Inuk from Greenland becomes tenured professor in Canada
Karla Jessen Williamson: “It’s been a very lonely trip in many ways"
Greenlandic Inuk Karla Jessen Williamson has recently attained something that few Inuit in Canada can currently claim: a tenured position as a professor at a Canadian university.
But the matter-of-fact academic and poet did not mince words when it came to describing the journey to her recent success.
“It’s been a very lonely trip in many ways. It’s not like I could call up other Inuit in academia and ask, ‘what are you going through?’” Williamson told Nunatsiaq News at the Frobisher Inn’s café in Iqaluit Feb. 25.
That’s because very few Inuit choose careers in academia, said Williamson, who happened to be in Iqaluit visiting family when she received the good news from the University of Saskatchewan.
“I knew that our ancestors had a very special knowledge, and we need to make sure that good wisdom is invested in for generations. That kept me nourished, that kept me going.”
“Tenure,” a highly coveted and privileged designation in academia, means the professor has earned guaranteed permanent employment at their university until retirement and cannot be dismissed without just cause.
Williamson made two presentation in Iqaluit Feb. 28, titled “Patertuumasut and Decolonization.”
Part of that presentation looks at the optimism and hope Inuit in Canada and Greenland felt when political structures, offices and human resources were sent north, said Williamson, who teaches in the faculty of education at the University of Saskatchewan.
That optimism focused on ownership of land and resources, fueling hopes for the future.
But colonial prejudices perpetuate themselves within those political structures, offices and approaches to human resources, Williamson said.
“So in Nunavut, it’s a question of how does each office actually negotiate different knowledge systems—Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit and the Western system. It’s incredible the amount of negotiation that can happen.”
There is certainly room for more of that type of negotiation within the Government of Nunavut, Williamson said.
For example, when asked how Inuit traditional knowledge related to numerous media accounts of bullying from civil servants, Williamson spoke of a “singular” colonial knowledge system that is “very very destructive” to those it labels “others.”
“That kind of system says, ‘you don’t belong. Why should we make concessions for you? We don’t have time and we definitely don’t have money.’”
The suffering in silence that ensues can be “deafening,” said Williamson.
And when asked how bureaucratic disciplining tools like fact finding meetings relate to IQ, Williamson spoke of the need for dignity.
“People forget in this rat race we have that in any action we have to have dignity and show dignity for people around us … These governance structures Inuit have, have been busy, busy, busy because they are so new, but there has been little forethought, except proving themselves to the South.”
But there is also reason for Inuit to hope and be optimistic, Williamson said.
“Think of the negotiations Inuit had to do with the federal government to say, we are the owners of the land and resources. The same thing can happen at the micro level, in offices and classrooms across Nunavut.”
And Canada is a world leader in terms of recognizing the value of traditional, alternative knowledge systems, Williamson said.
The professor pointed to the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board and Canadian research grant councils as examples of organizations that have done what organizations in Greenland or Scandinavia struggle to do: form policies influenced by Indigenous traditions of knowledge.
But while Canadian university campuses are starting to embrace Indigenous knowledge systems, Williamson remembers when a professor once told her she must like rocks, because that’s all “Eskimos” have.
“In the 1970s I was told by some of my professors that Inuit sleep with their children… I was such a singular Inuk in an institution that insisted on assimilation. It became a question of finding my own dignity.”
In part, Williamson found that dignity through poetic expression.
“I’ve been well, well trained in academia now, in western ways of knowing … But out of nowhere these words of my poetry urge themselves out of me. I can’t do a thing but sit there, crying, writing them all down.”
Williamson said she has challenged her colleagues and students to embrace this form of creativity in their own work, a creativity she links to her Inuit roots.
“As Inuit we believe in our spirits, we believe we are born with a purpose, and that purpose has to manifest itself in our life. So poetry for me came like that.”