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How to respond to discrimination: suggestions from former college students

Discrimination isn’t always accompanied by hostility, but it still stings.

Rankin Inlet’s Terrie Kusugak, who moved to Ottawa in 2013-14 to attend the Nunavut Sivuniksavut college program, says ignorance can sometimes be more difficult to deal with than blatant racism.
photo courtesy of Terrie Kusugak

Terrie Kusugak of Rankin Inlet learned that while living in Ottawa, where the questions and comments from some non-Inuit left her flabbergasted and hurt.

“What kind of Native are you?” and “What’s it like to sleep in an iglu?” and “Wow! You speak really good English” were among some of the prejudiced remarks she heard.

“When I tell them that I only speak English, they’re like, ‘Oh, why don’t you speak Inuktitut?’ Like, you don’t get to play it both ways,” she said, her voice rising. “Sometimes ignorance can be harder because… they really think they’re treating you well and amazing but they don’t know that they just insulted you completely.”

It can also get tiring when so many people ask similar questions, especially in places like restaurants.

“It’s hard to always be the one to try to educate other people. Sometimes I just want to go to dinner,” she said. “I don’t (always) want to explain about our traditions… so there’s that dichotomy too: you want people to be interested and you want people to ask, but you don’t want that to be your whole identity.”

One time, someone referred to her as “Pocahontas.” Wrong country and wrong Indigenous culture, Kusugak explained, adding that there’s great diversity among Inuit people themselves.

Patricia Kablutsiak, from Arviat, also resided in Ottawa when she attended the Nunavut Sivuniksavut (N.S.) college program in 2017-2018.

Patricia Kablutsiak of Arviat offers this advice to those who encounter racism: “What you should do is keep walking, do not pay attention. Instead, think about who you are as an Inuk and keep your chin up.”
photo courtesy of Patricia Kablutsiak

Although she referred to the educational experience as “one of the best decisions I have made in life,” she encountered name calling and other inappropriate language while negotiating her way around Canada’s capital.

“What you should do is keep walking, do not pay attention. Instead, think about who you are as an Inuk and keep your chin up,” Kablutsiak advised.

She added that any homemade parka or sealskin that Inuit wear in Ottawa will make easily recognizable.

“Be proud of that,” she said. “Most will compliment you; some will make negative comments. Don’t worry, this rarely happens. If it does happen, remember, do not pay attention. The best revenge is no revenge.”

Terry Milton, who hails from Pond Inlet, was enrolled in N.S. From 2012-2014.

He said he faced little discrimination in Ottawa, aside from often being watched closely by store employees while browsing.

“I guess I just accept it and just continue shopping,” he said.

Prejudice can be strong within Nunavut’s borders as well, Kusugak explained. Some people who settle in the territory want things to run just like in their hometowns in the south. Superior attitudes can sometimes emerge.

“They’re like, ‘If it wasn’t for me, where would you guys be? I work at this department, if I wasn’t here you guys wouldn’t be able to do it for yourselves,” said Kusugak.

She believes that other Canadians should be better educated in school about Nunavut, the way Nunavummiut students learn about the provinces.

“It makes it really feel like we have to fit into your world but you have no willingness to step into ours,” she said.