“People of the North” is a series of interviews created in partnership with Arctic in Context and Kesserwan Arteau, a legal and consulting firm that works with indigenous communities. Every six weeks, Kesserwan Arteau founders Jean François Arteau and Karina Kesserwan will publish an interview with leaders, innovators, and community members in an effort to highlight the Arctic’s diversity from the perspectives of those who live there.
By Jean-François Arteau
Minnie Grey has worked actively throughout her career to improve the quality of life for Inuit in Nunavik, Canada, and across the world. Nunavik, the northernmost part of Québec province, has been the site of negotiations for regional autonomy in recent decades. Grey was born in Kangirsuk, a coastal village in Nunavik. She served as third vice president of the Makivik Corporation, an organization that represents the interests of the Inuit of Nunavik, where she focused on self-government and community and economic development.
Grey served for six years as vice president of the Canada office of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC). She also chaired the Nunavik Education Task Force. From 1991 to 2000, she was the executive director for the Ungava Tulattavik Health Center and chairperson of the Nunavik Nutrition and Health Committee, an advisory group that was created to address the issue of food contaminants. Today, part of its mandate is to evaluate research projects related to wildlife and the environment.
From 2000 to 2002, Grey served as executive director of the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services, which oversees seven bureaucratic departments. During her tenure, she led the implementation of the Tapiriilirniq process, which addressed the issue of suicide. Grey was also appointed to the Inuit Governing Committee of the nonprofit National Aboriginal Health Organization. She has been a member of the Institute of Aboriginal Health within the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (a federal agency), the Canadian Council of Learning, a U.N. advisory group to the ICC, and the board of the Nasivvik Center for Inuit Health and Changing Environment at Laval University in Québec City.
Today, Grey chairs the Circumpolar Inuit Health Steering Committee at the ICC, and is co-chair of Saqijuq, an initiative to reconstruct regulations related to alcohol and drug abuse. She was a lead negotiator in the five-year talks between the government of Canada, the government of Québec, and the Inuit regarding self-government in Nunavik.
Grey returned to the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services in 2013 as executive director. In the following interview, she discusses the changes she has seen in Nunavik over her lifetime and her hopes for Inuit self-governance in the years ahead.
Kesserwan Arteau: What do you call your North?
Minnie Grey: I simply call the North my home. My north is the people, the land, the sea, the wildlife, the environment. This is where I have my roots, my family. In other words, the North is my identity.
KA: Tell us a bit about yourself.
MG: I am an Inuk born in Kangirsuk, Nunavik.
I am Minnie Grey—wife, mother, grandmother, aunt, sister and an executive director at the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services.
I am very proud of my heritage and my ancestry. Although I have mixed blood, I was raised by my mother, my grandmother, my sister, and the rest of my close-knit extended family, so I feel very strongly about being an Inuk. It has made me passionate about issues related to our way of life and about being proactive in adapting to the modern world.
KA: How do you link to the North?
MG: Coming from the North, I appreciate the vast space and the less hectic lifestyle. Having been born on the land and lived in the traditional way as a child shapes me as an adult, living the best of the two worlds I grew up in. As a child, I attended the federal day school in Kangirsuk then was sent off to Ottawa for high school. This experience gave me a balance of both worlds.
Today, the people around me are the most important part of my life: the Inuit—my family, friends, hunters, and colleagues—and non-Inuit, including professionals in the health and social services sector and the education sector, as well as finance people, lawyers, and those from other walks of life.
KA: What you consider to be successes in your North?
MG: Success depends on how something has positively influenced our society. We have succeeded as a people because of the survival skills of our ancestors; we have remained resilient and are very adaptable. More and more people are getting educated and Nunavik has become a pioneer in many areas, which it should be proud of. Our public institutions—such as health, education, and municipal organizations—have all-Inuit boards. We have Inuit-owned companies and we collectively benefit from the subsidiaries of Makivik, our ethnic organization. We have a good working relationship with both federal and provincial levels of government. More and more young leaders are stepping up, too, and I believe that can lead to further successes.
KA: What are some of the challenges?
MG: My North is facing many challenges, none of them easy. Over 60 years of rapid change, our people have had to face colonialism, residential schools [a government-sponsored education system meant to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children], dog slaughters [an attempt by police forces to subvert the Inuit’s nomadic lifestyle], and [federal government-initiated] relocations. These imposed acts have had a severe, negative impact on our society. We are dealing with alcohol and drug abuse, high rates of suicide and violence, and neglect of children. But we have now taken matters into our own hands, and I, for one, see a brighter future for our children. Inuit have stepped up to find their own solutions instead of depending on foreign methods that do not take into account our culture and our way of life.
KA: What are a few misconceptions about your North?
MG: It is not just a vast nothingness. There are people here, guardians of the land who live in modern communities, though they still practice traditional activities like hunting, fishing, and gathering. We have beautiful clothing made by talented women who use animal fur in their creations so that we can bear the cold in minus 50-degree winters.
We don’t live in igloos anymore; they’re only used as shelters in the winter. We don’t rub noses; we sniff babies as a way of kissing them. We don’t just eat raw or frozen meat; in fact, we have quite the culinary taste when it comes to cooking our wildlife. Nunavik Inuit still speak their own language, and the newer generation now speaks three languages: Inuktitut, French, and English.
KA: What are your hopes and fears for the future?
MG: I hope that my North will transform into a more autonomous region, moving forward with a form of self-government, so that different organizations can work together for a better Nunavik—for our own people—instead of working within their silos.
In the medium term, I hope to see more and more Inuit educated in all sectors, but especially in the area of health and social services. We need to be able to provide services in our own language—Inuit providing services to other Inuit. I also wish for our land to remain pristine. Even if there is mass resource development, I hope that our culture, way of life, and environment will be respected.
I hope for my people to be proud of our way of life, to remain resilient and be strong so that our children and their children will continue to practice what our ancestors protected for us. I hope they respect life and understand that we cannot give up. I don’t want to have fears; I am an optimistic person and passionate about the positive changes we can instill in our youth. If anything, I fear for the victims of violence and childhood sexual abuse. This cycle has to stop if we want to survive as a society.
* * *
* * *
Jean François Arteau was born in Quebec and has spent over 20 years working with the Inuit, including seven years in the Arctic town of Kuujuaq.
Karina Kesserwan was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. She has been working with Indigenous peoples for the past 10 years.
[Photos courtesy of Minnie Grey]