The Future List: Lynda Brown fosters cultural pride in Inuit community
People & Places

The Future List: Lynda Brown fosters cultural pride in Inuit community

Lynda Brown’s life in advocacy began at a laundromat in Peterborough 25 years ago. A man called her an Indian. When she corrected him, told him that in fact she is Inuk, he said, “Oh, Eskimo, then,” prompting her to correct him again: Inuit, not Eskimo.

Brown left with her boyfriend and now husband, Rob Nicholson, but they talked about it for hours. Nicholson said something she has never forgotten. With so few Inuit in Canada — about 50,000 at the time — most people had probably never met one. Before arriving to study at Trent University, he hadn’t. How she responded to strangers might change them, he said. Unfortunately, given such widespread ignorance, she might have to become both ambassador and agent of change. So she did.

Brown, 47, was born in Iqaluit, Nunavut, when it was called Frobisher Bay and was part of Northwest Territories. An accomplished throat singer, Royal Canadian Geographical Society fellow, and community leader, she has had plenty of moments like that — bewildering at the time, pivotal in hindsight. When you lay them all out, an unexpected storyline emerges, of an alienated youth becoming a youth mentor. Because in Canada, not only do Indigenous people have to be smart, successful, and virtuous to combat stereotypes, they also have to be patient teachers.

Embracing her Inuit heritage sparked a career in advocacy, arts, and adventure for Lynda Brown. Her tireless work aims to instill pride in Inuk children and youth. Photo by Christian Lalonde

It’s a breezy Friday in September, and we’re sitting at a patio on Richmond Road near Brown’s home. It’s not my first time interviewing her, and she greets me like an old friend, catching me up on her latest projects, her three children, throat-singing recordings and performances, and the recent death of her mother, Oleepa Brown.

Before she became known as a performer and an advocate, Brown moved around a lot and struggled with identity issues. Brown, born of an Inuk mother and a Scottish-Canadian dad from Montreal, had been bullied in the North for not being Inuk enough; in the South, where she lived from Grade 1 onward, she was scorned as an Eskimo, a term she says was then synonymous with “homeless” and “drunk.” She lived in the South and spoke English. Was she even Inuk? She had begun telling people she was Chinese.

Reading Maria Campbell’s classic 1973 memoir Halfbreed helped her feel, quite suddenly, seen. “I was wondering, am I half-breed? Is that the right term? I hate that term,” Brown said. “Seeing [Campbell’s] perspective really made a difference for me. It helped me understand there are others like me, with two very distinct sides. I wish I could have told my younger self that percentage doesn’t matter. When you’re Inuk, you’re Inuk. You don’t have to define it as a portion.”

Would she tell her younger self anything else? A long pause follows. It might have been helpful, she finally concludes, to know that the narrative around being Indigenous in Canada would soon shift dramatically. “I’ve seen real examples of people working through reconciliation. I’d like to have told myself that things do get better.”

Inuit have a particular capacity for resilience. Brown says family and community, the cornerstones of Inuit society, knit Inuit together through myriad family and social ties. Moreover, recent and rapid colonization means people like Brown are still intimately connected to pre-colonial life — her mother was born in an outpost camp on Baffin Island; her grandfather was a drum dancer who hid his drum from prying authorities. And while Southerners arrived to install military sites or mine natural resources, most didn’t want to live there. Brown says that frailty on the part of the newcomers allowed culture and language to continue.

When Brown began embracing her Indigenous identity at Trent, where she graduated with honours, earning a BA in psychology and a minor in native studies, she fell into open arms. A handful of peers started an Inuit club, hosting events and raffles, one of which she ended up winning: a trip to Denmark for the International Circumpolar Council. There, she met Inuit from other countries who shared similar languages and traditions but had completely different lives — the Russian delegates, for example, had to be smuggled in because their travel had been denied.

Upon graduating, Brown and Nicholson settled in Ottawa, home to the largest Inuit population outside of Inuit Nunangat, the traditional Arctic homelands. At the time, there were about 400 Inuit in Ottawa. Today it’s more like 4,000 and comprises students, medical refugees tethered to health care services, scores of Northern expats from across the Arctic, and homegrown Ottawamiut — a term that literally means “people from Ottawa.”

This burgeoning and diverse demographic is reshaping Canada’s capital, from the recent installation of Governor General Mary Simon, an Inuk from Quebec, to Inuit murals, Inuksuit at the airport, and the National Gallery of Canada’s priceless Inuit art collection. Inuit sit on local police, municipal, and hospital advisory committees. They have their own kindergarten, after-school programs, daycares, and summer camps, as well as a treatment centre, health clinic, and post-secondary college.

Brown has both benefited from, and contributed to, most local Inuit organizations and programs. She learned to drum and throat sing here, and so has her daughter. Her children, now 22, 18, and 14, all attended programs at the Inuuqatigiit Centre for Inuit Children, Youth and Families, a community hub that Brown helped found in 2005.

Brown also has an impressive career as a performer and cultural ambassador with Siqiniup Qilauta (Sunsdrum), the throat-singing duo that sees Brown collaborate with fellow Inuit advocate Heidi Langille. The group was formed 20 years ago when Brown, her sister, and a pair of friends decided to learn Inuit drumming. With toddlers running around, practices were chaotic but successful, and the group eventually started performing at events. With drumming down pat, learning the female tradition of throat singing was the obvious next move.

Lynda Brown, dressed in a blue traditional amauti, performs with Inuk musician Riit in Owen Sound in August 2017.

During our interview, she demonstrates some of the complex sounds — boiling water, river, wind, poor little dog. Even on a busy street, her voice is mesmerizing. Her talents led to a job in 2013 with Adventure Canada, a company that specializes in unique trips to places such as the Arctic and Antarctica. Cruises include a rotating roster of scientists, historians, and artists — Barney Bentall and Margaret Atwood among them — along with Indigenous staff. It was on a ship bound for Canada’s Arctic archipelago that Brown met David Newland, a folksinger-songwriter and Zodiac operator who quickly became a musical collaborator and an ally in reconciliation.

“Both Lynda and Heidi have done something I think is incredibly powerful,” says Newland. “They use what they lost for other people’s gain.” He notes that both came to their culture as adults after being steeped in Southern Canadian culture. Newland became motivated to amplify Brown’s message, inviting her and Langille to collaborate on a live recording called Northbound, released in 2019.

In 2019, longing for the stability of home, Brown took a job with Students on Ice (SOI), an organization that offers expeditions, engagement, and leadership training for international youth. That year, half of the participants were Indigenous, up from about one-third 20 years earlier, a statistic that attracted Brown to the organization. SOI founder and president Geoff Green describes Brown as a warm, supportive, and determined leader who fosters strong relationships with alumni worldwide. “She brings her invaluable Inuit perspective to all of SOI’s programs and initiatives.”

For a woman who grew up as a consummate outsider, a job empowering youth seems tailor-made. When asked what continues to motivate her, there is no long pause. Inuit children and youth now have permission to be proud of who they are, and she’s determined to keep it that way.

In 2015, days before Justin Trudeau’s first cabinet was sworn in, organizers called on Brown to find young throat singers for the ceremony. She immediately thought of Cailyn DeGrandpre and Samantha Kigutaq-Metcalfe. Their now-famous #Giggles performance at Rideau Hall garnered widespread adulation and spurred the girls to form their own throatsinging group, Tarniriik. Both Kigutaq-Metcalfe and DeGrandpre now work at Inuuqatigiit.

“Inuit today are so proud of their culture. That wasn’t there before. Taking up space is a little bit easier now.”