When Nancy Karetak-Lindell grew up in Eskimo Point, now known as Arviat, she witnessed her parents’ generation having no voice.
“Some people might say not much has changed, but I beg to differ,” said Karetak-Lindell, who was recently appointed to the Order of Canada.
The older generation had no say in what happened to Inuit, she remembered – there were no avenues to lodge complaints, no rights, and changes such as relocation were simply imposed on the people.
Today, Inuit have rights, their language and their way of thinking.
“We do have to acknowledge that our Inuit culture, language, our knowledge, our way of governing ourselves have to be recognized instead of being made to feel they have to be replaced by some other system, and we’re still working on reclaiming all that knowledge, and reclaiming our proper role in governing ourselves,” said Karetak-Lindell.
“We need to take a step back and realize how much we have accomplished, even though, at times, the world was against us.”
When Karetak-Lindell grew up, her community was her whole horizon: there were no telephones, TVs or easy travel anywhere else.
Her father was a special constable with the RCMP, and her mother worked with the church. That’s where she saw the importance of working within one’s community and the way people and families can support one another to make their homes the best they can be.
As Karetak-Lindell grew up and entered politics, her interpretation of community expanded from her home to the region, territory and country, but the same principles were at play.
It was only looking back that she saw how voiceless her parents’ generation was.
“They were made to feel that their knowledge was not important, that their knowledge was not good enough to pass on to their own children,” she said.
But in the years following, Inuit gained a greater say in their communities through political bodies like hamlet councils and other governing powers.
“That really is, I think, the biggest difference between my generation and the generation before us,” said Karetak-Lindell. “They were not given the opportunity to ask questions about decisions made that affected their lives. And that is really sad, especially knowing that we live in a democratic country like Canada, that a group of people within Canada were not allowed to make their own decisions, and not only that – they had no opportunity to ask questions about the decisions that were being made.”
It’s remarkable how adaptable Inuit were to conform to the circumstances thrust upon them, she continued.
“You can’t have any group of people live through that many changes in such a short time and not suffer social consequences,” she said.
But even amid all that, Inuit found the ability to come together and demand their recognition — going on to earn rights, create the territory of Nunavut and find ways to protect their culture.
“Those are amazing, amazing accomplishments for a small group of people who decided to stand up for their rights,” said Karetak-Lindell.
And for her, appointment to the Order of Canada makes her think of all those who supported her along the way. There are many unsung heroes in our communities, she said, and she was fortunate to be encouraged by family, peers, teachers and other authority figures.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have that foundation,” she said. “I always want to make sure that the people of Arviat, that I acknowledge them in any achievements that I have, because they have certainly been supportive of me and always encouraged me and believed in me that I can be where I am today. We need that as young people, because we are always second guessing ourselves as Inuit.”
Much of the root of that second-guessing nature is because of the history of Inuit not being told they could rise to high places in Canadian society.
“We have to learn to believe in ourselves, because we have been made to feel for so long that we are not capable of these other positions that other people fill in our communities,” Karetak-Lindell said.
Receiving the call about the award was an honour, she added.
“I wasn’t expecting it, and to receive a phone call saying I have been selected to be a recipient of the Order of Canada, it took a few seconds to sink in,” she recalled. “I thought of my father, who would be so proud of me, but he passed away five years ago.”
To receive the distinction from an Inuk governor general, Mary Simon, makes it even more special and speaks to the progress Inuit have made in the country.
Karetak-Lindell was always involved in her community after graduating high school, as she realized the only way to improve circumstances was to take action.
And though she went on to hold a number of political positions – including being the first MP for Nunavut with the Liberal Party from June 1997 to October 2008 – she always saw it as community work.
“I had a full-time job, I was a full-time mother, a wife,” remembers Karetak-Lindell. “It was explained to me that I could do the same kind of work – advocating for change, advocating for people who might not have a voice or didn’t historically have a voice – and do it with staff.”
That’s when she recognized that becoming a politician aligned so well with her life’s passion.
“That was the draw for me, that I could have an office and dedicate myself full time to work that I was already trying to do and that was making our community a better place to live in,” she said.
Being in public life was not easy, but it was rewarding, she said.
“Work dominates your life, but the work that you do is very rewarding and it has given me great opportunities to learn about my own territory of Nunavut.”
For young people, she encourages them to be proud of who they are, dream high and work toward those goals.
“They have to believe in themselves and have the dedication to pursue their goals,” said Karetak-Lindell. “We have all the tools to help us achieve, but unless we have that inner determination in us, all that encouragement, money, sponsorships and different opportunities to go to universities or colleges won’t bear fruit if you’re not determined to finish school, finish your goals… Pursuing anything worthwhile is not easy.”
Karetak-Lindell was one of 85 appointees to the Order of Canada this year.