The Inuit Women’s Association, Pauktuutit, has a big job to do. Many social issues like housing and justice get dumped into its lap because other large Inuit organizations tend to deal more with issues like land claims and development. “We deal with the rest,” says Helen Levecque, who is Pauktuutit’s special projects coordinator.
Pauktuutit just celebrated its 10th birthday. “All we’re trying to do is ensure that Inuit women have a voice,” said Levecque, who is MicMac herself (we’ll be interviewing Pauktuutit President Martha Flaherty in an upcoming issue). “Women want to take a more pro-active approach.”
The Nation: Pauktuutit was recently described in Nunatsiaq News as the “Inuit conscience.” Do you think that’s a fair label?
Helen Levecque: I’m not sure where that comes from because we certainly wouldn’t call ourselves that. It’s kind of patronizing to say something like that.
All we’re trying to do is ensure that Inuit women have a voice—women who haven’t had a voice before, women who’ve had difficulty in addressing issues in their community or regionally or nationally. And the Annual General Assemblies (AGMs) we have every year is an opportunity for the women to get together, discuss their current concerns and then give us a new direction for the next year.
We’ve been dealing with justice issues as they relate to Inuit women, spousal abuse, child sexual abuse, family violence in general, youth suicide, housing crises in the North. All those issues are important to us.
What do you think they meant by that statement? One thing I’ve heard is that the women’s association often intervenes on some questions that might not be considered strictly women’s issues, like in the political arena. Sort of like the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.
Ya, a lot like that. Individual women will come to us, or groups will come to us at our AGMs and say, look, here’s the situation, can Pauktuutit deal with it? Often, we do deal with it even though we’re one of the most underfunded organizations in the country, I think.
Unfortunately, the impression is that all of issues I just mentioned are women’s issues and not universal issues, which they should be. So therefore, they’re left to us to deal with. And we try to deal with them as best we can.
So I guess what they meant is that you’re one of the most vocal or effective groups that are dealing with those issues.
We’re vocal, ya. But there’s actually a lot of groups that do. There are local women, elders who are working in communities on their own. There are community health representatives who do good work. Then there are regional organizations and the national political organizations, but they work on their own levels with their own issues and are mostly concerned with things like land claims and mineral rights.
And we deal with the rest.
So a lot of issues get dumped in your lap because no one else is dealing with them?
Ya, there’s that, and small community groups do come to us for help with a funding proposal or letters of support or getting a project off the ground. We respond that way, too.
How is Pauktuutit funded?
[laughter]… Well, we receive a small portion of core funding from Canadian Heritage. It basically pays the rent. The rest of what we do is through project funding.
Not the Inuit entities?
Not really. For particular projects, one of the Nunavut corporations might give money. The problem is we’re national so a lot of regional organizations don’t like to fund us because we don’t deal with just their region.
The AGM is a perfect example. We must have raised funds from 20 different sources just for the AGM and the traditional Inuit fashion show we had during the AGM.
Why don’t you tell us a bit about the annual assembly you recently had? Was it an exciting event?
Ya, it was a big event. One of the big things we did this year was a healing workshop. This is where we got direction for where the women want to go. The other big thing we had was economic-development workshops, particularly focused on the arts and crafts industry, or the lack of an industry, but the number of women who make traditional Inuit clothing and crafts—how they can develop their market potential.
And this was done because women feel they need some kind of economic empowerment?
My experience raising money for the fashion show, for instance, is that a lot of the economic empowerment opportunities in the North are geared toward more male-oriented industries, like eco-tourism or carving or building kayaks.
And I’m sure this is true for the First Nations as well. Not very much attention has been paid to the opportunities that exist for producing and marketing arts and crafts.
It’s the first time we have focused on it because women want to take a more proactive approach.
Instead of sitting back and letting things happen, they really want to get out there and see what the opportunities are and develop those opportunities.
Speaking of development, what kind of concerns do you have about developments like the Great Whale project? Do you have a position on that?
No, we usually don’t take positions on such things. We usually try to avoid doing that. That’s not to say that we waffle on issues. It’s just that it’s unfair to speak for a whole group. It’s just an internal thing.
We want to hear from the women and work from what women have to tell us. If women themselves don’t have a position on it, we ourselves don’t take a position on it.
So what are the main concerns they do raise?
For economic development, they want to able to maintain copyright protection in some way.
In the past what’s happened is that clothing designers from the South will go up North and will look at a beautiful parka design, and rip it off in a factory without any recognition, never mind compensation.
The biggest thing that we’re working on right now is our justice project. We’re doing community consultations with women, going into the communities and hearing what women have to say. We’ve been focusing on a couple of issues, like police response to family violence and alternative justice methods.
Policing is a real problem in some communities, particularly in Labrador. There are a couple of communities in Labrador that don’t have policing at all, which is another big concern.
What kinds of things have you seen?
Deaths. We can’t say outright that they’re due to police negligence, of course.
But we feel there is a problem with the lack of response.