Lessons from three powerful Inuit women

Aaju Peter, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and Ruth Kaviok spoke at the Inuit Studies Conference in Montreal

From left: Aaju Peter, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and Ruth Kaviok. (Photo from 21st Inuit Studies Conference/Facebook)

By Kahlan Miron

At this year’s Inuit Studies Conference, Inuit women were regularly highlighted as a force in their communities.

Of the six keynote speakers, five were Inuit women, who each brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to share from their chosen fields. Names like Aaju Peter, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and Ruth Kaviok attracted eager audiences.

So eager, in fact, that the auditorium at the Université du Québec à Montréal, where the conference was hosted, was regularly packed. Parts of the crowd needed to sit on the floor if they wanted to attend.

Lessons in Inuit law

Aaju Peter, the lawyer and activist well-known for her protest against the European Union’s sealskin ban, began her keynote with a song. It was traditional, celebrating the return of the sun, and part of the Inuktitut lyrics translated to “I shall be alive again.”

Aaju Peter during her Friday, Oct. 4, keynote address at the 2019 Inuit Studies Conference in Montreal. (Photo by Kahlan Miron)

Those words set the tone of Peter’s speech. “We have to go through decolonization,” she said, “because our minds are so colonized. The way we think, the way we do things. How we read things, how we understand things. It’s all colonized. It’s not coming from our Inuit world, so we need to find that belief again in our worth.”

Peter spoke from her own experience: as a Greenlandic Inuk, Peter went to Denmark for school when she was young, and came back to find she’d lost her language and culture.

Peter said was left with a hunger for knowledge, describing it as a “black hole in my stomach,” and finally got the opportunity to learn Inuktitut and Inuit tradition when she moved to Canada. But the lessons Peter received from the elders contrasted with her lessons in Western law.

“All those concepts that we were learning in law,” she said, “we … couldn’t understand them unless we had our elder teaching us the traditional terms and then the Inuit concept of law.” For example, property laws make little sense when compared to the traditional concept of land and place.

The goal of justice is different, too: Western law focuses on teaching through punishment, whereas Inuit law is “all about reconciling, because everyone is needed in the camp.”

But the biggest difference, she said, may be how Inuit law is carried in a person’s heart. It’s been developed and passed on through generations, with each generation of Inuit keeping what works and abandoning what doesn’t.

At the end of her keynote, Peter shared her wishes for a university in the North. Youth would have more options for higher education, but in an Inuit setting, with Inuit languages and knowledge, rather than going south.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to attend and listen from our own elders, and from our own understanding of the world? I look forward to that day.”

The power of voice

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril began her Oct. 5 keynote with a powerful comparison. “While I’m not an academic researcher,” she said, “there are similarities between our fields.”

“I do a lot of research, I have to observe the world around me. I try to see past the issues and problems happening immediately in front of me and look for the root causes. I look for patterns. I look for blockages that prevent our people from being whole and healthy. And when I see them, I feel compelled to speak up about them.”

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril during her keynote on Oct. 5. (Photo by Kahlan Miron)

Arnaquq-Baril’s work as a director, producer and screenwriter is built on truths. Her documentaries, such as Angry Inuk and Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos, puts the spotlight on Inuit realities. Her fictional films, like The Grizzlies movie, often do the same.

But one of the benefits of being an artist, Arnaquq-Baril said, is she’s free to use her voice how she wishes. Others, who might have “an abusive boss, or a racist boss, or a boss that just doesn’t really get it,” are often less lucky.

“So I urge you to constantly be aware of your voice.… I’m not saying everybody has to be an activist, and I’m not saying you should never take a job that might infringe on your ability to speak out. I’m just reminding you to always know the value of your voice.”

Arnaquq-Baril also asked non-Inuit in the room to consider their actions. “Are you truly using your voice to amplify and bring attention to the voices of Inuit? Or are you just stealing the microphone?”

She cautioned Inuit to be wary of others who try to help. A person can start off with the best intentions, she said, but “end up making themselves indispensable to a project or indispensable to an organization. And then it can’t function without them … and then it’s just a reason to not have an Inuk progress in their career.”

“So demand that space. It can be done politely. It can be done less politely.”

Drawing strength from the past

Ruth Kaviok at her keynote speech at the Inuit Studies Conference on Oct. 5. (Photo from 21st Inuit Studies Conference Facebook)

“Once you learn the history of Inuit, you get to understand the big picture,” Ruth Kaviok said during her Oct. 5 keynote.

Kaviok—a Nunavut Sivuniksavut and Students on Ice alumna, the outgoing president of the National Inuit Youth Council and now a fourth-grade teacher—was at the conference to speak about Inuit youth. But she tied her topic to an important lesson: the power of knowing your own past.

Kaviok experienced this in her own life. While attending Nunavut Sivuniksavut, she learned about residential schools, and these lessons helped her better understand her father.

Kaviok said that they’d had a distant relationship, but when he came to visit, she missed an entire morning of classes as she and her father discussed some difficult topics for the first time.

The program, and its focus on history and Inuit knowledge, helped her heal as a person, an Inuk and a daughter, Kaviok said.

When she imagines Inuit ancestors now, Kaviok sees people living in harmony, peace and oneness—the values necessary to stay alive. When she imagines Inuit today, Kaviok now sees people striving for a better future.

Ruth Kaviok, left, at her Oct. 5 keynote address. (Photo by Kahlan Miron)

“It takes a lot of effort and help to get to where we want to be. As Inuit youth especially, because we know that this is our future. We know that this will be the ripple effect for the work we do.”

“Colonialism is the reason why we are the way we are,” Kaviok said. “But we’re striving much stronger and louder than we ever did before, and this is also a good thing because having a pride in your Inuit culture leads to many opportunities in saving [the] other younger generations’ future. Because of the change we’re [creating] and this is the start today.”

Kaviok called for youth to be taught more traditional skills and the Inuit language, and to have more opportunities to bond with elders. “If we indigenize every aspect of our life, imagine how much peace there will be in the future.”

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(9) Comments:

  1. Posted by Oracle on

    These women lead with no thoughts for themselves.

    They think and feel and do research. They are very proud of their culture and
    lead in many ways.

    I salute them, very much!

  2. Posted by Tulugak on

    These beautiful women share the Inuit wisdom with their audience and with the world and it’s one more step towards decolonization. They are a bridge between cultures and help non Inuit to better understand the Inuit point of view. Of course this cannot be done in one conference in a southern university but it’s a glimpse of a wonderful culture, the Inuit world.

  3. Posted by Black Bird on

    Confused by some of the comments here.
    What do you mean a pre- colonization way of life ?
    Losing traditional language ? Whose fault is that ?
    So many Inuit people play verbal games with meetings and
    microphones, accomplish nothing for the people only their
    own ego. Same in a lot of Canada also.
    Live with reality, I spent my first 15 years living a pre-colonial
    way of life. Pure misery

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    • Posted by Fake Plastic Tree on

      It probably has some sense of meaning to those who use it, but like IQ it is rarely, if ever, fleshed out; which unfortunately tempts those not in ‘the know’ to think it a bit nebulous and lacking in content. On the one hand I understand it to be about creating and redefining narratives. Given this my hunch is it belongs inside a closed world where clear definitions matter less than who gets to use them. For example, if you are part of the ‘in group’ concepts like “your truth” or “our truth” mean you are free from this burden, and also imply that you, as an outsider, simply don’t get to ask. This is not a place where the philosophical rigour that some are more comfortable with thrives.

  4. Posted by Suzie Napayok on

    I agree with Arnaquq-Baril in her statements. This is what I’ve been saying all along too. Why do we have Qallunaat representing us in public inquiries, in the Inuit sections of Commissions and in the Senate, still? These are examples of non-Inuit who take away “the microphone” from the Inuit themselves ‘on our behalf’. They speak as , among other things, language experts on our behalf; speak to the media about our current issues as experts for us. They become entrenched in being our experts when we can do the work and speak on our own. I’m so relieved Alethea has had the voice, the courage to begin the ending of this type of (mis)representation. As recently as the last MMIWG National Inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, we Inuit women didn’t represent ourselves. Now that is taking away the role we own. Whether a good job was done is not the point, the point is that we as a people are still not being recognized as the ones to represent our own by those in power of national appointments and the appointed’s acceptance of it. Alathea’s word are so powerful in this day and age when we know what we are doing but we still don’t hold the most basic rights as a people. This doesn’t happen with any other groups of indigenous people or even races being represented by others. This gives the message that Inuit aren’t good enough and this nonsense is still in practice today which has to stop. We are so able to represent our own people!

    • Posted by Phenotype on

      How much courage does it really take to dispense this platitudinous wisdom? Not much, when you know it will all be celebrated.

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      • Posted by Suzie Napayok on

        Try putting up with other people from outside your region (or province) representing your own people and call it platitudinous. Say it ain’t much then, when you’ve walked in our shoes.

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        • Posted by Phenotype on

          The only example that comes to mind for me is our venerable Senator. I agree he should not be there, but it should also be noted that the Senate and Nunavut are both public governments, neither represents an ethno-nationalist state.

          As for the MMIWG inquiry, tell me how many of the First Nations involved had their own representation? This idea that each should is a misreading and misunderstanding of how the commission was to be structured and its mandate.

          While I agree that Inuit should represent themselves, I also see an obsession with your own reflection. This is the morass identity politics has found you in.

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        • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

          The demography of Nunavut is changing, get used to it, it isn’t going to stop. In a very few years Iqaluit will not be an Inuit majority city, though it will still be an Inuit plurality for many years to come. Nunavut is slowly (very slowly) becoming more like the rest of Canada. New Canadians are one of the fastest growing segments of Nunavut’s population.

          Get over your resentment of people from outside your region or province. Canada has a VERY mobile population and that is only increasing.

          As soon as a person has lived in Nunavut for one year they can quite legitimately consider themselves to be Nunavummiut and seek to represent the people who live there. That won’t change.

          A person’s ethnicity is completely unimportant, his or her ability to speak clearly and effectively for the population is. Inward looking and parochial mindsets will not serve anyone well in modern multicultural Canada.

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