On the first morning of the Indigenous Health Conference, Natan Obed spoke to medical professionals, press, students, and elders about challenges faced by Inuit communities, as well as the missing pieces of the healthcare puzzle.
The enormous Mississauga conference room was packed, with strangers sitting close as they listened to Obed’s bittersweet descriptions of the people from his hometown of Nain, Nunatsiavut in Newfoundland, and Iqaluit, where he now lives with his wife and two sons.
Obed specifically spoke of the mental health crisis among many Indigenous communities, which in recent years has become a more prominent fixture in the nation’s political awareness.
“Our society has changed,” he said. “There were many things that happened that had tremendously negative impacts on our communities in a very short amount of time.”
Obed named the tuberculosis epidemic after the Second World War and the residential school system among the sources of massive societal deterioration among Inuit people.
“We are still, in many ways, struggling to become more balanced with our past and our present and our future. There are many people affected by intergenerational trauma that need support.”
This past April, Chief Shisheesh of Attawapiskat spoke about being homeless and depressed even in his role as leader of the northern Ontario community.
The town, population 2000, has been regularly making headlines since 11 people attempted suicide in a single night. The government has since pledged $69 million over the next three years to respond to mental health crises in Indigenous communities across Canada.
Obed, however, spoke about the ways in which mental health initiatives do not respond effectively to crises. According to the Iqaluit resident, change must take place from the ground up.
“When someone commits suicide, people always look at the last moments before it happened,” he told the crowd. “They miss the entire lifetime that led up to this.”
He pointed to the fact that there is very little Inuit-specific information about health disparities. This neglect, he said, has led not only to physical health issues but the depression that comes from lacking a strong sense of belonging in Canada.
“We need to keep our traditions,” Obed said. “It gives our children the best chance to be successful, healthy, and proud of who they are and where they fit in Canada.”
Obed explained that he and his wife named their eldest son Panigusiq after Obed’s mother-in-law so members of the community would have strong associations with their son due to their close relationship with the boy’s grandmother.
“That is just one small example of how our kinship ties and social networks keep us together through time, a continuation of society over the course of many lifetimes.”