Indigenous Success Stories

Government Commitments to Truth and Reconciliation

The extraordinary life of Inuk activist Aaju Peter

September 13, 2023

The documentary Twice Colonized is an intimate look at Peter’s strength, determination and dedication

 Portrait of Aaju Peter
Aaju Peter has led an extraordinary life. The film Twice Colonized is an in-depth, intimate look at her strength, determination and dedication. (Donald Michael Chambers)

CBC Indigenous: Aaju Peter is an activist, lawyer, educator and clothing designer, most famous for her work defending the rights of the Inuit in Canada and Greenland. She travels the world to raise awareness of the challenges Inuit communities face, and fights to preserve their language and culture, especially the seal hunt. 

Peter has led an extraordinary life. The film Twice Colonized is an in-depth, intimate look at her strength, determination and dedication.

Born in Greenland, Peter was sent to Denmark alone at 11

Peter was born in 1960 in Arkisserniaq, Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat in Greenlandic). Her father was a pastor and teacher, and her family moved around to his various postings on the island’s west coast. When Peter was 11, her parents sent her to school in Denmark alone, and she lived with different white families until she was 18. “My whole world changed instantly,” Peter says in Twice Colonized. “I had to learn to sit at a table and use a knife and fork to eat my food. I had to learn to brush my teeth. When you’re trying to ‘whitenize’ little Inuit, you separate them from their parents, you separate them from their peers.”  

The experience, which seemed at first a privilege for an academically gifted child, had devastating effects. Peter learned Danish, English, German, French and Latin, but nearly lost the ability to speak her native Kalaallisut, or Greenlandic Inuit. This period was also extremely lonely for her as she had to adjust to a new place every year.

When she returned to Greenland in her late teens, she was ridiculed for losing her language and culture. This humiliation profoundly affected her, leading to a lifelong dedication to exploring and connecting with her Inuit culture. 

Relentlessly advocating for the rights of the Inuit

In the early 1980s, Peter moved to Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit). She raised five children while working with cultural organizations and women’s groups, helping to establish a women’s shelter and food bank. 

In the 1990s, Peter enrolled in Inuit studies at Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit, and then the Akitsiraq Law School Program, affiliated with the University of Victoria and designed to increase the number of Inuit lawyers in Nunavut. She was called to the bar in 2007 when she was in her 40s. Ever since, Peter has relentlessly advocated for the rights of the Inuit, including protesting the anti-sealing legislation at the European Union. Even though she’s said she feels like “a fly on the wall” to European legislators, who are making decisions that affect the Inuit without the community’s input, she continues to fight. Twice Colonized follows Peter’s efforts to establish a permanent Indigenous forum at the EU. 

Aaju Peter sits between two other people at a table.
Twice Colonized follows Aaju Peter’s (centre) efforts to establish a permanent Indigenous forum at the EU. (EyeSteelFilm)

Peter has also developed school programs for the Inuit community, taught Inuktitut, and was a cultural adviser and lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan’s Nunavut Law Program. She’s worked as a cultural facilitator, collecting Inuit customary law from elders on behalf of Nunavut’s justice minister.

In 2012, Peter received the Order of Canada for preserving and promoting Inuit culture and practices. 

Peter’s artistic work

Peter is a craftsperson, designer, singer and dancer. She learned how to work with sealskin while rediscovering Inuit traditions in the ’80s, and her designs are an innovative blend of Inuit and modern styles. Peter creates everything from traditional amautiit (sealskin parkas) to tank tops, vests, handbags and ties — she made a sealskin coat for former governor general Adrienne Clarkson. Peter has released an album of Inuit songs and Greenlandic classics, and performed drum dances and traditional songs around the world.

Peter is co-writer and an executive producer on Twice Colonized, which was seven years in the making. She is writing a book about her life to help others who can relate to the struggles she has experienced. 

Aaju Peter is pictured reading while resting her head and shoulders on a pillow on the floor.
Peter is an activist, lawyer, educator and clothing designer, most famous for her work defending the rights of the Inuit in Canada and Greenland. (EyeSteelFilm)
Peter in focus

This film isn’t the first to show Peter’s determination. She’s featured in Angry Inuk, a documentary by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (a producer on Twice Colonized) about a new generation of Inuit defending the seal hunt as a means to sustain themselves. Peter was also in Arnaquq-Baril’s Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos, a profoundly personal work in which the filmmaker learns about traditional Inuit face tattoos for women and decides to get some of her own. Peter appeared in John Walker’s film Arctic Defenders, which follows the radical Inuit movement, begun in 1968, to reclaim their land and establish a new territory, Nunavut, and a government they’d control. 

Remarkably, these films only scratch the surface of Peter’s incredible life.

Twice Colonized had its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival, and was the opening film at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. Watch it now on CBC Gem.