Sunday, September 17, 2006


Okay, finally I will post about teaching. No caribou hunting or fishing trips. I have written before that teaching up here has its challenges. Now I will elaborate.

Classroom management represents one of my biggest challenges so far. There have been dozens of violent or near-violent incidents between students in my classroom. These obviously did not start this year; they have a long history that has followed this special group of students throughout their careers in school. It is a pattern I work very hard to break.

Since instituting boot camp in my class a couple of weeks ago, things have gone from total chaos at all times to a slow but productive pace interrupted still all too frequently by bullying, teasing, threatening, and punching. Just last week, one of the students whom I thought had turned a corner, turned around and threatened to hit the "shadow". She is someone who is paid to give one of my students one-on-one help because he went to school in French for grade four and five, was pulled out of school by his parents for a year, and returned to take school in English last year. She does far more than that. She acts as an interpreter, a motivator, and an extra set of eyes and ears in the classroom.

I thought that this was an extremely tense and serious situation that required a swift and ruthless response from the school's administration. Suspension, intervention from the parents, something. It didn't come. Granted, the little guy was left to stew over his inexcusable actions in the office for a few hours, but he eventually came back to class that same day.

I've also written about handling the students myself, something I thought I would never do. After a week and a half with no security guard, the school hired a new one. Thank God. Hopefully he sticks around long enough to help us get our classes back under control. The thing is that there are very few immediate and serious consequences for students who do something utterly disrespectful, such as try to bully a person, no a figure of authority, who is there to help them. We had a meeting about such instances this week, and hopefully things will get better on this front.

That said, I think things have been going relatively well on the behaviour front. After all, I'm in one of the best villages up here. Other schools are far more heavy when it comes to this sort of thing. What seems challenging to me is doing something I am utterly and completely untrained to do: teach ESL to twelve year olds. Twelve year olds that are well behind even the village's standards for progress the year before they head to secondary school. At times, I feel lost with them. Where do I want them to be at the end of the year? Can I get them ready for High School over the next nine months?

The first day I arrived here, one of the teachers who taught half of these kids last year (My class, which was grade six, was split into 5/6 and 6/7 so two teachers could split the chaos among them hoping that they would both survive. Only one stayed.) told me of the challenges ahead of me. "You have to take kids that are at a grade four level and get them ready for Secondary school," or something of the sort was what she said to me. My realism kicked in even before I met the kids, and I responded, "That's impossible." Although sometimes I think my remarks ring true, I believe I can still give these kids some skills with which they can make it next year. Sure, they will still be weak students, but hopefully, they can work with the knowledge I help them to gain this year.

Something else, something more profound, eats at me. It's the struggle that I'm sure goes on inside all Qallunaat teachers who come up here. Part of me believes I am really helping these kids learn valable skills in a setting that is not completely foreign to them. Yet, part of me believes that the school is not OF the community at all, but a white, southern concept of learning imposed on these kids and their parents for the last fifty years. Who am I to teach an Inuk how to live and think? Seems to me that only the Inuit, resilient and resoourceful beyond comprehension, have the goods to survive, thrive, and perpetuate in the harsh Arctic climate.

I recall one of the first conversations I had about teaching up here. It was about four years ago, and my graduate advisor and I were at lunch after the first year history class for which I was his teaching assistant. I told him what I wished to do. He responded by saying something such as, "Sounds noble and fantastic," yet warned me "as long as you are not doing it out of white liberal guilt." Words of wisdom. Although I'm sure guilt somehow plays into it somehow, as does money and other selfish desires that I feel the need to fulfill, I've become less and less cynical over the past couple of years. I'm here to help these kids and to help myself as well. Most of the time, it's a lot of fun too. Reflections such as these can sometimes get a little heavy.

This week, I have taken on the added responsibilty of relief residence supervisor, for two weeks out of the next month. The job entails looking after fifteen or so English Secondary Six students. Sec six, which exists nowhere else in Quebec, gives certain kids from all over Nunavik the opportunity to take an extra year of schooling befre graduating. Hopefully, some of them will go on to Cegep or do good things in their community of both. One of the supervisors has to spend the next five weeks in Kuujjuaq while they look for someone to take over the French counterpart in Nunavik's capital (?). It will be tiring, but hopefully a lot of fun too.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Assupmtions. I've always tried to strip myself of them, but...

I guess I still had the notion that all Inuit were a people who live in harmony with the land, have always hunted caribou, and respected dogs, lurking somewhere in my subconscious. No more. This week, I have apparently adopted a puppy, gone fishing at a fished out lake, and found out a few things about the changing climate. In addition, I've found myself doing things that I thought I would never do, even in the classroom.

Last Saturday, one of my colleagues, Sophie, and two little Inuuk (two Inuk) girls came to my house with a cute, dirty, feeble little thing. They told me that the dog had no owner and that I could keep her. I had been entertaining the notion of getting a dog while I was up here, but had not put anything into motion. Yet, I find myself in posession of Igaak (the traditional sunglasses used by the Inuit made from a piece of caribou hide with small slits in it), aptly named by another colleague, Isabelle, because she is white and grey with small dark circles of fur around her eyes.

A few days before, I had been at one of my student's houses, and found out that his dog's female puppies had been brought to the dump and disposed of in an unthinkable fashion, because female puppies are not in high demand. Likewise, the family had decided to dispose of the mother because she continues to have enormous litter after enormous litter. I try not to pass judgement on another culture's practices, but that did not stop me of thinking about Igaak's fate had I not brought her into my house.

I'm not sure where the mistreatment of dogs comes from. The dog used to be a beast of burden up here and was well-treated because of it. Now everyone has a Honda (what the Inuit call an ATV) a skidoo, and various other machines-of burden, so the dog, for so long the best of the beasts, has largely been relegated to a punching bag. On the other hand, some folks around here take great pride in their dogs. One Inuk from Wakeham Bay won the annual dog sled race here in Nunavik.

Enough about dogs. Well, almost. On Saturday, at about twelve o'clock, Marion, a colleague who is married to Jaaka, an Inuk, invited me to go fishing at one o'clock. I had plans, but the chance to get out in open water was simply too tempting to pass up, and that's just how things go here, one has to be ready to drop everything immediately (there will be more to come about this in further postings). So after walking the dog, I got a few things together and headed out the door.

We left promptly at one thirty, and headed out across Wakeham Bay to a place called Kitsujaq (kit-soo-yak). Had we just ridden across the bay and saw the cliffs I sopke of in my first post, and returned, I would have been far more than satisfied. It indeed would be paradise for a climber. The cliffs are undescribable, and I don't have a photograph. So I won't try.

We made it to Kitsujaq with little difficulty, and unloaded the boat at Marion and Jaaka's camp. We walked up a river to a lake and fished for Arctic Char. Along the way, Jaaka told me how there were no arctic char in this lake for as long as he can remember, but years ago, he and some of the other Inuit made a channel up to the lake by removing large stones by hand so the fish could go upstream to their wintering grounds when the water was low in the riverbed. It must have been some kind of undertaking.

The scenery was beautiful, the walk amazing, and the company fantastic. What really blew me away, however, was when Jaaka recounted a story from his childhood (the man was born in an igloo) where the village's elders were arguing about caribou. Some of them believed the animal to be hoofed and antlered, much like the one on the quarter. Others were insisting that a caribou indeed had antlers, but was the size of a wolf and had claws. It appears that the caribou were not in this area until about twenty-five or so years ago, and these elders had never seen one. What a surprise! In my mind, the Inuit of Nunavik and the caribou were inseperable. Apparently, it is the changing climate we hear so much about in the North that has actually brought the caribou here.

We reached the lake, which is pristine, clear, and surrounded by awesome mountains, and I fished for about a half an hour. No luck. Jaaka suggested that he give it a try. On his first cast, he landed a char. "Landlocked variety," he said and quickly threw it back. Second cast... landlocked variety. After a couple more casts, he gave me back the rod and said, "the Char must have moved on."

I spent a couple of hours continuing to fish, with only one good bite to show for it. Later on, Jaaka suggested that the lake might be fished out. I asked, "really? That happens here?" naive qallunat that I am. He replied that he has tried to push for the impementation of some reglations on fishing, but people have flocked to any lake he suggested needed regulation after hearing that there were fish in it.

Marion, Jakka and their kids picked berries all day while I fished unsuccessfully. I felt thoroughly unresourceful and humble when faced with the five gallon pail of berries they had picked. We returned to the camp to find our canoe with which we would retrieve the boat was out in the bay. We had waited too long and the tide was too high. The tides here are around twelve meters, some of the largest in the world. We managed to radio some people who were in the area to retrieve it for us before it sank to the bottom, for the rope tying it to the bottom was less than twelve meters long. By the time we had brought the boat up to shore, it was dark and the winds were too high to return. After several futile attempts to reach people in town with the sattelite phone so they could water and walk Igaak, we settled into the camp.

The next morning, I awoke with the sunrise, about six o'clock. After another unproductive round of fishing, and a couple of hours of waiting for the winds to die down on a larger fishing vessel, we set out for home. Luckily, my neighbour had heard the dog whining and several of the teachers took turns pampering the pooch. Upon returning, the wonderful souls that looked after Iggaak and myself set out to collect mussles, which are ridiculously abundant and easy to collect, along the bay at low tide. What a weekend. I am indebted to them dearly, and will reciprocate by cooking a caribou roast this weekend, after another trying and rewarding week of teaching.

Speaking of the school, it is so completely different from a Southern school. I spent a good eight months at Western University being beaten over the head with warnings to "never touch your students". However, last week I found myself carrying a fourteen year-old young man down the stairs while he was still in his chair, and a twelve-year old underneath my arm five minutes later. It is diffucult , but ultimately worth the effort.

Reflecting on this weekend, it has hit me. I know nothing of the North. Surprised to see the treatment of dogs, astounded by the history of the caribou in this region, and shocked by the over-fishing in some of the lakes, I was stripped of my cultural assumptions about this place, benign and repressed as they may have been. I've begun to realize just how different life in an this village is from the idea that I and so many of my Qallunaat brethren have of the North.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Two Weeks In

So, I've moved to Kangiqsujuaq, Quebec, and I'm two week in to a ten-month teaching contract. The village is gorgeous, the people are wonderful, and the teaching, well, it is difficult. Nevertheless, I am settling in, and beginning to enjoy myself.

Kangiqsujuaq, (pronounced Kang-yi-soo-you-ack) Inuktitut for “Big Bay” is set on beautiful Wakeham Bay. I’ve been to the Canadian North before, but Kangirsujuaq (alternate spelling) looks a lot more like the Scottish Highlands or the Scandinavian Fjords than it does like Yellowknife. Surrounding the village are small, majestic mountains that have huge veins of quartz running through them. In the right light, they sparkle so much that when you are hiking, it feels like you have diamonds on the soles of your shoes. Across the bay from the village are more mountains, jutting so sharply out of the water that it seems to me that an experienced climber would be in paradise. The whole thing seems so surreal, especially when I was expecting something flat and barren. There are no trees here. Not for hundreds of kilometres. Thus, a short half hour hike up one of the surrounding mountains brings spectacular vistas in every direction.

The people here are very welcoming, Well, most of them. As with any culture, there are some who are a little xenophobic, but by and large, the Inuit of Wakeham have been very welcoming to me. I’ve gone on a caribou hunt (although I cannot shoot anything until I get a permit) and will go fishing on Sunday if the winds are not too high.

When we were hunting, although Bernie, my Labrador Inuk (one Inuit) companion, and I were not able to get a caribou, we saw a family who had shot one by happenstance when they were out berry-picking. The father, James, who was field dressing the stag, offered me some meat. Anxious to try it, I accepted. Little did I know that he would give me an entire leg of it! Immediately, I responded, “No, I can’t take it, it’s too much,” to which he responded with a great deal of disappointment, “WHY NOT?!” as if to say, “Is my caribou not good enough for you?” I took it, and an hour later, Bernie was butchering it on my kitchen floor. So, the next day, I tasted the caribou in all of its glory: raw and frozen. As the Inuit would say “Mamaktuk!” It was surprisingly delicious.

Teaching here is something else. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it sure was a shock to me to meet my class of eleven Grade seven students, who are eleven to fourteen in age, and just as diverse in their learning levels as students. I am a strict teacher, but six days in, I turned myself into a drill sergeant. They were so ill-behaved, so seemingly incapable of sitting in their seats for more than a few minutes, that I decided it was time to try to not merely manage them, but gain control of the classroom.

Before school and after each break, the primary teachers go outside and have their students line up before taking them upstairs. It took me fifteen minutes the first time on that sixth day. So, instead of going to class, we lined up again, went upstairs, lined up outside the door, and I let them in. Eighteen minutes. So we did it again. Twenty-two. After eight consecutive trips up and down the stairs, we were able to do it in under five minutes, which is now a steadfast rule. That day, five of the eleven went home instead of continuing to line up. However, they came back, and we did it again, and again, and again, until they did it right.

It seems to have worked, for the moment. Although the class has been great ever since that day, I will have to keep up the army routine for at least a month or two before letting the reins out. Next week, they get their schedules back, which I had taken away with the stern warning that I decide what we do, not some piece of paper that lists their subjects on it.

We’ll see how it goes.