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“We need educated leaders who know how to govern.”

Photo courtesy of Madeleine Redfern.

Photo courtesy of Madeleine Redfern.

An increasing number of Nunavut’s young women are pursuing a post-secondary education. Yet, most high school students tend to be unprepared for higher education. Madeleine Redfern, in conversation with Erica Dingman, discusses how Nunavut’s future depends on improvements to its educational system.

Erica Dingman (ED): Are women well represented in Nunavut’s political sector?

Madeleine Redfern (MR): Women, overall, are underrepresented in business and politics, so it’s no surprise that the same is true in the Arctic. Nonetheless, we are seeing some dramatic shifts in the number of young women who are graduating high school and continuing with post-secondary education. It’s conceivable that in the next generation or so that there might be a considerable shift in the number of women who participate in politics and hopefully business. However, the perception persists that some domains belong to men. Business and politics are clearly two of those areas. Where we do see a lot of women is in bureaucracy, anything from entry level positions to middle management, but far fewer in senior management. It’s not uncommon to find women in middle management with significantly more education than that of the men in senior management or elected office.

ED: Why do so few women attain senior positions, even with a post-secondary education?

MR: That’s an interesting situation. Some men in senior management or leadership positions feel threatened by women with advanced education. As such we see cases where there’s an attempt to keep educated Inuit, particularly Inuit women, away from positions of seniority. Additionally, sometimes women reject those senior management roles or elected positions because they are trying to balance their work life with their home life—they feel that they already have a lot on their plate.

Our society is going through considerable change. Even though this is the 20th anniversary of Nunavut, many Inuit complain that we’ve not done enough. There is insignificant change in the primary language of instruction in schools, legislation and policy reflecting Inuit values and priorities. And although a minority of Inuit, 30 percent, are doing well, 70 percent are struggling, living in poverty, with overcrowded housing and food insecurity.

ED: How does this affect women’s professional considerations?

MR: It’s complicated. Women care about these issues I mentioned, but they are also concerned about our boys who are not finishing high school, their high rate of suicide and trouble with the law. These are our sons, our cousins, our nephews.

The level of disempowerment that occurred amongst many of our men when the Canadian government moved our people away from a nomadic lifestyle and into permanent settlements was highly significant. This continues to have intergenerational effects today. There were not enough jobs and housing to go around, so the vast majority who were not afforded those opportunities then continue to struggle today. If you grow up in poverty it is that much more difficult to get out of poverty. Because of overcrowded housing, there are literally some families with children who sleep in shifts.

ED: The Nunavut Sivuniksavut (NS) program, which has been around since the 1990s, recently launched a pilot project called the Academic and Career Development program which helps prepare young Inuit for careers in Nunavut’s public service. It’s interesting that of those enrolled in this post-secondary program all six are women.

MR: Yes, the vast majority going on to post-secondary education are women. While some of the young women come straight from high school, others are a bit older with families. In some cases, women turn to higher education once they have settled down and have the family support to undertake their studies and succeed.

I think the NS program is excellent, but this two-year certificate program does not replace a university degree where students can specialize in fields such as finance, law or medicine. What I don’t understand is why our high school students do not already have the knowledge taught in the NS program. The students should already know about their history, their land claim agreement, and about the fundamentals of democracy and civil society which is pretty much the focus of the NS program, in addition to remedial education in reading and writing. We need to prepare those Inuit high school students who want to go on to university.

ED: Improving the lives of your fellow Inuit through education is one of your top priorities. Which level of government has responsibility for the educational system?

MR: The Government of Nunavut has the primary responsibility, with everything from drafting the education act, to the budget, to the policies and priorities. Like Canada’s other territories and provinces, the biggest level of responsibility rests with this level of government.  However, the federal government has a role to play, particularly in support of post-secondary education because of the relationship with indigenous peoples—85% of the population are Inuit. There are constitutional obligations whereby agreements exist between the federal government and Nunavut Inuit to provide financial assistance to Inuit for job training or post-secondary education. However, we need significantly more investment so that more of our people take advantage of this—every dollar spent on training and post-secondary education is going to have a significant economic return. We need educated leaders who know how to govern. We need skilled Inuit managers who can provide the necessary support and skill set to manage our government departments and implement good programs and services.

ED: What are your hopes for Nunavut?

MR: What we are trying to achieve is not different from other successful societies. When you put the word ‘indigenous’ in front of government it shouldn’t shock anyone. Ontario is a form of self-government. We don’t challenge the validity of Quebec because it’s a majority francophone population that functions according to their values and their language. The government represents the society that elects them. Nunavut is just as distinct as Quebec based on our language, our culture and our values, but still respects the rights of the minorities; francophones and anglophones. It’s totally possible for us to achieve the goal that Inuit sought from the negotiated land claim agreement, which is to have an Inuit homeland in this confederation called Canada.

We want almost the same as every other society. We want good governance that reflects the culture of our people. And we want good sound economic development that doesn’t harm the environment.  We want sufficient housing and food for our families, and to be contributing members of our society.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Photo courtesy of Madeleine Redfern.

Photo courtesy of Madeleine Redfern.

Madeleine Redfern, LLB, is currently in her second term as Mayor of the City of Iqaluit, the city of her birth. Madeleine's experience spans work in both business and governance.  She is a graduate of the Akitsiraq law school with a law degree from the University of Victoria.  After graduating, she worked at the Supreme Court of Canada for Madam Justice Charron.  Madeleine is a member of the National Indigenous Economic Development Consortium, Trudeau Foundation, EcoJustice Board member, President of the Ajungi Group, and Northern Robotics.  Madeleine is spearheading the setting up of an Internet Exchange Point (IXP) in partnership with CIRA and Microsoft in Iqaluit.

You can find Madeleine Redfern on Twitter: @MayorMadeleine

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Aurora champions women and gender equality through a series of interviews inclusive of a wide range of voices. We recognize that freedom of expression is an important step towards equitable outcomes for women and by extension all of humanity.