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Natan Obed

Finding a shared path – Convocation address by Natan Obed

At the first Convocation ceremony of 2023, Natan Obed, President, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree at Grant Hall.   

Here is a transcript from his Convocation address: 


I'm so honoured to be here today, and I want to start by thanking Queen’s University, and your administration for bestowing this honour upon me. A special thanks to Dr. Jane Philpott for nominating me and also being a friend and colleague for now what is over eight years. I'm still a little bit humbled from all of the words that have just been said about me. The act of accepting a degree like this is a cause for reflection and it's also a reflection on values and on the type of person you want to be and the person you are.  

In my role now, I am a very public figure and I am not a very outgoing, gregarious person in my personal life. But, I have chosen to play this role and I have chosen to represent my people, and with that comes a number of responsibilities that sometimes I'm prepared for and sometimes I'm not. I think you'll find the same in your careers; delineating the responsibilities between what you know is best for the people you serve versus what you know your limitations are as an individual.  

Sometimes we bounce up against those challenges of doing what we think is right versus doing what we are capable of. I listened very intently to the rendition of “God Save the King”. I was just in London for the coronation of King Charles. And so, I listened to that rendition in Westminster Abbey, not two weeks ago as an Inuk—one of the three constitutionally recognized peoples in Canada: Inuit, First Nations; and, Métis. We have a long and complicated history with Canada and with the Crown—and the colonial imperialism of the songs and the traditions are to be respected—but they also are at the heart of many of the challenges that we have faced over the last two to three to 400 years. 

I also think about my children and what we know about human development and of when they were just born. I have two boys. They are now in Grade 8 and Grade 10 and they were always themselves. So even as infants, they were striving to be themselves—and as they grow older, they become more of themselves, the mannerisms, and the way that they see the world.  A lot of it was there in the first few weeks of life, and it took a long time for them to develop into the amazing capable, interesting people that they are. 

And I think of Canada as a country, and of how long it's taken us to get to this point of celebrating the rights of Indigenous peoples and celebrating the diversity of this country; to welcome with open arms, people from other countries in the world. And I'd like to think that it is just Canada growing into itself, that we are becoming the country that we always could be and that we are founded upon. I would like to think that Canada is not a country that was always destined to disrespect human rights or a country that was comfortable to carry on the imperialism of the British Empire to a “T”.   

It starts in just thinking of some of the proclamations that were made even in the 1700s that respected the rights of Indigenous peoples. Even then, in a time when in other parts of North America, states were, were doing things such as going to war with Indigenous peoples, or imagining that European-ancestry people were more human than Indigenous peoples. Of course, there are times and places in Canada's history where that also has been the case. But we are reconciling with those experiences and when names change on buildings, when we become a more compassionate, caring society, it is Canada becoming more of itself and celebrating the very rich nature of this country and all the peoples that founded it and all the peoples that have lived here from time immemorial.  

Natan Obed with Queen's leadership
Principal Patrick Deane, Dean Jane Philpott, Dr. Natan Obed, Dr. Elizabeth Eisenhauer, Dr. Chris Simpson

So, the work that we do, and the work that I do in my career, is often with people who know nothing about Inuit people. Just like perhaps some of the work that you will do in your careers, you'll be working with people who perhaps don't know much about medicine or don't know much about business, but it will be your job to figure out how to find a shared path. And a lot of my work is trying to find shared paths with individual Canadians, with the Canadian government, with First Nations and Métis, and also within our own homelands in Inuit Nunangat.  

So, the compassion and the empathy that you are able to show to other people, and to where they are in life goes a long way towards achieving those goals. It's easy to respond to somebody in anger—it is one of the easiest things to project into the world. It is much harder to focus on a shared path on an outcome to improve the lives of people or improve the day of an individual. 

We all have these opportunities every single day of our lives to improve the situations that we're in or to be destructive within them. And sometimes destruction is necessary. There may be scenarios where there is nothing left to do, but to be very clear and focused in the way in which you demand change. 

So, I can sit in a pew and celebrate the coronation of a king, and I can come back to Canada and demand that the Canadian government uphold the existing human rights of Inuit in all of its forms. And I don't feel like I am, in any way, going against my people or against my beliefs to be able to do both. Having principled opposition and to not engage is also a privilege, and it's a privilege that people have whose needs are already met. 

You'll think of that in voting in this country. Think of that in participation in your community. I urge you to be an active part of this country's evolution and to think about the rights of indigenous peoples and the rights of all Canadians as being a central focus in what drives you to do work on behalf of other people. We've seen so much progress and I think in just my time as President of ITK—I’ve been in this job now since 2015—I couldn't have imagined some of the things that we've been able to achieve. As was referenced in the opening, for the first time in Canada's history, the government of Canada pledged to reduce a social indicator to the Canadian average or below for Inuit. And that was the pledge to reduce and eliminate Tuberculosis by 2030. Just think about that. For all of the different challenges that we face as a people. The government of Canada has never up until that time said, “we will work with you to eliminate that gap.  

The other first, that I shared with Dr. Philpott, was upon the release of our National Inuit Suicide Prevention Strategy. It was met by the Government of Canada with funding on day one. Never before in Canada's history had the federal government recognized that there was a self-determining, Inuit strategy that needed to be funded on Inuit terms. 

Even just the idea of funding in federal budgets… Inuit were not included in federal budgets until the federal government had imagined the Indigenous allocations within budgets, for First Nations on reserve, which are entirely different in administration than Inuit or Métis.  

So, we are changing the way Canada does its business--changing the way Canada sees itself. I have been fortunate to stand side-by-side with the Prime Minister at many global events and many Canadian events, whether it be on Canada Day or at a coronation.  

We are also changing the ways Canada sees itself and the way that Canada presents itself to the world. Representatives of First Nations innovate, and Métis make up a massive part of the governance of this country. We alone have 3.3 million square kilometers that we either own outright or that we have co-management over in the Canadian Arctic. Over a third of Canada—within that space is over 70% of Canada's coastline. 

If we think about the future of this country, we think about the governance, about how to protect us from foreign interests, how we uphold our sovereignty, how we care for other Canadians. You can't look past the very real realities of how this country is made up, and most Canadians are just learning this.  

Perhaps some of you are just learning this today as I'm speaking, and that's fine. This, these are your open invitations for more Canadians to be a part of reimagining Canada as a better place than before. A lot of these huge changes are very difficult to make, and there's always a fear that all of these gains will be wiped out, but that is no excuse not to do them and not to believe in them. 

In closing, congratulations to the class of 2023. It is an incredible accomplishment for all of you to be here in this room today. I am just in awe of your accomplishments, especially in this time. I can't imagine going to school during the last two to three years. It's been hard enough to go to work! I wish you all the best in your careers and whatever path life takes you in, I encourage you to always take care of your mental health and take care of your family to make sure that those people who are here in the room with you today, or even if they're not here, are supporting you from home. That you maintain those connections and you ensure that they're some of the foundations of the way in which you go out into the world.  

My sincere thanks again to Queen’s University and I look forward to building this better Canada with you all.  

--Natan Obed 
May 26, 2023 
Kingston, Ontario 

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