Trent University conference keynote address

October 22, 2022

Check against delivery


I’d like to first acknowledge that we are on the traditional territory of the Mississauga Anishinaabeg. I thank them for welcoming us and for sharing their knowledge with us.

And I thank all of you for being here today to honour and recognize Shelagh Grant. Whit and I are grateful to take part in this conference.

Let me begin with Shelagh’s own words—her own vision—from the preface to her book Sovereignty or Security?

“Canada’s north provides an infinite challenge for historians who attempt to explain its mystique…In my own experience, historical research and associated travel stimulated an even deeper appreciation and concern for what most Canadians describe as ‘our north.’ While the related myth continues to have a powerful influence on public perception, only through broader knowledge and understanding of the past can we hope to improve on the present…”

Shelagh was more than a historian. She was a visionary who understood that in order to look to a brighter future and in order to improve lives today, we need to have a good grasp of history.

But Shelagh was much more than that. She was a loving wife, mother and grandmother. And Shelagh was a dear friend.

Shelagh and I worked closely for years, particularly here at Trent University during my days as chancellor.

But even before my days at Trent, we worked together on a series of lectures, which were eventually published. It was called Inuit: One Future, One Arctic and Shelagh was kind enough to write the foreword.

I remember our trips together, alongside her husband, Jon, in Scotland, and, memorably, near my parent’s camp at Pyramid Mountain on the George River, catching trout and salmon. Or spending hours in a rich blueberry patch just talking.

Her passion is what brings us all together today: the Arctic.

Shelagh was an exception, and exceptional—one of the first Canadians, and one of the first women, to learn, understand and record important elements of Canada’s Arctic history. Shelagh was influential in so many ways:

She got people to pay attention to the Arctic;

She gave Canadians a complete picture of how Canada has engaged in Northern development and with the people who live there;

She inspired experts and decision makers to put their ideas about the Arctic on the table.

She travelled extensively in the North, and formed relationships with northern communities and Inuit. She was an advocate and ally who took to heart the adage “Nothing about us without us.”

Shelagh listened and recorded the stories Inuit have told through the ages, passed down from generation to generation. Our history, our truth.

In this way, she helped us see the importance of the Arctic as more than just a vaguely defined region.

The Arctic, she understood, is a homeland. It’s vital to Inuit culture, spirituality and identity.

As you know, her books—Arctic Justice and Polar Imperative, among others—are staples in post-secondary studies on the Arctic and northern peoples. Many, if not all, of you here today have studied her research and been inspired by her writing.

But as Whit and I travel and talk to kids at schools across the country, we have noticed a shared thirst for knowledge among educators and students, no matter how young. They yearn for knowledge about the Arctic and about Indigenous peoples—their stories, cultures and histories.

This is reconciliation in action, something that Shelagh understood. Her actions throughout her life were consistent with reconciliation, and her writing has always led us in that direction.

Education and reconciliation go hand in hand, after all. Neither can be achieved without the other. And educators have a vital role to play.

Educators, and by extension researchers and historians, have a unique relationship with reconciliation. They are responsible for teaching us the true history of our nation, including our neglectful treatment of Indigenous peoples. Educators help shape our minds and our stories, and what we know of Indigenous peoples past and present.

When we talk about the Arctic, Shelagh did this better than most.

Now that responsibility falls to you. Here in this room is Shelagh’s legacy. You are contemporaries of Shelagh’s. And you are newcomers to this field of study. A new generation, a new type, of Arctic explorer, focussing on preserving the Arctic and promoting new opportunities in Canada’s North.

Trent University is a good place for these conversations. Here, we find the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies, as well as the opportunity for in field work and hands-on Arctic research with the Indigenous and Environmental Studies and Sciences program.

Elsewhere in Canada, there are Indigenous legal programs, including at the universities of Saskatchewan, Ottawa and Victoria, and at northern education institutions, such as community colleges based in the North.

But as valuable as these programs are, we need to start education even earlier. It’s clear that our schools are the foundation for the long road that we’re trying to build.

Exciting and progressive work is already happening in curriculum development across the country. I often see innovative, dedicated and committed teachers who are leading the development of Indigenous programs, courses and classroom projects.

Yet, we can still do more, from kindergarten through to university.

I challenge all of us, in this room and across the country, to see the Arctic as Shelagh saw it. To see Canada through the eyes of the Arctic.

You have a great role to play in passing on the knowledge you’ve learned from Shelagh, here at Trent and throughout the Arctic during your travels.

And to the young researchers here with us, we have so much to learn from you as well. Your generation, after all, is the most diverse in the history of Canada. You need to be sitting at the table, participating in discussions in your own right, alongside other Canadians.

The road ahead—the big shoes Shelagh left behind—is daunting. But we must forge ahead in promoting Arctic knowledge and its peoples. This is hard, but necessary work. And so rewarding.

Rather than deny the truth of Canada’s history, including in the Arctic, we must be prepared to accept it and teach it.

Indigenous peoples are relying on you to meet this important moment in history. Continue to educate yourselves and others on Inuit and, more broadly, Indigenous and Arctic history. Listen to their stories. Embed reconciliation in your work.

There is a word in Inuktitut, my mother tongue: ajuinnata. It means to never give up, to keep going, no matter how difficult the cause may be.

Ajuinnata is a beautiful word and it reminds me of Shelagh.

I remember her taking every step possible to ensure she had the complete story, from the people who were there. She faced barriers in language, terrain and even policy, yet at every turn she persevered. She was happy to travel in any condition, sleep anywhere and talk openly with everyone.

I’m proud to say she was a great friend and one who made a difference.

Just as I started with Shelagh’s words, I want to end with the same, to inspire us as leaders of Arctic knowledge:

“Leadership is an attribute sought by so many, yet attained by far too few…The test of a true leader lies not in title or power, but in the ability to place the needs of others ahead of one’s own—and to convince others to do the same.”

Let’s all continue Shelagh’s legacy of leadership, education, reconciliation and Arctic pride.

Thank you.