Wednesday, June 22, 2011


A couple of years ago, there was a nurse who was leaving Wakeham after 10 years of service. One of her Inuit colleagues said to her, "Qallunaat. They leave after they've taken enough." I'm not exactly sure how the nurse looked back on her decade of service, but I'm almost certain that she had never thought of it primarily as an exercise in taking.

I try not to think of the relationship that Kangirsujuaq and I have in terms of give-and-take. I try to think of it as an exchange of service.

Once, a friend of mine told me an interesting story. He was working in an isolated reserve, and by isloated I mean isolated. Each week, he had to travel two days to get to the reserve, work two days, and travel one to get back (I know it doesn't make any sense, something to do with ferries). He asked the chief one day, "You know, if you found some lodging for me, I could stay on the reserve and work five days a w...."

The chief cut him off. "You aren't welcome on my reserve. You are here to provide a service, nothing more. So, you can continue to travel two days in, work two days, and travel one day out each week, thank you very much."

Although this story is not at all indicative of my experience in Kangirsujuaq, I have kept it in the back of my mind as an angle through which I see the qallunaat teacher or other professional experience in the North. If I see it as an exchange of service for money, then I don't have to come to terms with what I have actually taken out of this place compared to the insignificant amount I have put back in. But now, because I like torturing myself, I'm going to go through this process anyway.

I have taken a great deal out of Kangirsujuaq. Sure, Kangirsujuaq provided me with a salary substantial enough to save myself from near financial ruin and get many of the material things I wanted, but that's not what I'm talking about. It was Kangirsujuaq that provided me with a loving relationship with a beautiful woman. I'll never forget those first few weeks Sophie and I spent together walking on the tundra and talking, and well... Kangirsujuaq also provided me with two amazing children (actually, I think one of them was made in Quaqtaq, but that's just splitting hairs). I hope I can also take some other long-term relationships with the friends I have made here. Indeed, it appears that not matter how much I gave or even could have given to Kangirsujuaq, it has paid me back a thousand-fold.

Yes Kangirsujuaq, I have taken enough. Thank you so much for all you have given me. I hope someday I can come back, even if just to visit, so I can take a little bit more.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Thank you

What can I write in my penultimate post? Today, I've been busy cleaning the house and packing the last couple of things. Mostly, I've been trying to keep myself occupied to stop me from thinking about what is happening. Every once in a while, a rush of emotion comes over me and I have to pause from cleaning the walls to breathe deeply and take pause, before being able to continue on.

I would like to reflect on some of the things I will miss about living here. I will miss the country food. I will miss my former students, colleagues, and friends. I will miss the sense of community that comes with living in a small, isolated village, even if I am largely disconnected from the community itself. I will miss the slow pace of life and my one-minute commute. I will miss hearing Inuttitut. Mostly, I will miss the many people who have welcomed me and my family into their community, if only for a short time.

Finally, I will miss writing something interesting enough for at least a couple dozen people to read. I feel like I have been extremely lucky to have had the chance to say goodbye like this over the past few weeks. About a month ago I realized that there have been five long-term teachers who have left Kangirsujuaq since I arrived. Sophie and I will make seven. Over the course of those five years, not one of the other five people left at the end of the year. Some departed in the midst of depression and sickness, while others left to have children mid-year and ave yet to return. Most of them never got to say a proper goodbye to the place they loved so much. I'm sure in some way, it still haunts them. By contrast, the past month has been like a farewell tour for me that will, at least I hope, bring some closure to my northern sojourn.

Thank you for sharing in my experience for the past five years. I'll miss you too.

Fifth Year

This year, I had the best job at the KSB. Teaching secondary 6 afforded me the opportunity to wake up in the morning and actually want to go to work. I'm not talking about tolerating work, or even accepting it. I wanted to go to work.

The task seemed simple enough. Take KSB graduates who were not strong enough to get into college and give them the skills to succeed in post-secondary education. At first, it seemed like the quintessential colonialist position. I was to get these kids ready for assimilation into the most Western of institutions: post secondary education. It didn't take me long to accept my mission openly, for at the very least, I wasn't trying to ready young Inuit for life in the North like I had been naively attempting to do for the past four years. This year, I didn't have to pretend.

My students were fantastic; that is, the ones who stuck it out. Over the course of the year, I had 21 different students enrolled in secondary 6. Only 8 finished. But they're all going to college next year. I hope I did my part to give them the tools to last more than a couple of weeks. I guess only time will tell.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The F Word

Last weekend was beautiful. The sun was out, it was warm enough to wear only a sweater, and there was no wind. On Saturday, we went for a picnic about 5 km from the village with our neighbours who then fed us a steak dinner later that evening.

On Sunday, we didn't do much, but at 7:30 last night, Noah asked me, "Daddy, can we go up the little mountain and see the big inukshuk?"

Just like that, my son wanted to go climb a mountain. So we set out quickly, and a few minutes later we were basking in the beauty of Kangirsujuaq. Thankfully, Sophie brought her camera to capture the magic.

This morning, when I awoke, I wasn't surprised by what I saw. I had checked the forecast, and knew that the beautiful weather we had this weekend was bound to be finished. In a word, it was foggy.

Around these parts, "fog" has become more vulgar than its four-letter counterpart. Among travelers in Nunavik, it is the most vile concept ever hurdled upon mankind. Fog wreaks havoc on people's lives. It separates families, and it torments even the most stoic of migrants. Flights cannot get in or out. When the fog rolls in over Kangiqsujuaq, it feels like mother nature has spread her blanket of isolation over a place that has only just recently been opened up to rapid travel by technological progress.

I once asked a nurse what would happen if there was someone who really needed to get out of the village with a medical emergency, like a heart attack or a ski-doo accident. I had expected her to tell me something about a helicopter or special plane, but she just said, "Well, that person could die."

Last year, not one but two babies were born in Kangiqsujuaq because it was too foggy to get the mothers to Kuujjuaq in time. Most recently, this morning the search for three missing hunters from Salluit had to be postponed due to fog. Yes, the f-word can be a very serious thing indeed.

And routine. Personally, I've been delayed so many times that I really have lost count. I've contemplated starting a semi-fictional blog called "stuck" to try to share the feelings of stress and helplessness that the f-word brings out of even the strongest of people. However, my attempts at capturing the frustration always implode, and the blog just sits there like the fog, waiting for something to happen.

Let me give you an example. It was December 16th, 2009. Sophie had gone down to Montreal by herself a few days earlier to rest her tired, pregnant body while I stayed with Noah in Kangiqsujuaq. The day after she left, the fog rolled in. And like that quiet uncle who comes to your parents house at Christmas, eats, watches television, and overstays his welcome, it didn't leave for another six days. No flights came in or out of Kangiqsujuaq.

The fog teased us. It would open up just a little, and we could hear the planes trying to cut their way through the shroud of condensation en route to and from Salluit, but to no avail. We were called out with our luggage onto the street so many times that I lost count and stopped caring. There were fights between teachers and one even threatened to stay here over the holidays. At least that way, he could feel like he was in control.

In the midst of the fog-induced chaos, there was a little boy who missed his mama. He had been promised that he would see her in no more than three days. But those three days came and went, as did another three days. Have you ever tried to explain the logistics of air travel and inclement weather to a two-and-a-half year old boy? Amazingly, Noah held it together. Once, he was frustrated with my attempts to reason with him and he just couldn't hold it in anymore. Lip trembling, eyes watery, he stammered, "Where's mam..." Sensing the lost look on my face, it almost seemed like he knew it was no use, as he stopped short, buried his face into my chest and sighed deeply.

On the fourth and final day of our delay, we were at the airport. I asked Pierre, a teacher of 20 years in Kangirsujuaq, what the longest he had ever been stranded had been.

"Me?" he replied. "10 days. But I remember talking to another teacher when I first arrived. He had been here for 20 years before me, a time when there was no airport. Back then, the flight only came once a week, and it landed on the bay. Every time the plane attempted to land, it was too windy, and the waves were too big. He was stuck here the whole summer."

Although Pierre's story did little to comfort a group of stranded travelers who were trying to get to their destinations in time to get at least the leftovers from Christmas dinner (we actually arrived on the 22nd, but it felt like we were going to miss it), it did say a lot to me about how much the north has changed in the past half-century. I might complain when there's no milk in the village for a couple of weeks or no eggs for a month. However, life is pretty comfortable up here compared to the way is was just a couple of short decades ago.

This time, it doesn't matter to me whether the f-word rolls in on Wednesday. Don't get me wrong, I would like to spare myself the stress of not knowing when we are going to leave. However, it might be evident to you from my daily doses of melancholy that it's not exactly like I want to get the "f" out of here or anything.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fourth Year

On August 1st, 2009, Sophie and I came back for a fourth year. We had come up a couple of weeks early to go to Pingualuit National Park. Pingualuit is an almost perfectly circular crater made when a meteorite crashed into the Canadian shield some 10 million odd years ago.

The mountains created by the impact are the only major topographical feature in an otherwise flat plateau that dominates the Ungava Peninsula. I can only imagine the first time an inuk, probably hunting caribou, climbed up to the top of these mountains to see what was on the other side. This is what he would have seen:

In 2009, the park was fully operational, and we flew in for a three-day camping trip. The first day was beautiful. We climbed up to the crater and basked in its beauty. The next two days, however, were rainy. One night, it was so rainy and windy that I didn't sleep a wink and actually got out of the tent to check the pegs not once but twice.

As we were getting ready to fly back to Kangirsujuaq, the skies opened up. We were in for a treat.

Actually, the more impressive part of the flight came when we flew in the valley of the Wakeham River as we were approaching Kangirsujuaq. Unfortunately, the battery on the camera died en route from the crater, and we have only our memories of its incredible beauty.

That year, I taught social studies. I was able to take my students on a trip to Qajartalik, an island which is home to Canada's only arctic Dorset-era petroglyphs. There are hundreds of masks carved into the rocks at Qajartalik. We set out by boat on the Hudson Strait on October 1st and had an amazingly beautiful day.

We rode in a Peterhead boat named Qilalougak (beluga). We towed a canoe so some of the guides could go seal hunting.

We had fresh seal for lunch. I was a bit apprehensive at first, but found the heart and the ribs to be delicious.

One of the masks.
What a perfect day.

We arrived home after dark, tired and hungry, but completely content. The next day, I was bed ridden with a migraine headache and nausea. I couldn't even move. I think it may have been a combination of to much sun, not enough water, and camp stove fuel exhaust, but whatever, it was still worth it.

After Christmas, Sophie and I didn't return right away. Sophie was due to have Evie on the 17th of January, so I took a leave of absence from work until the beginning of April. I had asked for a shorter leave, but the school board suggested that I take a longer one because it would be easier to replace me. I obliged. By the time we had left, they had hired someone. He contacted me, and right from the beginning, I could tell that he was not going to go through with his commitments. I wrote him no less than 30 different emails, trying to allay his fears about everything under the sun. I even spent an hour and a half on the telephone with him on Christmas Eve trying to explain this and that. Sure enough, on January 5th, he was a no show at the airport.

This is one of the biggest differences between teaching in the South and in Nunavik. When you're sick, there is no one to replace you. If you take a paternity leave, there is no one to replace you. If you quit, there is no one to replace you; and if you don't show up for work, there is no one to replace you.

At one point, I wrote my flake of a would-be replacement an email. I'm not sure if he ever read it. In fact, I'm sure he flagged it as spam and went on with his life. I leave the text to you:

You probably have your reasons for backing out, and I'm not going to question them. I just thought that you should know that those students still do not have a teacher.

"There are two types of people in this world: those who do what they
say they are going to do, and then there's everybody else." - Anthony Bourdain.


My students went weeks without a teacher. Just as this began to weigh heavily on my mind and we began to consider coming back early, the school board found Jacob, who came for the last six weeks of my leave and later stayed to fill another position. Since then, he has become a dear friend to all of us. In the end, it turned out to be a good thing that my replacement didn't show up.

We returned in April to finish out the year. When we arrived, we had no intention of coming back. However, I was outside with Noah on our first day back, and I was staring at the horizon that I had come to know so well. A rush of emotion welled up inside me and it was all I could do to not break down. I knew that Kangirsujuaq and I were not quite finished with each other. When we announced that we were moving to Montreal, the outpouring of support for us was so intense and overwhelming that when another opportunity to stay arose, we decided to take it.