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Keynote Speaker, Natan Obed, “A Changing of the Guard in Inuit-focused Research”

July 13, 2016

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) president, Natan Obed, sees the 20th Biennial Inuit Studies Conference as a “changing of the guard.” It will be a place where Inuit knowledge and academic curiosity come together as equals in order to improve the lives of Inuit, something that Obed believes is truly transformational and long overdue.

“My most significant consideration for participating [in the Inuit Studies Conference] this year is that Inuit are partners in the development and planning of the conference, and in developing the program itself,” explains Obed, “I haven’t been to an Inuit studies conference before, largely because I haven't seen the relevance in the representational aspect of the work.”

Now Obed says the tides are turning as Inuit begin to partner with, and in many cases, lead academia. He is excited about the leadership role taken by the Nunatsiavut Government in the Inuit Studies Conference. Nunatsiavut and Memorial University are co-hosting the conference under the theme of “Inuit Traditions”. The conference boasts demonstrations of Inuit culture with special significance paid to language and culture bearers.

“This is a great opportunity to continue the discussion towards true respect for Inuit knowledge and our traditions,” says a delighted Obed.. “I often try to educate whoever I’m talking to on the differences in the way that we come up with our evidence [Western versus academic tradition]. The respect for Inuit traditions and Inuit knowledge has to be parallel to and not subservient to Western knowledge or academic knowledge.”

Obed laments that even after decades of academic study many Inuit have failed to see how this work can impact their lives, which has resulted in a gulf between Inuit communities and the academic world.

“There are a lot of Inuit that are not very fond of research as a whole,” says Obed, “I would imagine that’s because of the negative experiences and the lack of relevance of research that they’ve been affected by or a part of.”

With this new relationship between Inuit and researchers, and increasingly researchers that are themselves Inuit, Obed believes the way forward in improving the lives of Inuit across Inuit Nunangat is through sound policy based on Inuit-specific research.

“We can go down the line of our priority areas and each one of them has a question mark or two that are essential to the formulas to address our needs,” explains Obed. “The questions in the research community and the academic community are going to play that key leadership role in helping us to make key decisions and helping us to understand the world.”

While Obed says that Inuit must lead research, he believes that the research must have practical results. For too long, researchers have entered Inuit communities to extract knowledge with little regard to how this research can help. Now, facing one of the most dire situations in Inuit history, Obed says that research can help guide the ITK in developing its strategies and policies.

Obed, who became ITK president on September 17th, 2015, has made a priority of developing a national Inuit suicide prevention strategy. Suicide rates among Inuit are some of the highest in the country, and are among the highest in the world. With such an important mission Obed says that researchers working with Inuit must consider the lives of the people they are researching, and put them first.

“We must make [research] a participatory exercise and one that is based on Inuit priorities and not one that is based on intellectual curiosity, which is abstract in many ways,” describes Obed. “So it’s important to acknowledge the barriers to inclusion that have existed and also acknowledge the true meaning of what’s happening here at this point in time.”

Obed says that he is optimistic in the lead role that Inuit-led research can make in the Inuit Nunangat. It is through research that Inuit and policy makers can begin to feel out what is missing and what is needed.

“There’s still some very foundational building blocks missing that can only come from the academic research community,” emphasizes Obed. “The lack of information we have on ethnic specific health statuses in three of our four Inuit regions has to change. The looming spectre of climate change, how we change our society, and what we can do to mitigate the changes or adapt to this new environment is also going to need evidence and research in order to move forward, even key policy pieces like housing need more Inuit-specific research.”

With a new government in place, and a federal promise of a new relationship with Indigenous People, Obed believes that research based evidence is now more important than ever to create sound policy that will drive the relationship between government and Inuit.

However, he says that Inuit need more than promises, they need action on the part of Ottawa, and in order to hold the government to their word they need real time data from allies in academia.

“The academic community can do more to support this new Inuit to crown environment,” says Obed, “ we can map to, evaluate and produce new understandings of ways forward [which] is essential in the sense of the political agenda at this point in time and the long term success of our population.”

Natan Obed will deliver a keynote address during the 20th Biennial Inuit Studies Conference, which will take place in St. John’s from October 7-10, 2016.

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