Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada — Empowering Inuit Women for 35 Years

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    Pauktuutit has always supported and promoted a traditional Inuit lifestyle and practices, like this woman scraping seal skin with an ulu. © Lee Narraway

    At its first Annual General Meeting (AGM) in January 1985, Pauktuutit Inuit Women’s Association passed 20 significant resolutions. They included advocating for: Inuktitut translation services at hospitals, the Inuit position on sealing, and an inquiry into the death of a nursing student from Nain.

    These were no ordinary issues, and this was no ordinary women’s organization.

    Thirty-five years later, Pauktuutit is still addressing critical issues for Inuit women in Northern communities. Its website highlights its mandate to “foster greater awareness of the needs of Inuit women, advocate for equality and social improvements, and encourage Inuit women’s full participation in the community, regional and national life of Canada.”

    The idea of an Inuit women’s organization originated at a meeting in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, in 1975.

    “At the time, Inuit were focussed on land claim issues, but they also realized there were big health and social issues that needed to be addressed,” says Executive Director Tracy O’Hearn. “They tended to be priorities addressed by women in their families and communities. So Pauktuutit was created at the request of and with the support of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK).

    Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada was incorporated as a not-for-profit on April 1, 1984. A 14-member board was elected with women representing communities across the Arctic. Head office was established in Ottawa where Inuit issues could be more easily promoted to the federal government. Nearly 150 women attended the first AGM held in Igloolik — at least two delegates from each of the 53 communities in Labrador (Nunatsiavut), Northern Quebec (Nunavik), Baffin, Central Arctic (Kitikmeot), Keewatin (Kivalliq), and Western Arctic (Inuvialuit) regions.

    Discussions focussed on economic development, such as how to start a small business and createongoing employment in isolated communities. They also covered the wider social and health issuescommon in all the communities, such as alcohol abuse, family violence, and the need for midwives.Living in remote, fly-in-only Northern communities poses many logistical challenges for women. “Thelack of access to healthcare is a huge issue,” says O’Hearn. “People have to be flown down south to have access to doctors — to have babies.”

    In some cases, expectant mothers from Labrador had unknowingly signed forms that were not medical forms but agreements to give their baby up for adoption. Other women had been sterilized without properly being informed of the procedure.

    “One of the challenges has been working with Inuit women who are very trusting, and also a lot of them still don’t know their human rights,” says Rebecca Kudloo, Pauktuutit’s President since 2014. “I think the more we do to raise aware- ness, the more they’ll learn their rights.”

    These were big issues. Pauktuutit tackled them head on.

    The delegates would bring their communities’ concerns to the AGMs. Often they revealed their own personal struggles. Many women experienced the damage caused by residential schools, which had seeped into many aspects of their lives. The AGMs became forums where they openly discussed issues they couldn’t with their own families.

    “It was a safe place for them, where they finally had an opportunity to talk,” says former president Martha Flaherty. “It was a chance for them to speak up. Even if they were not ready to talk, they’d just cry. We’d have group meetings, like on sexual abuse. After a lot of hard crying, sometimes they’d come out laughing, and feeling better.”

    Flaherty explained that Pauktuutit ensured people were at the meetings who could offer counselling to the women. It brought up a need for better counselling in the communities.

    So, Pauktuutit published a resource booklet to help Inuit discuss serious issues with each other.

    Pauktuutit does not operate programs and services. It focusses instead on promotion, prevention, awareness, and advocacy. It achieves this by publishing resource toolkit materials, organizing seminars and conferences, and creating videos broadcast in the North that raise awareness of relevant and critical issues.

    The organization has openly focussed on major social problems, such as family violence, child abuse, spousal assault, sexual health, HIV/AIDS, midwifery, healthy pregnancies, and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, as well as other health issues of drug and alcohol addictions, smoking cessation, diabetes, cancer, and suicide prevention.

    “Historically, we tread where others haven’t in promoting prevention, awareness of issues,” says Kudloo.

    Pauktuutit frames its work around Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit or IQ principles: Respecting others, relationships and caring for people; fostering good spirit by being open, welcoming and inclusive; serving and providing for family, or community, or both; and decision-making through discussion and consensus.

    Introducing southerners to these principles was the idea behind The Inuit Way, the booklet Pauktuutit published (in 1989 and then 2006) as a guide to Inuit culture for people coming to and working in northern communities, such as teachers, social workers, and nurses.

    Pauktuutit plays an advocacy role, participating in policy and planning discussions with all levels of governments. Pauktuutit has a seat on the ITK board, but doesn’t have voting status, which is reserved for the land claim presidents.

    “We want to be a part of any legislation that affects us,” Kudloo says. “My goal is to sit there as an equal partner with all the other leaders.” Pauktuutit does not have a vote, only those involved in land claims do. However, she adds, “If I want something passed, I’ll voice it and it gets heard.”

    One of the big milestones was the June 2017 signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) by Kudloo and Carolyn Bennett, Minister for Crown- Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs. The MOU established a relationship to jointly address priority areas for Inuit women and children, and includes Pauktuutit in drafting relevant legislation.

    Pauktuutit has been the voice of Inuit women on the federal inquiries of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, and Missing Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

    This January, it brought women from Inuit Nunangat’s four Arctic regions together to discuss co-developing the National Action Plan with the federalgovernment in its efforts to address violence against Indigenous women and girls.

    “At this event, the highlight for me was witnessing a panel of Inuit women strongly speaking up,” says Yvonne Niego, Deputy Minister of Family Services with the Government of Nunavut, who attended the conference. “Just the courage of conviction, the strength, the honesty, straightforwardness of these women — it was just such a highlight to witness.”

    Through its work, Pauktuutit has advanced the cause of Inuit women, highlighting the importance of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit principles.

    Education of children and youth, particularly instruction in Inuktitut that highlights Inuit traditions and values, is also a key priority for Pauktuutit.

    Encouraging women in business has been important from the beginning. Pauktuutit’s Inuit Women’s Business Network has grown from six to 140 women in communities across the North. Pauktuutit drew nation-wide attention to Inuit women’s traditional skills and talent with its fashion shows. The first, held in Iqaluit at Pauktuutit’s 1994 AGM, drew a crowd of 1,000 to watch Inuit women walk down the runway in their innovative clothing designs rooted in tradition.

    Niego said Pauktuutit has inspired Inuit women “to examine themselves, figure out their role in today’s society and the environment, and find their place.”

    Over the last three decades, Pauktuutit has raised awareness of critical Northern issues, and empowered Inuit women. “Looking back at all that’s been accomplished The issues are tough, but I think that what helps is the opportunity to try to bring about change,” says Kudloo.

    Pauktuutit publications courtesy of Anna Tyers, CommPassion Creative, and Don Runge, earthlore communications.