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“It brings me joy to feel as though I am making a positive contribution for Inuit:” ITK president Obed

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ITK president Natan Obed making bread. Erin Filliter/Natan Obed’s Office photo Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed opens the door of his Ottawa home with his shirt sleeves rolled up. Handing off an apron he smiles and says, “I thought we could bake some bread together today.” The recipe […]


ITK president Natan Obed making bread. Erin Filliter/Natan Obed's Office photo

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed opens the door of his Ottawa home with his shirt sleeves rolled up.

Handing off an apron he smiles and says, “I thought we could bake some bread together today.”

The recipe is an adaptation of one his mother used to bake the bread he and his siblings grew up on. Ingredients are many, including a Red River cereal base, quinoa, molasses, yoghurt and semolina flour.

“In Labrador there wasn’t a lot of store-bought bread, so she would make six or seven loaves at a time.”

Obed now makes five or six loaves on weekends he is at home, giving away quite a few.

ITK president Natan Obed makes bread with feature writer Chloe Girvan. Erin Filliter/Natan Obed’s Office photo

Obed’s mother, writer Ellen Bryan Obed, came to Canada from Maine at 19 to become a dorm mother at a residential school in St. Anthony, N.L. She later returned to work at a school in North West River, Labrador where she began dating Obed’s father, Enoch Obed.

Following many moves and the separation of his parents, Obed moved back to Maine with his mother, sister and brother at the age of 12. Despite an early childhood laden with conflicting experiences, he still considers Nain, Labrador, to be his ultimate home.

“There was a lot of pain, because my parents had a pretty tough go of it, which impacted on my brother, sister and myself. But I also remember a lot of amazing things as well, such as a connection to a larger family, the land and a general feeling of belonging in the world.”

When describing his mother, her contributions to his success become clear.

“We were poor, but she loved us made sure that we had every opportunity she was able to provide. She was strict and very religious, but was never worried about golf clubs in the living room or tennis balls being bounced off of the walls.

“My brother and I loved sports and she recognized that as a creative outlet. We could go and play sports at any time and it was always encouraged. I think this was the part of the reason I was able to play hockey successfully for so many years.”

After graduating from high school, Obed played three years of Junior A hockey starting in New Hampshire and then in Montana. A scholarship to Tufts University, where he played hockey for all four years, led to a double major in English and American Studies, and ignited his interest in politics.

“The American Studies degree was flexible enough that I could make it into an Indigenous Studies degree. I did my own studies on the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement and Labrador Inuit history.”

He thinks that his academic choices first started with a desire to connect with his father and Inuit family, driving him to try to learn to understand more about his background from afar. It soon turned to a calling and something he was, “passionate about and excited to work on.”

Inquiries he received into his ethnicity and where he came further fuelled the personal side of his learning process.

“I think that these questions drove me further to try to better understand who I was. I felt that I didn’t have the breadth of answers that I felt or wished I should have. I wanted to change that and reassert my own identity.”

Believing that his life experience and understanding of both worlds allows for him to be an effective communicator in his current role, Obed takes pride in that skill.

“And although I am just as proud of who my mother is as who my father was, I have chosen the place and community I have identified with and strongly connected with the most and that is why I do what I do.”

An interview break, necessary for Obed to teach and observe the kneading process, reveals further clues into his leadership style, and according to one staff member, his “intentional and thoughtful nature.” Appearing to casually step back, he is still, unbeknownst to his student, mentally monitoring the exact number of turns and minutes required to ensure a perfect rise. He is precise and meticulous. And when the bread-teaching class concludes, Oban states gently, “I will take over from here. Thank you. You have done a great job.”

As president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), elected in 2015, Obed leads an organization considered to be the national voice of Canada’s 65,000 Inuit. According to the ITK, “Most Inuit live in 51 communities spread across the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (Northwest Territories), Nunavut, Nunavik (Northern Quebec), and Nunatsiavut (Northern Labrador). We call this vast region Inuit Nunangat. It encompasses roughly 35 per cent of Canada’s land mass and 50 per cent of its coastline.”

“ITK is not partisan,” said Obed. “We work very closely with all politicians, but mostly with the governing party and with this current governing party we have been able to do some pretty incredible things.”

He also points to a recent 10-year commitment from the government of Canada, in the 2019 federal budget, which will ensure that the National Inuit Suicide Prevention Strategy, implemented in 2016, will be able to move into its next phase.

“The goal of the strategy is to really focus on transformative change over generations and reducing risk factors for suicide with protective factors and doing that throughout all stages of life. We will continue to work with Inuit regions and communities to do whatever we can.”

In a job requiring a great deal of interaction with federal ministers, Obed feels confident that current Minister of Indigenous Services Seamus O’Regan, with whom he has a good working relationship, “has the utmost respect and the intention to fulfil the path and commitments that former minister of Indigenous services Jane Philpott, made previously.”

ITK president Natan Obed making bread. Erin Filliter/Natan Obed’s Office photo

With key issues such as housing, health care and climate change needing to be addressed on behalf of the Inuit, the ITK will be certainly be an active voice in October’s election.

“For this upcoming election I think we will have positions for all parties to consider putting into their platforms and have conversations with each party about the priorities of the Inuit and the consideration that each party gives them.”

As to what he would like known about the Inuit, Obed has a lengthy list.

“That we are able. We are building our own self-governance and relationships with the Crown in order to build a better society for ourselves, while holding onto our culture and language. I think this gets lost.

“We are not flailing but instead creating solutions that will help our society to thrive over time.

“Also, that there is a diversity amongst Inuit of opinion, aspiration and goals. Too often non-indigenous Canadians tend to be homogenic about who Indigenous people can be, how they present to the world and what their beliefs are. There are many Inuit who would disagree with ITK’s positions, but that is what a democracy is. Celebrating the diversity of Indigenous society is so much better than imagining we are all the same.”

Commentary regarding his thoughtful criticism of media questions to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the SNC-Lavalin scandal, on a day dedicated to a long-awaited apology to the Inuit in Iqaluit for the government’s horrific mistreatment of Inuit suffering from tuberculosis from the 1940s through the 1960s, begs the question of Obed as to how he prepares to speak and respond on behalf of those he represents.

“I try to be as understanding as I can be about the diverse realities of Inuit and then, as I speak, I imagine what people would want me to say and try to encapsulate a summary of that divergence of thought within our society. Something that people always want is respect and also acknowledgment of past human rights abuses.”

For non-indigenous Canadians wishing to help to advance reconciliation, Obed suggests starting with two things.

“No matter where you live in this country, you are living in traditional Indigenous territory. Understanding the Indigenous peoples that are traditional to your homeland and actively understanding what that means is something that can be taught at school, very early on.

“More importantly, let the story come to you. Accept that the Indigenous reality is so diverse and the history incredibly complex. Ask questions that are not to reassert what you already know but instead ask those that get you to new knowledge.”

Now the father of his own two boys, he wants them to always feel loved with a sense of home.

“I also want them to be resilient and good people who consider their behaviour and continue to question the kind of people they want to be. I am also trying to teach them to be tolerant and respectful of other people. The boys currently attend school in Iqaluit which fulfils my No. 1 priority for them, which was to be fluent in Inuktitut.”

Not needing much to get through the day, Obed chooses a good breakfast of two pieces of toast, one with peanut butter and one with homemade jam, as something that makes the morning start well.

With six marathons under his belt, and a love of nature, Obed stays centred by running 13-15 kilometres every other day. Content to run at whatever time of day possible, he tries to select hotels near parks and trails when travelling, to enable him to run outdoors.

Joy and happiness are brought to Obed primarily through his children.

ITK president Natan Obed posing with the bread loaves he made. Erin Filliter/Natan Obed’s Office photo

“It brings me joy to feel as though I am making a positive contribution for Inuit. And many other Indigenous people have approached me and said that what I have said has resonated with them. And to think that I am making a positive contribution within the Indigenous movement in this country is something that I am very proud of and brings me joy.

“That somehow, I am figuring out a way to say things in a way that people can relate to and that push us closer to the goals and ideals we are all striving for.”

As the smell of fresh bread fills the kitchen, Obed confesses that sometimes he walks outside and comes back in to get the full effect. After a delicious shared snack of bread and homemade jam with his guests, Obed insists on sending another loaf home. Which, unlike this thoroughly enjoyable meeting, lasts for less than ten minutes.

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