Creating safe spaces for queer Inuit ‘very much needed,’ says Pride advocate
Nikki Komaksiutiksak talks advocacy, identity at Tungasuvvingat Inuit’s Pride conference
Nikki Komaksiutiksak knows first-hand the importance of creating safe spaces for Inuit.
After escaping an abusive household as a youth, living for some time on the streets of Winnipeg and experiencing the death of her beloved sister and throat-singing partner Jessica Michaels in 2001, Komaksiutiksak has made it a part of her life to stick up for people.
“I’ve lived enough different lives in my short life to always be that person that is going to be safe for other people,” she said.
“I think that’s just in my nature.”
This urge led Komaksiutiksak to co-found Winnipeg’s first Inuit resource centre, Tunngasugit, which offers services to Inuit transitioning to life in the city.
Her organization helps people get affordable housing, access health and social services, find employment and apply for social assistance. It also provides cultural activities and workshops.
Nunatsiaq News caught up with Komaksiutiksak last week in Ottawa, where she was attending the first-ever Inuit Pride conference hosted by Tungasuvvingat Inuit.
Komaksiutiksak, now the executive director of Tunngasugit Inuit Resource Centre, is queer herself and understands the importance of creating opportunities for connection for Inuit who identify as 2SLGBTQ+. The 2S stands for “two-spirit,” a term that’s specific to queer Indigenous identities.
“It’s very much needed, and I know it will grow so big because the population of queer Inuit is huge,” she said of the conference, which brought together about two dozen queer Inuit participants from across Canada for presentations and workshops aiming to find ways to be an inclusive and welcoming space.
“There’s a really big misconception about gay Inuit because of assimilation policies and because of missionaries coming into our communities and destroying our very culture and the way that we lived,” she said.
“There’s now this misconception that [being queer] is not right.”
For young queer Inuit who live in small communities, it can be especially difficult to live openly, she said, as “word travels fast even though you try so hard to keep yourself safe.”
“I’m just really thankful that we have a lot of Inuit that are sitting in there that are so brave to be a part of a conference like this, even though they’re gonna go back home and might get flack for it from their parents or relatives or even strangers,” Komaksiutiksak said.
“We’re really hoping that the group that attended this week will be able to amplify our voices and [be a] community for the voiceless.”
Using her voice to support other Inuit through her work with Tunngasugit is what led her to be named one of this year’s Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada’s Inuit Women of the Year.
“It’s an honour to be awarded that title, but at the same time, it makes me feel like I just need to work that much harder,” she said.
There will be plenty of opportunities for Komaksiutiksak to work hard at Tunngasugit in the coming years as it continues to expand.
By the end of 2023, the organization will double its current staff of 23 to nearly 50 and will move its offices from its current 1,200-square-foot space to a 17,000-square-foot building, she said.
Other projects include an expanded program for Inuit children to learn their traditional language, a women’s shelter, an Inuit housing program and a partnership with Indigenous Services Canada to better support the roughly 17,000 Inuit who travel to Winnipeg annually for medical care.
Komaksiutiksak also plans to build a more reliable database of urban Inuit in Winnipeg. There are more than 500 Inuit listed in Tunngasugit’s membership database, but she said there’s a misconception of how many Inuit actually live in the city.
Census data collected by Statistics Canada is “not a system that works for Indigenous people,” she said.
“Not everyone trusts the government with their personal information, not everyone knows that it’s important to have those forms.”
The plan is to gather data that accurately reflects the number of Inuit in the city and use that information to access more funding for services and resources.
“All my life I have been silenced. I didn’t have a voice because I was just another kid in care or I was just another Indigenous person living on the streets,” she said.
“The more that injustice happens for Inuit, the more I’m going to be advocating for them.”