” The boys of­ten join Obed for fish­ing trips. Dur­ing one trip last sum­mer, Jushua and Pani­gusiq had been learn­ing how to har­vest and pre­pare coun­try food, tra­di­tional Inuit foods. “So my eight-year-old is eat­ing [Arc­tic] char...eye­balls with­out hes­i­ta­tion — just, this is what you do — and then his hon­est re­ac­tion is not one of ‘this is gross’ but ‘this is a new taste and this is a part of what it means to eat in my life.’ Those are re­ally great mo­ments for me.”

There’s a hush over Nain, a town of just un­der 1,200 and the north­ern­most com­mu­nity in New­found­land and Labrador. It over­looks a small in­let, where a few is­lands stand be­tween the town and the Labrador Sea. No roads lead here; Nain is ac­ces­si­ble only by air or sea. It feels like a se­cret, shel­tered spot. This is the place Obed calls his home­town. And on a grey and windy day last July, it be­came the start­ing point for our week-long leg of the Canada C3 voy­age. The twenty-two par­tic­i­pants in this por­tion of jour­ney in­cluded artists, stu­dents, doc­tors, sci­en­tists, com­mu­nity ac­tivists, and politi­cians, few of whom knew Inuit his­tory and cul­ture. The Po­lar Prince would take us north­ward along the east­ern coast of Labrador, with stops in Torn­gat Moun­tains Na­tional Park, to Iqaluit. Though he never pointed it out him­self, Obed was one of just two or three peo­ple who iden­ti­fied as Inuk on the ship. He of­ten finds him­self the only Inuk in a room, and with that re­al­ity comes the con­stant risk of be­ing to­k­enized. He be­lieves that, be­cause of his role, he has to make him­self ac­ces­si­ble to non-inuit who are cu­ri­ous about his cul­ture, though it isn’t easy. Many Indige­nous peo­ple, he told me, “feel that there’s an en­ti­tle­ment, a colo­nial en­ti­tle­ment, that goes along with peo­ple be­ing able to ask you ran­dom ques­tions about your iden­tity or your peo­ple. Go­ing out of the blue, just say­ing, ‘Why is it that your so­ci­ety has such high rates of sui­cide? Tell me about that.’” Af­ter leav­ing Nain, C3 headed to He­bron, which had been es­tab­lished in the 1830s by the Moravian church, a Protes­tant de­nom­i­na­tion. When New­found­land and Labrador joined Con­fed­er­a­tion in 1949, it de­cided to cen­tral­ize Inuit com­mu­ni­ties, with­out con­sult­ing Inuit them­selves. In 1959, a ship ar­rived in He­bron to move the com­mu­nity, along with the res­i­dents of Nu­tak (where Obed’s fa­ther was from), far­ther south. As the first group of Inuit pre­pared to board, Natan’s great-un­cle Jo­sua Obed gave a speech at the dock, urg­ing ev­ery­one to main­tain their strength. Nearly sixty years later, the C3 par­tic­i­pants gath­ered in the He­bron church, where mem­bers of Obed’s fam­ily had once sat, and lis­tened to Obed share the com­mu­nity’s his­tory. To Obed, He­bron (now a Na­tional His­toric Site) is a phys­i­cal re­minder of the ef­fects of re­lo­ca­tion and of the abil­ity of Inuit to con­front and com­mem­o­rate their past. He de­scribed the fraught re­la­tion­ship the des­ti­na­tion com­mu­ni­ties had with the re­lo­cated Inuit, who were teased and bul­lied. Those who’d come from He­bron and Nu­tak were promised new liv­ing quar­ters, yet con­struc­tion on many homes — which were seg­re­gated from the rest of town — was de­layed. Af­ter his pre­sen­ta­tion, and af­ter some in­ter­views with the C3 com­mu­ni­ca­tions team, Obed headed to the wa­ter. Stand­ing by the spot where the dock used to be, he cast his fish­ing line, reel­ing in glis­ten­ing Arc­tic char. He would later of­fer his catch to the ship’s chefs to serve with din­ner that evening.

left Obed cred­its hockey with get­ting him through his child­hood.

aboveObed’s fam­ily in Nain, Nu­natsi­avut, in 1980.

above Obed and C3 par­tic­i­pants in He­bron’s his­tor­i­cal church.

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