Madeleine Redfern: Canadian Inuit Politician

“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

In this edition of our series “People of the North,” we had the privilege to meet with Madeleine Redfern, an Inuk woman from Iqaluit, Nunavut. She attended Akitsiraq Law School and later became the first Inuk clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada.

Redfern is currently a consultant, chair of the Nunavut Legal Services Board, and a mentor for the Trudeau Foundation. This mentorship program aims to guide the next generation of leaders in the social sciences and humanities.

Redfern served as mayor of Iqaluit from 2010-2012, and was elected for a second term in 2015. Taking office has not stopped her outspoken criticism of the Nunavut government and the provision of services and infrastructure in the region.

Kesserwan Arteau: What do you call your north?

Madeleine Redfern: There is no universal definition of the north, and there may be valid reasons to define the north in different ways depending on the context. I live in Iqaluit, Nunavut, which is without a doubt considered north by all definitions. In Iqaluit are Inuit, who are the original inhabitants, and, since the 1940s, an ever-growing non-indigenous population. After Nunavut was established as a territory and Iqaluit was chosen as its capital, the community has grown tremendously, with migration of Inuit from every community in Nunavut, other Canadian regions, and circumpolar countries, as well as non-indigenous peoples from all parts of Canada, including many immigrants from around the world. As a result, Iqaluit is diverse and culturally rich.

The land and sea are incredibly beautiful, as are the animals and peoples who live in the north.

KA: Tell us about yourself.

MR: I am an Inuk born in Frobisher Bay. I have lived in many different parts of Canada and the world, but now I have been back home in Iqaluit for almost 20 years. Being from the north means having an understanding and appreciation of how living here truly is, and how it differs from the rest of Canada—especially in a region where there are no roads in or out of communities. The north is not merely an ethereal notion or a sense of “Canadian” identity for northerners. There are shared experiences and realities that make us unique from our southern counterparts. We can’t make the same choices a southerner can, such as driving to a store or shopping center to fetch a household item that is needed immediately. While our stores may have a wide variety of day-to-day items, there are often times when a particular item is simply not available. If it is really needed, one could ask through the community grapevine and usually find the required item from a generous neighbor or community member—on the promise that on the next trip out it will be replaced. The reliance on one another is much greater than in the south, and as a result, there tends to be a greater sense of community.

This can also mean that it’s tough to keep private and personal matters from becoming local gossip. But even long-held grudges will often be set aside in times of crisis or hardship, and it is that sense of small northern community that can be hard to find in southern areas, in large urban centers or even small towns where road access provides residents more autonomy and independence. 

KA: What is your connection to the north?

MR: My family and mixed heritage have tremendous influence on who I am, both as an Inuk and as a Canadian along with my British family members. I’ve found it useful to have those different cultural experiences and grapple with the differing viewpoints or ways of attaining or fulfilling cultural values. Through my work and experiences, both north and south, I have learned a lot about my family, my community, my country, and myself—and continue to do so. 

KA: What do you consider to be successes in your north?

MR: Without a doubt, the ratification of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement was a noteworthy achievement, which also created the Nunavut territory with its own territorial government.

KA: And what are some of the challenges?

MR: There is much work that needs to be done in realizing the dream of an Inuit homeland and fulfilling the aspirations and desires of our people. It’s incumbent on us Inuit to obtain the necessary skills and confidence to undertake self-governance. Self-governance does not mean expecting non-Inuit to learn from Inuit and govern the Inuit way. Self-governance or decolonization really require Inuit to step up and undertake the hard task—and risks—of trying to establish our own laws and policies along with delivering our own programs and services in a way that meets our people’s needs and priorities. It may also mean figuring out what the Inuit way is, in a context where there are no clear historical references or cultural practices to draw upon. Nonetheless, our cultural values and societal priorities can shape policies and programs, so that Inuit begin to feel, appreciate, and build upon successes and learn from failures, and so that our territorial and local governments are run by Inuit, for Inuit, but also serve and respect our non-indigenous residents. 

KA: Name a few misconceptions about your north.

MR: The misconceptions of the north are so pervasive in mainstream society and media that it feels overwhelming to tackle in one short statement. It is exhausting and annoying to continuously read or see the north being misrepresented or used as a public-relations backdrop, whether for political or propaganda purposes, for tourism, for businesses, or for NGOs or special-interest groups that perpetuate a simplistic and false narrative that can have real, negative ramifications for northerners, especially as it relates to national policies regarding the north.

The north is seriously under-represented and under-funded, which has led to haphazard, inadequate, inappropriate, and problematic development for northerners. Too often there has been little to no consultation of northerners regarding northern policy; poor replication of southern methods that do not work well in northern environments; complete disregard, ignorance, and arrogance toward indigenous northerners; poor planning; insufficient funding to meet basic infrastructure or program requirements; and a pervasive belief that northerners are “hardy” and, as such, do not require the same respect or standards enjoyed by southern Canadians. It’s sad to say that there has not been much change in attitudes or approaches to northern policy or development. As a result, the disparities in living standards between the north and south are tremendous, shocking, and revealing when you look at statistics for health, education, housing, infrastructure, and development. 

The north is full of opportunities, for both northerners and our country. However, there must be radical reform in how the north is developed. We as a nation must go beyond the rhetoric, photo-ops, and propaganda regarding the north and northerners. It is time to give northerners an opportunity to participate in northern policy development and ensure that northerners are truly part of all aspects of decision-making and participation in projects and programs that affect our lives. Northerners are simply asking and expecting the same level of engagement that southerners regularly enjoy and demand, as it relates to ensuring that laws, policies, programs, services, and development are done in a way that reflects desired societal outcomes. 

KA: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

MR: I’m not entirely sure where I will be in 10 years from now, except to say that I wish to be near my grandchildren and closely involved in their lives. Wherever I live or whatever I do, I will almost certainly be busy trying to influence and assist my community in an effort to achieve better governance, so that our people are better served by our representative government and organizations. 

KA: And where do you see your north in 10 years?

MR: I hope that by 10 or 20 years from now, the north and Canada have managed to find a better policy for development, so that increased strategic investment helps transform the region and its communities to be strong, vibrant, and stable. 

The future is not automatically better; it requires vision, strategic planning and strategic investment, cooperation, and a lot of hard work. My fear is that without good northern and national leadership, a lot of northern opportunities are not fully realized, especially to the benefit of northerners. I remain optimistic that a better future is achievable, but only if we truly learn from our past and current mistakes, and learn from our northern neighbors who have tried and are succeeding. And I hope that, through compelling advocacy, Canada commits to transformative investments that will unlock the amazing potential that exists in the north, not just its natural and abundant resources, but also the resilient, adaptable, and passionate people of the north.  

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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 Madeleine Redfern]

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