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Natan Obed — originally from Nain — was recently elected president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national organization representing Inuit in Canada, on Sept. 17 in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.
Natan Obed is ready to get to work in his new position at Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK).
Obed, who is originally from Nain, was recently elected president of the ITK, the national organization representing Inuit in Canada, on Sept. 17 in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.
Less than a week later, he is already in Anchorage, Alaska, speaking at a circumpolar mental health and suicide prevention conference.
Obed says the role Inuit play in the Canadian political process is very important, and that it is his organization’s responsbility to ensure the Inuit voice is there, and that Inuit issues are part of what any ruling party considers when they develop new initiatives or priorities for all of Canada.
“Ottawa needs to step up and help all Inuit with the areas of mental health and suicide prevention,” said Obed from Anchorage.
“Those are hand-in-hand issues and it would be wonderful to see the new federal government no matter who is elected (on Oct. 19) to make that a priority.”
At 39 years of age, Obed is one of the youngest people to hold this position with the ITK. However, he is quick to point out he is still older than most Inuit out there.
“I look at the demographics and the median age of the Inuit population is below 25 so I know that in many ways, I’m much older than most of the population,” said Obed. “But I feel like I can relate to youth.
“I’m really excited about the people I’m going to meet and the people I can help, especially Inuit youth,” Obed continued. “With youth, I feel you need to be open and not just listen but try to understand the way in which they want to be interacted with. Whether it’s reaching out to people doing post secondary, or trying to link Inuit youth with jobs, or talking at the community level about what it’s like to go through adversity and hardship and how you can overcome it.”
Obed has worked with various Inuit organizations for the last 14 years, including helping to negotiate the Voisey’s Bay impact benefit agreement for the-then Labrador Inuit Association; being the ITK’s socio-economic development director; and working with the Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. which represents the Inuit of Nunavut.
He felt running for ITK president was a natural evolution of the wok that he wants to do for Inuit. “I’ve got a lot of drive and I’ve got a lot of ideas how organizations should run and how we can make best use of our voice,” says Obed.
As president of the ITK, Obed has no shortages of challenges to tackle: education, language, suicide prevention and mental health are all topics that the ITK have been wrestling with since its inception. And with millions of dollars of federal funding cut in recent years, Obed has even bigger challenges.
“ITK has been through a rough time in that last few years with a lot of funding cuts and trying to understand how to make ITK work as best as it possibly can in this new fiscally restrained environment,” he said.
Also, right off the start, Obed has come under fire for not being fluent in Inuktitut, a reality experienced by many Inuit in Nunatsiavut.
Mary Sillett is the clerk of the Nunatsiavut Assembly in Hopedale. She held the ITK presidency in 1996 and 1997. She defends Obed in his lack of knowledge of the traditional language, whom she calls a “very sensible and smart young man.”
“There must be recognition that Inuit in Canada have different language levels,” said Sillett. “I know that in Nunavut and Nunavik [Northern Quebec] it is very strong, (but) we also recognize that it is not as strong in the Western Arctic and parts of the Central Arctic, and of course, Labrador. But there’s no requirement for the national president of that organization know Inuktitut. I know people will always question his identity, but this is a national organization and every Inuk has the right to lead it.”
While Obed acknowledges his lack of language skills, he says this will not affect his ability to represent Inuit.
“I realize my deficiencies and work on them as best I can, I won’t let them be a hindrance to the organization and how the organization interacts with all Inuit on their terms,” said Obed, “It was difficult to hear people question my ‘Inuit-ness’ but at the same time, I feel like I (had) good strong support in the room that understood what I was trying to say — I do feel that I have the skills and the knowledge and the identity to lead.”
Obed credits his family and upbringing in Labrador for keeping him grounded, and giving him a sense of identity.
“No matter where I’ve lived and no matter what situations I’ve been in, I’ve always identified myself as someone being from Nunatsiavut, from Labrador,” says Obed who has lived in Nain, Goose Bay and North West River while growing up.
“With my family and with my culture, the things that I was taught to believe in at a very young age has helped me through all kinds of situations and places that I have been in life.”