ITK hopeful promotes plan for Inuit self-sufficiency, tackling human rights
“We have to change how we address poverty at different levels of government"
This is the first of the profiles of the three candidates running for the position of president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami to appear in Nunatsiaq News. ITK’s board of directors will pick a new leader in Inuvik on Aug. 16.
A long-time federal and territorial bureaucrat, now business student, is hoping to become the next leader of Canada’s national Inuit organization.
Peter Williamson, originally from Rankin Inlet, hopes to shift roles to become Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami’s next president when the organization elects its leader on Aug. 16.
Williamson, 55, wants to bring a new approach to nurturing Inuit self-sufficiency by tackling the housing shortage, food security and low graduation rates across Inuit Nunangat—and addressing them as human rights issues.
Though it’s his first run for elected office at ITK, Williamson worked for the Inuit organization for a period in the 1990s, when he helped to produce a report on the housing crisis across Inuit Nunangat.
Today, roughly a third of Inuit live in overcrowded homes.
“It’s quite devastating,” he said. “And that’s why I decided to put my name forward, because Inuit have been living in overcrowded housing for over 60 years now.”
“When you bring Inuit in off the land and promise them housing, and then don’t provide it, this is what happens,” he said. “But we live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.”
At the helm of ITK, Williamson said his first move would be to inform Canada’s prime minister and the secretary general of the United Nations that Inuit quality of life issues should be addressed through the lens of international human rights law.
That would include invoking the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in the House of Commons this past spring.
Self-sufficiency and access to country food
Williamson points to another social shift that hit Inuit communities hard: the fall of the market for seal furs.
While the money hunters made from selling pelts in the 1960s and 70s helped sustained families, he said too many Inuit now rely on social assistance and are unable to buy the equipment they need to harvest their own food.
“They’re forced to buy from local stores where food is so expensive,” he said. “We have to change how we address poverty at different levels of government.”
Social assistance programs like employment Insurance, family benefits and Nutrition North are not designed with northern realities in mind and don’t help to alleviate food insecurity, he said.
Williamson wants Inuit organizations and governments to work together to design voluntary, opt-in programs that will allow Inuit to gather the resources they need to feed their families. He is also calling on the federal government to fund ongoing studies to gauge the health of Arctic wildlife.
A disconnect between programming and policy
Williamson is dismayed by a statistic that shows only 42 per cent of Inuit across the country are completing high school.
“We need to find a way to increase our graduation rates,” he said. “We have to look at the best practices in each region and try and apply that across the board.”
To accomplish that, there’s a need for more community- and region-based research to inform and improve decision-making across the North, Williamson said, noting a disconnect between the development of policy and the delivery of programs.
In Nunavut, where there is discussion around gradually delivering Inuktut-language education to all grade levels, Williamson said Inuit organizations should also be considering how to entice students into teacher training programs to help fill that need.
It’s never too late to pursue studies. At 55, Williamson is completing a bachelor degree in commerce and entrepreneurial management at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C.
Williamson comes from an academic and political family; his late father is Bob Williamson, a Northwest Territories MLA and anthropologist at the University of Saskatchewan, who helped create the Institute of Northern Studies and the Arctic Research and Training Centre.
Wiliamson hopes to unseat incumbent ITK President Natan Obed next week, along with fellow candidate Peter Ittinuar.
ITK’s board of directors will elect the organization’s new president on Aug. 16 during its annual general meeting in Inuvik, N.W.T.