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Inuit traditional knowledge ‘reawakening’ says president of NIYC

National Inuit Youth Council outgoing president Crystal Martin-Lapenskie reflects on her term
Crystal Martin-Lapenskie is optimistic about today’s Inuit youth, saying they are “really hungry to learn” Inuit traditional knowledge. photo courtesy of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami

Outgoing National Inuit Youth Council (NIYC) president Crystal Martin-Lapenskie has had a number of issues on her mind after an “eventful” two years in the position, but the top one is youth mental health and well-being.

NIYC represents the interests of Inuit youth in Canada, under Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK). They participate in a number of committees, sub-committees and working groups on various issues, generally helping in policy advancement and advocacy.

A part of helping inform this is the National Inuit Youth Summit, where the main focus and priorities of the youth council are decided each year.

“For the last two years we had to postpone it because of COVID, so we are looking at a virtual summit, we’re hoping to have a virtual summit for Inuit youth to come together to identify those priorities,” said Martin-Lapenskie.

That’s not going to deter the NIYC any longer as they are going online this time.

Some of Martin-Lapenskie’s main focuses these past two years have been youth mental health, community infrastructure and climate change.

“Housing is a huge issue, there’s also issues with, for example, brick-and-mortar type of buildings for Inuit youth to either rent (or own) spaces if they want to become entrepreneurs. There’s a lot of things that are lacking.”

The most pressing issue from her perspective however, is the mental health and well-being of Inuit youth.

“It’s mental health, especially right now. Mental health is such a huge component, ensuring their voices are probably represented at these tables.”

“The concerns Inuit have with regards to high suicide rates, or what has helped mental health, for example like on-the-land programs, when COVID first occurred there was on-the-land programs so that families can go out on-the-land and self-isolate for two weeks.”

She adds that the program really helped drop suicide rates and alleviate mental illness. One of the main things Martin-Lapenskie advocated for during her term was ongoing funding for the on-the-land initiatives.

“Inuit youth and families are out together, they’re out on the land and they’re sharing knowledge, sharing practices, they’re hunting, fishing. Practicing our traditions have a huge healing impact as well,” she said.

Following Inuit traditional knowledge, or Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ), like going out on the land, is helping people during stressing times.

“Colonization has been so recent for us, we’re looking (as recent) as 50, 60 years ago, but then if you’re looking at the closure of residential schools, that was in the ‘90s, and the forced sterilization … was in the 2000s,” she adds.

“With all of the historical events that have happened to our people, traditional knowledge has almost been silenced.”

Martin-Lapenskie says this is the first generation that is essentially seeing the greater impacts of the loss of culture due to the effects of colonization.

As Inuit move past the times of residential schools and the generational trauma which followed, there are increasing opportunities to heal from that, she says, and today’s youth are a part of this.

“This generation has been essentially opening these doors up again and reawakening our practices and asking questions. (They) are really hungry to learn, better understand proper ways to sew, traditional songs, drum dancing … All of these play a huge role in our healing process. Culture really provides you with a sense of belonging, a sense of identity.”

The impacts of COVID-19 within Inuit communities has also exposed a number of problems on a wider scale that have impacted Inuit youth.

“The pandemic has shown the general Canadian population how badly we need infrastructure, how badly Inuit need homes, proper health care, access to food, food sovereignty,” said Martin-Lapenskie.

“Inuit have been bringing forth these concerns for a number of years now and finally since COVID happened I think there’s been a realization that, yeah, we need to do something, this is a serious problem.”

The NIYC president is a two-year term position, the incumbent acts as a representative of Inuit youth across Inuit Nunangat. The next elections will be held June 18, nominations closed May 25.