• Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami

    Natan Obed is president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national organization that advocates for the people of Inuit Nunangat and works to Inuit language and culture. (Photo: ITK/Adam Scotti)

In late August 2017, Natan Obed, president of the national Inuit representational organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, joined Catherine McKenna, the minister of environment and climate change, on her visit to the Nunatsiavut region of northern Labrador and Torngat Mountains National Park. Obed, who grew up in Nain, the administrative capital of the Labrador Inuit region, helped tour the minister around the area, showing her signs of climate change and explaining the success of the park’s cooperative management board, representatives of which claim is the country’s only such all-Indigenous body. Canadian Geographic was invited to join the tour and conducted the following interview with Obed from a rocky beach at the end of North Arm, Saglek Fiord, in the park.

On trying to establish a Inuit-Crown relationship with the federal government

The relationship we have with the current federal government is better than it has been with previous governments with respect to access. Our ability to talk directly to ministers or to talk directly to the prime minister is impressive, and there have been tangible commitments. For example, the Inuit-Crown Declaration [a commitment for the federal government and Inuit to work together on shared priorities that affect Inuit, signed in February 2017], the Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee — which has on it four federal ministers, the prime minister, our four land-claim presidents and myself, and which creates joint priority areas and works to implement them — and the intent to create an Indigenous language legislation. We are about halfway through the federal mandate, and we are getting a little bit nervous about the huge amount of work that we need to do to realize the things we’ve all said we’d do together. But I am also still optimistic. I want to believe that this government is going to follow through, is going to do what it says, especially in relation to Inuit and other Indigenous people, but there’s still a lot of work to do to show that their action mirrors their intent.

On relationships with federal ministers

It’s essential. In order to do work with governments, you have to do work with people, and the personalities of our ministers differ and their interest in Inuit differ. I’d like to spend time with the prime minister in Inuit Nunangat [Canada’s Inuit regions]. I think that Minister Bennett [Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs] should spend more time in Inuit Nunangat. Minister Philpott [ former health minister, current minister of Indigenous Services] has spent time in Nunavik and had been scheduled to come to Hebron, N.L. We do have good relationships with the Crown at this point in time. I’m really happy for those relationships. I’m still pushing for these to transfer into tangible outcomes and actions that we’ve been hoping for for decades — to implement the rights that we already have or to fill in gaps in infrastructure or program funding or legislative scope that we’ve always tried to advocate for within Inuit Nunangat.

On communication between Inuit and the minister of environment and climate change

There are a lot of ministers that wouldn’t understand our lands, our way of life, our language or our challenges — and who wouldn’t want to. Minister McKenna has wanted to learn and also asks the tough questions after she learns why things aren’t the way that she thought they were or learns ways that we can improve our relationship. Ultimately, it comes down to action. It’s good to have a strong relationship with a person who is trying to figure out how to implement these truly massive federal environmental responsibilities across Canada. We cover 35 per cent of Canada’s landmass with our land claim agreements. We are also affected by climate change in a much more profound way than most of the country because the Arctic is warming at a higher rate than the rest of Canada.

On the importance of visiting Inuit Nunangat

I think it’s really important that people who make decisions about these lands come to them. That’s the major reason why I pushed for Minister McKenna to visit the park — to meet the people who are affected by the decisions made by the Government of Canada in this place and to understand the connection that we have to the land. The way the Government of Canada has thought about protection, thought about its control over decision-making, that’s an outdated model and it’s one of colonialism. We’re thinking of the entire environment, and we are coming to conclusions based on a different worldview, but a more complete set of circumstances than those behind many of the decisions made on our behalf. We can contribute and we can give Canada a better chance at conservation or a better chance at protection or leadership in the sustainability of species. It isn’t that we’re up here wanting to kill every last animal on this land. It is the exact opposite. We want these species here forever. We see ourselves as part of the environment and the species we harvest as a part of us. We don’t divorce it.

On the success of the co-managed national park model

Torngat Mountains National Park is a part of our land claim agreement. It also has an effective co-management body, and it’s just one of the most spectacular places on Earth. We’re using a management model that’s a partnership with Nunatsiavut, Nunavik [Inuit of Quebec], Inuit and Parks Canada to make the most of such a beautiful place. The model so far is working. There could be improvements, especially in the administration of the park and how all the funding flows to create a visitor experience. It’s almost impossible for anyone to get here, including Inuit from Nunatsiavut or from Nunavik, so I think there’s a lot that we can do moving forward, such as trying to figure out what sustainability looks like in the administration of the park. We’ve got the governance down, we have protection, and we’re doing all sorts of research to understand the park ecosystems, but I think the last piece is building access for Inuit and better sustainability in the administration. First and foremost, this should be a place where we run programs, where we do research. We have an administrative structure for the park, and if we can run tourism out of here as well, that should be a bonus. This is really remote and really expensive to operate, and the price per night is very high. Those are all considerations that we’ll be able to work through, and I know we can work with Parks Canada and with the Nunatsiavut government and Makivik Corporation [the legal representative body of Quebec Inuit] to make sure we keep improving on the model.

On the Inuit role in the world

We’ve created a framework of rights. We also have a lot of work to do on social equity in that Inuit and Inuit Nunangat don’t have access to the same level of services that most Canadians do. I imagine another project — another big Canadian project. There was a project of building a railroad out to the West and other massive investments that the Canadian government has made to build Canada. I don’t think Canada has built the necessary infrastructure in Inuit Nunangat. We still have one big project to go and that is around the Canadian Arctic. The understanding of how this country functions best is growing, as is the respect this country has for Inuit and for Inuit Nunangat; in this time of climate change and global pressures on Arctic sovereignty, we know more now about our socioeconomic status and how that affects things such as mental health and suicide. I think there are compelling reasons to create that reality, and that all Canadians would be sympathetic to our desire to create it. We have all these different amazing people who are showing what’s possible, and so we’ll be able to build our own communities and our own self-determination at the same time we are imagining a Canada in which we have the same level of opportunities, whether it’s broadband or runways or getting our communities off diesel. It’s going to take a long time, but I think Canadians are there with us.

On a shared North

With this government, and I hope successive governments, there will be that sea change in attitude that federal funding spent on Indigenous people or on building our communities isn’t a donation, isn’t wasted money. These are funds that are necessary for a healthy Canada, and Canada gets back just as much as it puts in. We are contributing members of society and we want to continue to be that way. Look at Torngat Mountains National Park. We wanted a national park as Nunatsiavut Inuit. We wanted to share this with Canada. We pushed for it just as much as any other entity, and we didn’t have to. We could’ve made this into our Inuit lands, and we could’ve cordoned it off and tried to keep people out, but we see ourselves as Canadians. This land is ours, but also something we want to show the world as long as we do it in a way that’s respectful. I hope Canadians get excited about that, too — are appreciative of the fact that Inuit want to be Canadians. We want to share our land, we want to have this relationship.