The Strength of Inuit Youth: a Conversation with the President of the National Inuit Youth Council, Maatalii Okalik

August 23, 2016

Across the country Inuit youth are building upon the foundations created by the generations that have come before them. Maatalii Okalik says that voices of Inuit youth are more important now than ever before, in part because they make up the majority of the Inuit population.

“I am very grateful for the leadership of the generations before ours and see that their strength and fight are having many returns today,” says Okalik, ”their work encourages Inuit youth today to honour it by adapting it to a way that makes sense to them, and is reflective of their own values.”

Okalik, who is the president of the National Inuit Youth Council, believes that Inuit youth are in a position now to change their communities - and the country- for the better. During the last election she explains that Youth Council worked hard to help get out the youth vote, and it paid off with a 45 per cent increase in young people coming out to cast their ballots.

Still feeling the energy of seeing Inuit youth band together to help direct the political future of Canada, Okalik believes that Inuit must embrace both the best of Inuit and Canadian culture in order to thrive. She says the best way to have an impact on Inuit communities will be by young Inuit completing post-secondary education, after they have embraced and mastered their own uniquely Inuit ways of knowing.

“Now with Inuit youth are having access to post-secondary education, they are filling those front lines in professional fields, and creating stronger communities and services that are reflective of our way of life, that generations before us fought to preserve,” describes Okalik with passion. “This generation now has to show leadership to continue to champion our own realities, but also destigmatize our culture, cultural pride, language proficiency, language perseveration and promotion, and face a lot of those intergenerational effects of colonization through education and awareness.”

It is this spirit of preservation that has been central to Inuit identity and culture. By maintaining their traditions and ways of life, while at the same time adapting to completely new circumstances Inuit have been able to survive the most drastic of changes.

“Inuit have always have had to adapt: whether it’s changes in the seasons or changes in the environment, changes in migration routes, patterns based on the herds they’d be following. And the resilience in that adaptation meant survival” says Okalik, “and our grandparents’ generations had one of the most difficult times of adaptation because they had to relocate from their camps to communities to serve the federal mandate to assert sovereignty on a national stage. That came at a really high cost because that uprooted their daily life, it had implication on their family dynamics, and their right to parent, their right to speak their language and really eliminated the majority of their self-determination.”

It was the young Inuit activists of the 1970s and 1980s, who were first among generations of Inuit to be born and raised in the communities that inspire Okalik. Young men and women took on the provincial, federal, and territorial governments of their time, giving Inuit a voice and establishing the infrastructure that have allowed Inuit to advance where they are today.

“I find strength in their leadership,” explains Okalik, “I try to understand where exactly it came from; how on earth were they able to mobilize the federal and provincial governments the way in which they did, with the very little resources they had. And to me it’s because it mattered so much. It mattered so much for Inuit to continue to live our way of life, to live our way of life within this colonial structure. But I also understand that strength in our culture, our language and our practices really influenced the will and the passion those youth brought to the table at that time.”

That generation of Inuit and the generation before them faced almost unimaginably difficult change as colonialism tried to snuff out their way of life through relocations, residential schools, and forcible resettlements. For Okalik, their perseverance has ensured that Inuit culture is alive and well today.

“I pay tribute to that generation, despite the attempted cultural genocide, they maintained their culture and way of life to ensure the next generation would still prioritize and value it,” says Okalik.

This current generation of Inuit youth face changes like never before. The internet is changing the dynamic of the North as more and more of the outside world is being brought into Inuit homes. While some may see this as worrying, Okalik believes that despite its pitfalls the Internet is a powerful tool, enriching the lives of people living in Inuit communities, helping youth to connect across the vast expanses of the Inuit Nunangat.

“For us it’s important to understand that, yes, the youth might not be spending as much time outside as the generation before, or on the land like the generation before,” says Okalik, “but for those who are in the communities and using social media, over time they refresh their screens they’ll see great things other Inuit youth are doing and learn more about some of the positive initiatives or have a chance to share what it is that they’re doing that is positive.”

While the future may hold many challenges for Inuit, Okalik says that she is full of hope that young Inuit today will be ready to champion those challenges when the time comes.

Maatalii Okalik will be giving a keynote speech at the 2016 Inuit Studies Conference in St. John’s on October 10th at 10:45 am in the INCO Innovation Hall on the campus of Memorial University.