Nancy Karetak-Lindell is the President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada and was the first Member of Parliament for the new riding of Nunavut in 1997. She was re-elected twice, serving as Minister of Natural Resources, the Chair of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, and a member of the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans over her 11 years as MP. Her incredible achievements belie the challenges of her early years spent in the residential school system.
Ms. Karetak-Lindell was born and raised in the small, close-knit community of Arviat (renamed for a period under colonialism as Eskimo Point) during the 1950s and 60s. The community’s residential school only went to grade eight, so at the age of 14 she was forced to attend a high school in Yellowknife, 1,000 km away from home. “My life was spent in a small community with no connection to the outside world, and going away for school was the first time we had really been around other people.”
Luckily, the young Nancy loved learning, and because there were so few high school graduates in her community, she was determined to achieve that goal. But her first year in Yellowknife was especially lonely, as the government at that time did not allow the students to go home for any holidays or winter break. “That was really tough. You went to school in September and you went home in June.” Such was just one of the many cruel indignities the residential school system imposed on children and their families.
After two years in Yellowknife, Nancy’s uncle encouraged her to join him in Ottawa to complete her high school education. “I think he wanted me to experience a broader horizon, more opportunities.”
While it was a huge opportunity for a girl from a tiny Arctic community to live somewhere as big and busy as Ottawa, it was another 1,200 km from home. “By the time I finished high school, I’d been away going on seven years.” Nancy needed to reconnect, and so she spent a year back in Arviat working at the Inuit Cultural Institute. But the lure of higher education kept pulling at her, so Nancy returned to Ottawa for another year of schooling (Ontario offered a post-graduation Grade 13 for those who wanted to go on to university). And then she attended Trent University. “I really felt that I hadn’t completed what I should complete, so I went back …. so I could accomplish something not many Inuit had opportunities to do. And that led me to believe that whatever I chose to do, I had to be disciplined.”
After graduating, Nancy returned to Arviat to marry and start her family. She had planned to quietly settle down, but her extraordinary experiences made her desirable to the community leaders. “We tend to underestimate ourselves,” she admits. “I kept telling people, ‘I don’t know how to do that, I’ve never been a committee member. I’ve never been a councillor.’” But one of the community elders encouraged her to recognize everything she had to offer. “He said to me, ‘You have a different perspective, you’ve been outside our community, you’ve graduated, you’ve had to go through the schooling system.’” He encouraged her to sit on an education committee, which she enjoyed so much, she ran for the next election. And won. And went on to run and win more and greater positions within her larger community, leading all the way to being the federal representative of the entire territory, as Member of Parliament for Nunavut.
“I realized, with my father in the RCMP and my mother as a lay person in the church, that our parents were constantly helping people. And they obviously taught us the same values that we need to help those less fortunate than us.”
Ms. Karetak-Lindell acknowledges that her parents inspired her with their community involvement, but also through the harsh experiences they suffered under a system that aimed to suppress the Indigenous culture. “They were told where to send their children to school. They were told what language their children are going to learn. They really had no say…. My mother was always helping women and being a voice for them…and I realized that I [could] become a voice for those people that did not have a voice.”
As the Member of Parliament for Nunavut, Ms. Karetak-Lindell served three terms, and visited every community in the territory to ensure she properly represented the entire population of that 1.9 million square kilometre area.
Tragically, Ms. Karetak-Lindell lost her husband to a heart attack less than two years into her first term. Suddenly a widow and single mother to four children, she recalls, “I was faced with probably the hardest decision I ever had to make in my life: whether to stay on and continue my work or resign and go home.”
Heartbroken but determined — with the support of her family, her colleagues, and her community — Ms Karetak-Lindell bravely continued her important work. “I wanted my children to know that no matter what life throws at us, we have to pick up and carry on.”
Ms. Karetak-Liddell understands first hand that in order to achieve and succeed, you need to stay determined. She sees a great message for her children, her grandchildren, and for young people today, in the symbol of her great territory: “The symbol for the Nunavut Government is a polar bear moving forward, but looking back, and there’s a North Star leading his way. We have to find a way to lead ourselves somewhere. But again, that choice is up to us. We have to want to do it. No matter how much people support us, we have to believe in ourselves and say, ‘I want to accomplish something!’’
Special thanks to Jessica Dee Humphreys for authoring this blog post.
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