I was in the audience when Tanya Tagaq, an Inuk from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, performed at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in late November. As her voice filled the hall, I was full of admiration for the way she has carved out a dynamic place in the world as an artist and advocate. Unfortunately, she has done so in the face of enormous criticism for the way she exercises her right to personal expression, much of it from us, the Inuit community.
As individuals, we are often our own worst critics. Regrettably, we all too often are the worst critics of our fellow Inuit. Tearing each other down for who we are, how we live, how we express ourselves, or what we aspire to be is too common in our tight-knit communities and rips at the fabric of our society. If we are to realize our true potential in this rapidly changing world, we must embrace our culture and society as a dynamic and evolving foundation that encourages excellence and accepts innovation.
When we allow ourselves and our fellow Inuit the freedom to step outside our comfort zones — to reimagine centuries-old art forms like throat singing or drum dancing, to work towards a unified Inuktut writing system, or sew garments that build upon traditional designs – we are signalling to the world that ours is a living, thriving culture, and we are signalling to each other that a healthy society allows us to be ourselves.
In pushing boundaries, Tanya is creating a new space for Inuit. She is not only challenging our own concepts of Inuit cultural expression, she is challenging non-Inuit expectations and assumptions about Inuit too. In this context, what she is doing is similar in principle to what our 1970s “radical” young leaders accomplished in challenging the Canadian and Inuit societal status quo by demanding and claiming a new political space.
In light of centuries of colonization and disrespect for our human rights, we are very protective of what we have retained as a people, particularly when it comes to our language, culture and way of life. But we are alive today because of Inuit solidarity. This solidarity is still evident in our communities when we come together to support Inuit who are experiencing hardship or loss. We know how to hold each other up in the most difficult times.
We have no shortage of challenges upon which to unleash this potential today. It is incumbent on all of us to harness this power in service to our greatest needs, such as protecting our children, reducing suicide and ensuring that everyone has enough to eat. We also need to accept each other for who we are — even if we choose new paths — and not allow our society to be filled with anger and hate, instead of acceptance, support, and love.
The way we individually express the complexities and wonder of our land, our people, and our culture will always be personal. Inuit solidarity and unity, and our willingness to accept each other, are not lofty ideals. They are cultural hallmarks that have allowed us to flourish in Inuit Nunangat and that have ensured our political survival.
President, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami