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first person

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

I am Inuk. And I’ve learned culture reinforces identity in a powerful way. My Indigenous ancestors arrived in Labrador in the 15th century from Baffin Island, migrating as their ancestors did to new territories. Three centuries later, British sailors settled in Labrador. They found companionship with local women and knowledge to survive in a harsh land. Their children and grandchildren adapted to a changing world.

I imagine a time when my ancestors never thought of themselves as anything other than people who were making a living as best they could in a place so remote, that demanded so much of its people. Would they see anything of themselves in me?

I’m not unlike many of my generation: My accent is more “Toronto” than it is “Cartwright,” the small Labrador community where I grew up. I have a name that is as common in Newfoundland as it is in Labrador. I have dark hair, like my mother. The sun darkens my skin in summer. I have my father’s face. I have blue-green eyes, like my son. I am what you might consider “white passing.” I haven’t encountered systemic barriers based on race.

I think I learned the word “Nakomik” from my great-uncle Bill. His mother was from Tisialuk. Inuktitut is not spoken in my hometown of Cartwright, except for those things that have no English name, like the komatik. Bill had a team of dogs that would pull his komatik, and me on it, when I was very young. Like many other traditional practices, the dog team was given up in favour of a Ski-Doo.

The places we belong to – where generations past were born, lived their lives, were buried and where we return to – are understood within our communities. In some ways, I feel more at home in my family’s historical place – Dove Brook, on the north side of Sandwich Bay – than I do in the Cartwright house where I grew up. Dove Brook is where my great grandfather was born, the place where his father is buried and where my grandmother first attended school, in a small church with a red roof that still stands today but shows its age.

After high school, I was eager to leave home and feel like I was part of a bigger world than a town of 500 people with no road out. Leaving home was easy, but being away was hard. I didn’t have a clear direction, and I didn’t have an anchor. I felt alone. Eventually, I found my compass and a way forward.

In Nova Scotia, I found my partner and a place to put down roots. Emily understands where I come from and she believes in me. We love our trips home. Living vicariously through Emily’s experiences in Labrador has renewed in me a connection to my heritage. Sometimes we need an outside perspective to see who we are and what makes us unique.

Not all outside perspectives are as constructive, though. I’ve always identified as having Inuit heritage. Most of the time, this revelation is accepted at face value. Sometimes I will receive an examining gaze, as the person tries to see the Inuit in me. I’ve been asked if I do not have to pay taxes or if I received a free education. When I tell them neither are true in my case, I’ve been told it’s probably because I’m too “watered down.” It is hurtful to have your identity measured or evaluated against a standard that does not apply. In those moments, I question my identity, am I Indigenous enough?

In many ways, Indigenous identities are reduced to a “status” – we are defined primarily by the benefits we receive. Worse yet, our identities are racialized. We are defined by our trauma and mainstream narratives that characterize Indigenous people as victims of historical and present-day oppression, perpetually at odds with government or industry.

Subsistence living is not a hobby or a ritual for many in my family, it is simply a way of life. For my grandmother’s generation, to fish, to hunt, to trap and to cut their own firewood is like breathing. This is not an homage to the old ways. This is not reclaiming something that was lost. This is a culture that never died. It is the lived experience of our elders and of their descendants who inhabit the land today.

I was never cut out for it, personally.

So I wonder sometimes, when do we stop being Indigenous? Is it when we no longer carry out our traditional practices? Is it when we are one-too-many generations removed from an ancestor with no European blood? Is it when we stop speaking our Indigenous language? Is it when we no longer return to the places we belong to? Is it when there is no one left to welcome us home? I imagine a time when my ancestors found themselves at a crossroads in their own identities. When they settled in a new land with new opportunities and challenges. When they married an immigrant with fair skin and blue eyes. When they could no longer communicate with their grandparents. Did they ever question who they were?

I reflect upon my life and how different it is from the life of my grandmother. I think of my brother and how he balances the past and the present so easily. I look at my son and imagine an unimaginable future. Each generation bears the responsibility of being the anchor of identity for those who come after us.

There is a line that stretches back as far as time. I come from a land that demands so much of its people.

Gary Pardy lives in Bedford, N.S.

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