As the president of Canada’s Inuit Youth Council, Maatalii Okalik is finding innovative ways for Inuit young people to connect with their culture, reconcile with the past and plan their futures with confidence.
Twenty-six-year-old Maatalii Okalik represents the present – and the future. The Inuit population is young – with a median age of 23 – and one of the fastest growing segments of the Canadian population. In June 2015, Okalik was elected president of Canada’s Inuit Youth Council to convey to others, including the federal government, the aspirations of Inuit youth and the barriers they face in achieving those dreams.
The young changemaker, who has nearly completed her undergraduate degree in Human Rights and Political Science with a minor in Aboriginal Studies, at Carleton University, Ottawa, dashes from international negotiations like COP21 in Paris to Nunavut’s legislative assembly to improve the future of her people.
In April, the Qulliit Nunavut Status of Women Council honored Okalik for her outstanding leadership in the territory. Arctic Deeply spoke with Okalik to get a glimpse of her work and what she hopes to achieve.
Arctic Deeply: What are your main priorities as president of the Inuit Youth Council?
Maatalii Okalik: At the 10th National Inuit Youth Summit in Iqaluit of August last year, we identified our main priorities. The first one is to enhance our relationship with Inuktitut. We have the highest language retention [compared to other Indigenous groups in Canada], but language proficiency and use is on the decline.
The second desire is to reclaim our culture. The assimilation policy of the Canadian government took the “Indigenous” out of our people and now there is an identity crisis.
The third priority is suicide prevention. We have the highest suicide rate in Canada – perhaps the world. At the youth summit, I asked: “Please raise your hand if you have had suicidal thoughts, or have attempted suicide or have had someone close to you complete suicide.” And every single person put their hand up. We have a number of campaigns to celebrate life. Prevention is not just limited to mental health but includes reinstilling Inuit language and culture.
The fourth priority is education and empowerment. We promote education and try to remove barriers to success. We teach our youth that leadership is not limited to politics. Inuk youth can share what empowers them on Instagram and in Nipiit, Canada’s Inuit youth magazine.
Our last priority is reconciliation. It is in the interest of Inuit youth to become informed about the recent collective history of colonization of our peoples. Since I was elected, we have entrenched Inuit history in our summit, so that Inuit youth can have that conversation, digest it, critically analyze it and begin the healing process of intergenerational trauma. Reconciliation is the responsibility of each Canadian, but we work together to ensure we all support one another.
Arctic Deeply: How does your position as president inform your life?
Maatalii Okalik: I try to lead by example. Language revitalization is a priority in my own life, and I balance my post-secondary education with Inuk-specific ways of knowing. I learn about our environment, spend time hunting and fishing and thriving off of our homeland. I am making a pair of Kamik [seal-skin boots] right now. I do my very best to practice reconciliation by creating awareness and making a conscious choice to stop negative cycles and promote healthy ones.
Arctic Deeply: What are some of the barriers you face as Inuit youth in achieving these priorities?
Maatalii Okalik: There’s a lack of capacity to be able to implement them. Secure funding is a huge barrier. A lot of energy and time goes into writing [grants] for very small funds that only last for a small period of time. If we find things are working, why not invest and build capacity in the communities so that we have long-term, sustainable solutions? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Call to Action #66 asks the government to invest in youth programming. That would be a huge start.
Arctic Deeply: How do the various global pressures facing the North – from climate change to international trade – inform your work?
Maatalii Okalik: Inuit have lived on and thrived on our water, lands, sea and ice for thousands of years. We have always asserted sovereignty over our homeland, and continue to, which works to the benefit of our country. Although we are a small population, we are spread across almost 50 percent of this country’s land mass and coastline. So I ask how, being such an important part of Canada geopolitically, is it that we aren’t able to lead the same quality of life as the rest of our fellow citizens? We have the right to lead healthy lives, too.
A lot of it is just building awareness about who we are, how we have lived and how we would like to continue to live. Once we’re on the same page, it’s like, OK, now let’s work together in a meaningful way.
Arctic Deeply: What advice would you give to future young Inuit leaders?
Maatalii Okalik: Be proud to be Inuk. Strengthen your relationship with your language and culture. Be confident in who you are. And continue to become educated, not only in K–12 and in post–secondary but in Inuit knowledge. Challenge existing structures and evaluate if they are working. Love yourself, spend time with elders and keep your head up. You’re not alone.