Friday, November 30, 2007
He came for the opening of Pingualuit, Nunavik's first National park. Pingualuit is a crater in the middle of the tundra, some 88 km from Kangirsujuaq. It is the world's 2nd purest source of water, after a similarly prehistoric crater in China. Perhaps more significantly, it is almost a perfect circle, and really the only point of elevation change in the very flat Ungava plateau.
The park's opening, and the coming of the premier, created a massive hullabaloo in Wakeham. In addition to the Inuit and qalunaat who have been working on getting the park's infrastructure in place for this big event, it seemed that many people in town were bending over backwards to make the Premier's visit a pleasant one.
When I first heard he was coming, I conspired with a few other teachers to picket the Co-op hotel with signs like F-U Bill 142 (the bill taking away public sector workers' right to strike). Actually, the conspiracy was dead before its birth. When I told the other teachers, they just laughed at me. After some consideration about how humourous it would be for me to do it solo, I decided that the event was too large and in too small of a town for me to make some waves in jest. After my phone call to the dog catcher, and his subsequent mentioning of it over the local radio station, I decided to lay low and just take pictures like a paparazzo.
The project manager of the park's opening is a friend of ours. He said that others had come up with a conspiracy that would make my Bill 142 protest seem like child's play. Rumour has it that some people were going to stink palm Charest, film it, and put it up on You Tube. For those of you who haven't seen the Kevin Smith movie Mallrats, stink palming is defined in the Urban dictionary as "the act of wiping your ass with your hand (preferably while very sweaty or having recently shat) proceeding to shake another's hand. I haven't checked because I'm sick of trying to download video with an Arctic connection, but if anyone sees a Charest stink palm, please let me know.
As people shook the premier's hand all day, I felt little desire to follow suit. The thought of getting second-hand stink palm was too much for me. More importantly, I just don't like his politics. I did want to tell him that his visit had forced the Nirivik (school's kitchen, literally "the place where people eat") to close in order to make a feast for him, thereby depriving the school children of their "healthy snacks". I also wanted to let him know that his posse's use of the school bus had forced the kindergarten children to walk from home to school and back in the -20 weather.
However, I as the day progressed, I started to gain a newfound respect for Charest. As he stood outside in his brand new parka made by one of the local ladies (I am so jealous) without a hat for almost an hour, I could see that he was trying to show that he was tough. However, I could see past his smile and uncover the qalunaat, freezing and unable to think of anything else but what posessed him to show off his curly locks in the middle of an arctic winter and wishing that the person speaking inuttitut would speed things up so he could just go inside. Believe me, I know this thought process well. Watching him shiver and smile suddenly made me realise that I was wearing running shoes and could not feel my feet. So Charest bested me. I went inside and waited for the feast.
I went into the qaggig (local gym) and waited for the plastic bags, cardboard, and caribou meat to hit the floor. Come out it did, but not in the volumes to which we have become accustomed. It's just not the right time of year to hunt caribou. While Charest and his posse of dignitaries and delegates from Kuujjuaq sat down to an extravagant meal of local country foods prepared in the school's kitchen, we, the hoi polloi, lined up for a buffet of overcooked spaghetti and Betty Crocker cake. However, my respect for Charest continued to grow when he came out of the conference room to try some raw meat with the masses. He took a piece of raw frozen caribou, dipped it into a container of fermented whale blubber, then popped it into his mouth. I had tried it minutes before and remarked at how strong it was. Charest took it, put it in his mouth, chewed, stood up, and said "It's good". I shot a video of it (You tube?). Charest was truly beginning to seem like a likeable man.
Then, the politician in him took over. Some of my students had been practicing throat singing and dancing for a month before his visit and were very nervous about performing in front of him. As they were taking the stage, the MC announced that Charest was leaving. He could have stayed; he had come on a chartered plane. Maybe I'm cynical, maybe he didn't care; or maybe no one told him not to book any other meetings for the rest of the day because some things just take longer up here.
I'm sure the students were disappointed, but they performed anyway. They were fantastic. When one of my students nearly brought the crowd to tears with his throat singing, I felt selfishly happy that Charest didn't get to see it. He may have come in and created a lot of hype, but at the end of the day, he had missed the best part. At least that's what I, having not yet seen the crater, can tell myself.
Monday, November 05, 2007
I digress... All of this to say that many of the names in Wakeham and in the rest of Nunavik are Inukticised biblical names. James becomes Jaimisi (pronounced Yaimisi), Mark becomes Marcusi, Luke becomes Lukasi, and so on. After a generation of biblical names dominating throughout the culture, there are signs that people are taking pride in choosing Inuit names. One of our friends has named her son Amarjuat (the strong one) after Atanarjuat's brother in Zacharias Kunuk's famous film The Fast Runner. One biblical name that a few people have here is derived from Samuel. Samuili, pronouced Samwillie in English, is the name of a boy who touched me profoundly last year.
The Montreal francophone newspaper La Presse ran a story last year claiming that a majority of children have suffered sexual abuse in Nunavik. Many Inuit here in Wakeham scoffed at the claims. Samuili however, has one of those stories whose traumatic details would make even the most hardened reader feel very uncomfortable. I will spare you all the discomfort.
Sophie and I were out walking Iggaak one evening last March or April and we ran into Samuili and some other 9-or-10-year old kids. Samuili began laughing ecstatically and threw his mitts at me. I bent over and picked one up, intending to ask for an apology before giving it back. Instead of giving me an apology, he took matters into his own hands. MY matters... He gave them a squeeze and cackled. Sophie then reacted by saying something like, "You like boys?" and tried to make light of the situation. Immediately, he responded by saying "Shut up fatty!" to a six-or-seven-month pregnant shocked Sophie. We didn't know what to say.
Saturday, November 03, 2007
I know that it has been many months since the last time I posted, and that has become point of stress. It’s as if the longer I wait, the more I dread that first post where I try to sum up the last eight months of my life. You know, “finished teaching, went to Montreal, boy, Noah Joanesi, two weeks late, 37 hours of labour, eight pounds fourteen and a half ounces, 3 hours of sleep, baby poo constipation, life’s inspiration” stuff. I liken starting my blog up again to jogging.
I’ve always wanted to jog. I had tried to start on several occasions to no avail. Then, last year, we had a guest stay in our house. The hotel here is very small, and the teachers have the emptiest houses in town, so they pay us to house visitors to Wakeham Bay. Our guest had one of those culturally ambiguous faces. The man could be from anywhere from the U.S. to Cuba to Egypt. Turns out he’s got roots in all three. A sturdily built (like a brick shithouse), intense man, he had stories to tell. And tell them he did.
A card-carrying communist, this paradox of a man had fought in the U.S. special forces in the 1980s. He said he was learning the tactics of the capitalist pigs so he could use them to resist their consumerist machine. He found himself on assignment in Nicaragua. He was training Contras when Reagan was selling guns to the Ayatollah’s Iran (an enemy of the U.S. even back then) to finance an illegal war against the left-wing Sandinista revolutionaries in Nicaragua. Reagan is famously quoted as saying, "I will admit that around the White House it sometimes seems as if the right hand doesn't know what the far right hand is doing." No shit... or the far left hand for that matter.
Our guest could talk, and he loved to run. Running with him was a lot like listening to a podcast except it was minimally interactive. I made a few grunts and uh-huhs as I worked my legs and lungs in the cold of mid-March in the Subarctic, but no more. I just took in some amazing stories and rants on politics and culture. The switch from running with him to running with the BBC was basically seamless. However, when Noah was born, I started walking with him on my chest instead of running.
To my surprise and delight, our guest gave us a call a couple of weeks ago to congratulate us on Noah’s birth and to touch base. We haven’t been able to call him back, because our phone was out of service for two-and-a-half weeks until the Bell repair man came back to town. In some ways, Nunavik is still pretty isolated.
The bell guy came to our door this morning and said, “there’s nothing wrong with your line”. I checked it, and surprise… it works. There was a problem, I swear. I checked the line last night after I saw him climb up the bell ladder, which he left overnight leaning against our power pole, and it didn’t work then.
Anyway, a week ago, I started jogging again. About 5 km (4950 m according to the GPS) almost every day. It feels great, we have a wonderful stroller, lined with an expensive accessory sleeping bag. Coupled with a MEC snowsuit that is still far too big for Noah, the sleeping bag has, so far, kept the little guy nice and toasty on the 40 minute runs. Noah is also very comfortable in it. Sophie walks with him at least as far as I run everyday. Noah likes it so much that we've begun wheeling him up the stairs without waking him up and letting him sleep in it for up to an hour after the walk is over. Our lives have changed.
However, I am beginning to miss the intimacy of having my little boy strapped to my chest in the baby carrier for an hour and a half while I walk the dog and pick berries in the morning.
One of the posts on Sweet Juniper is about trying to use a public urinal with an infant in a baby carrier (Sept 15, 2005). It’s hilarious. At one point, “Dutch” remarks at how he loves to carry the baby in the baby bjorn. Sophie asked me tonight whether I liked carrying Noah.
“Of course ,” I replied. “Why else would I hurt my back like that?”
She smiled. “I guess it is kind of manly to carry your baby around.”
This has nothing to do with masculinity. I love carrying my baby boy because I love my baby boy.
Saturday, February 17, 2007
I walk my dog a lot. At least a couple of hours a day. That means spending a lot of time in the tundra. Just the three of us. Igaak, myself, and my podcasts. Sophie often walks with us, but the best of her body's energies are occupied with growing a little me inside her belly. So, without the podcasts I would get a little lonely.
While I was living Ontario, I became addicted to TVO. TVO is (or at least was, it has since changed its programming) what the CBC should be. More specifically, I religiously watched the current affairs program Studio 2, while cooking supper at 8:00 p.m. every night during teachers' college.
Last summer, Studio 2 changed its format and became known as "The Agenda", and began podcasting. It's host, Steve Paikin is a true journalist. For those of you who live outside of Ontario, you may know Steve Paikin as the guy who moderated the English language debates during the last federal election (yeah, like anyone watched that!). He asks people difficult questions and does not let them get away with avoiding the point in their answers.
One of last week's podcasts featured a debate about Native poverty in Canada. The situation seems difficult and untenable. The whole show was about how economic development with consultation was the answer for Canada's native communities. Mining, forestry, hydro, and so on. The question inevitably led to the loss of the "traditional" native lifestyle. Patrick Brazeau, six nations, represented off-reserve natives, and argued that natives "could not have their cake and eat it too", as if economic development and tradition are mutually exclusive. In light of a conversation I had with a colleague who has been in the North for more than twenty years, Brazeau seems to be a little misguided. Up here, it appears that people can only eat cake if they can afford to have it too.
The Inuit of Nunavik have what the panelists accepted as a good thing: economic development tied to a long-standing, lucrative agreement between an aboriginal people and the government. Nunavik is governed by the James Bay and Northern Quebec agreement (JBNQA), which was signed in the 70's. In essence, the Inuit of Nunavik agreed to sell a great deal of their traditional lands so Hydro Quebec could dam some rivers and power the province, and sell the excess to New York City. The agreement was indeed lucrative, and funds much of the modern infrastructure in Nunavik's villages. Here, we have a new ice-making plant at the arena, a new municipal gymnasium, a multi-million dollar water plant (which is broken) and tonnes of programs for the people to enjoy.
Kangirsujuaq has an added economic boost. A mine. Not far from town is the Raglan nickel and copper mine. Many Inuit from the two closest villages have taken advantage of their proximity to the mine and work there. People are paid reasonably well to work there. So, it seems that Kangirsujuaq is doing well economically.
Does that mean that their traditional lifestyle is eroding quicker than somewhere without the opportunity? I don't know. The "traditional" lifestyle was all but destroyed when the federal government shot the dogs and forced everyone to live in houses. What is considered "traditional" today, the hunting and fishing, is being kept alive by the same people profiting from the economic development. It costs a great deal of money to buy and maintain a skidoo, pay for a rifle, seal nets, fishing gear, an auger, etc. It costs a great deal more to feed 10 or so 80 lb. dogs, unless of course you do a lot of hunting (it is a vicious cycle). The only people who can afford to do these things have jobs. Good ones.
The unemployed, just like those in the South, eke out a paltry existence on their $500 or so dollars of welfare a month. Here, however, it's not like unemployed people can just go find a job, there is a finite amount of employment to be had. On top of that, food costs a great deal more. Sure, Inuit can go down to the community freezer and help themselves to some of the hard-won meat. The Inuit have a great communal spirit; they will share the spoils of their hunt. However, the communal spirit doesn't go as far as the communal ownership of the means to hunt.
The mine also presents other problems. It takes parents out of homes. Children often live here with their grandparents, some of whom are those elders who collect welfare, and in turn have to support a house full of grandkids. Sometimes the parents contribute, sometimes they don't. All of this to say that economic development is no panacea.
I recall that what was perhaps my most embarrassing moment as a graduate student came during a seminar in a course on the history of the Mass Media in Canada. I remember it vividly. We had done some readings on CBC North and mass communication among the Inuit. My esteemed colleague Kerry Martin was trying to make a point of suggesting an elite control information in the North, just as in the South. He likened it to Marx's idea that the means of production were in the hands of a very few. I took it the wrong way and blurted out something like "what, the means to hunt?"
It was pretty funny. Not so funny anymore.
Friday, February 02, 2007
Last year, I went to my first university art show. I had been to museums and had seen some impressive exhibitions, but had never gone to a show where university students presented their projects. At this art show, my friend Melissa introduced me to one of the artists. She had made a textured paper sculpture that she called "It Comes in Waves". This woman had recently gone through a great deal, and I'll spare you the details of her sad story. However, I will say the sculpture touched me. The sculpture looked like turbulent water and a roaring fire at the same time. The "waves" looked very similar, yet a closer look showed that each had its own unique texture and design. At the time I wasn't sure what I was looking at, but lately, I've been experiencing my own "waves".
In August, thirty-odd first year Nunavik teachers were assured by their pedagogical counsellors that things would be very tough at first, but would get better after Christmas. Christmas has come an gone in Kangiqsujuaq, but my students' problems remain. One of my students missed 23 out of 48 days in the second semester. He has a great deal of difficulty concentrating, and lately, it appears that he has given up trying. I hadn't really realised how much time he had missed. Part of the porblem is that he is such a nuisance to the other students and I that I have found myself enjoying every minute that passes without him in the school. I am not the only one. This negect from the school cannot last. The boy is on a terrible trajectory, and is in need of help. His mother did not show up to parent-teacher interviews, even after we called her personally.
More generally, the students are loath to work on anything that lasts more than a few minutes, and thus doing any project-based learning with them requires a great deal more effort on my part than I have to give, and indeed, seemingly more than it is worth. It truly is survival mode in my classroom. I have realised that I have been simply coping with the problems in my class, and not actively trying to solve them. Coping was what forced one teacher who taught half of them to take eighteen sick days, and sent the teacher who taught the other half South, for good. I feel it getting to me as well. I find myself becoming loud and almost agressive in the classroom. My negative energy just feeds the fire, and the kids get a kick out of frustrating their teacher. It excites them.
So passed the first wave after Christmas. I wrote the preceeding paragraphs more than a week ago, but decided not to publish such a dire and bleak perspective on my situation. I've tried a few things in the class since then, and we've had some small successes. As I told the principal in a one-on-one meeting last week, I have a completely different definition of success since moving up here. Oh well, at least I don't feel so bad about it anymore.
The forces driving this new wave of optimism are diverse. Sophie and I just spent a wonderful weekend doing little but enjoying the outdoors. Yesterday was the first truly beautiful day of winter. We went cross-country skiing and hiked up a mountain. The sunset brought with it a strong relentless North wind that carried all of the fluffy accumulated snow far away, and I awoke this morning with no chance of getting a pre-school ski in.
A couple of weeks ago, Sophie went to Kuujjuaq for a sonogram. The baby has two arms, two legs, and a strong heartbeat. I promise to scan and publish these photos in the coming days. Unfortunately, the nurses in Kuujjuaq are under strict instructions to not divulge the sex of the baby to the mother. Apparently, this knowledge influences a signinfcant number of women into deciding to give their babies up for adoption. So, we will have to wait and find out the old-fashioned way. Oh well, it is perhaps more exciting this way.
There have been some exciting things happening here in town. I've started to play broomball on Saturdays, which has turned out to be a great deal of fun. We are thinking about hosting a tournament for us and a few other villages. We had our first real blizzard the weekend before last. I now believe in (although I have yet to see) weather so bad that we cannot see the neighbours' house.
Last Friday, three polar bears roamed into town and were promptly shot. Unlike the bears in Churchill, Manitoba, the bears rarely come to Kangiqsujuaq. Thus, the people have no facilities, other than rifles, with which to deal with them. I can check polar bear off of the list of animals that I want to eat. Mamaktuk!
Finally, my parents have decided to come up to Wakeham Bay at Easter. That should be a fun time. I'm sure my father will be right in his element with the skidoos and the ice fishing. Although hosting family can be a stressful situation, my parents are pretty relaxed, and it will be nice to have some familiar faces around. Moreover, it will be exciting for Sophie and my parents to meet each other, and get to know each other a little better before the baby comes.
With all of the excitement, I have not been able to catch a good night's sleep. Last night, I wandered downstairs, got fully dressed in skiing gear, went to reach for my boots, and thought, "It sure is dark outside for seven o'clock." Sure enough, when I looked at the clock in the kitchen, I gained full consciousness, and realised that it was 2:45. Anyone who has lived with me knows all too well that I walk in my sleep. It's too bad I didn't actually get outside before I woke up. Now that would have been blogworthy.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
After the last post, a number of people have asked me to say a few more words about Sophie. Sophie herself read my blog from beginning to end a few days ago and asked me to read it too. Upon doing so, I realise that it must seem a little weird that I'm having a child with someone about whom I have written only a few sentences. My blog reads something like this, "I met a cool woman from Montreal... ... Things are progressing quickly in our relationship... ... I'm going to be a dad!" You people must think I'm nuts. Here is my first attempt to properly introduce Sophie.
Sophie is thirty. She was born in Montreal and spent her childhood living on the plateau. She is five-foot-eight and three-quarters inches tall, and has long, thick, beautiful red hair. Like me, she is a teacher at Arsaniq school in Kangirsujuaq, QC.
We have a lot in common. We both love hiking. Since we met, we have hiked the mountains surrounding the village numerous times, and will undoubtedly continue to do so until Sophie is ready to burst. We also enjoy many of the same outdoor acitivities, such as walking the dog and cross-country skiing.
Sophie and I share the same dreams. We both love to travel. Our common penchant to move around was doubtless a huge factor in our individual decisions to come to Wakeham Bay. Ultimately, we both like to use teaching as a vehicle for travel, and will continue to do so in the years to come. She has been to many places, some of them for extended periods of time. Her diverse linguistic abilities give insight into her travelling history. She speaks English, French, Spanish, and Italian fluently, and also speaks some German and bits of other languages. When she was in her teens, she spent a year in Sicily, and in her twenties, she spent several months working in Germany and Bolivia, teaching in Japan, and has passed a great deal of time in Mexico, Peru, Thailand and Paraguay.
So, we both like to travel, but what made me want to have a baby with this woman? When we met in August, I felt immediately comfortable in Sophie's presence. From the first time we had supper together, I felt a strong attraction to Sophie. Over the next few weeks, we had many long conversations about travel, teaching, teaching Inuit kids, cultural imperialism, books, movies, Montreal, mountains, and many other things. Before long, I realised that the connection we had was truly something special.
One thing that I have mentioned about Sophie is that she helped me with my classroom. She made me see that my kids were not unmanageable, but rather that they just needed a great deal of structure, and that I had all of the tools I needed to give it to them. She also pointed out to me, and graciously continues to remind me, that we are insignificant little creatures that are not responsible for changing world events, nor are we responsible for "saving" these kids by giving them an education. Her ability to help me cope with and discard much of the stress of my job has transformed me. I used to think I thrived on stress. To me it was like water; my fuel. Now I see that I lived in spite of the stress, and ultimately I feel better and am more productive sincce I've learned to let things go.
I remember travelling in Colombia in 1999/2000 when I met a British couple named Wayne and Marie-Rose. They had a young son, Jerome, who must have been two years old. It seemed like the coolest way to travel. This family had done a lot together, and Wayne and Marie-Rose had given to Jerome what seemed to me to be an opportunity that few others are lucky enough to enjoy. Jerome was very adept at picking up Spanish, he was asking his parents to "damelo" (give me that) when he wanted one of his toys. His parents were confused at first and then awestruck. They beamed with pride. I've carried this memory ever since, and can hardly wait to share similar experiences with our kid(s).
After telling my family and friends about Sophie's pregnancy, I have realised just how much my life has changed over the past few months. It seems fast and it seems crazy. Nonetheless, it feels comfortable and it feels wonderful.
Sunday, January 14, 2007
It's been a long time since I've blogged, and a great deal has happened since then. In the school, my class has calmed down considerably since the Christmas break. Outside the school, my Christmas holidays were a blur. All in all life has been very good to me. By the end of the post, I think you'll understand why.
I hope that you all have gathered from my earlier posts that teaching up here is not exactly the easiest gig. Before Christmas, our school was in shambles, where students did what they wanted without consequence. Things, at least in my class, seem to have changed since the break. On Monday morning, I had a student steal a DVD from my desk and then lie to me about it. Another student shot elastic bands at my face, and then lied to the Centre Director about it. By 10:00 a.m., day one, two of my eleven students had been suspended for disrespecting me. At our orientation in August, all of the pedagogical counsellors, without exception, told us that things would be considerably better after the Christmas break. Just when I thought that my class was going to prove them wrong (as they seem to be the exception to almost every rule), things improved. Since Monday, things have gone extremely well in my class.
My holidays were a blur. I flew down to Montreal on the 20th, to Edmonton on the 21st, drove 400km North to High Prairie on the 23rd, 950km South to my sister's house on the 28th, 550km North to Edmonton on the 30th, flew back to Montreal on the 31st, and finally back up here on the 5th of January. However, throughout this mad rush to go everywhere on God's green earth, I managed to get very little accomplished. I spent most of my time sleeping and reading books and magazines on couches, and walking my dog after returning to Montreal. It was only after I returned to Kangirsujuaq that I realised that I had forgotten to buy a new hockey helmet, winter boots, coffee, get my camera fixed, replace my drivers' licence, get a passport, a haircut, and too many other things to mention. Going South at a hectic time like Christmas after seeing the exact same 572 people for months on end can be stressful. There was no need to add to the stress by trying to accomplish stuff during my holidays.
I did manage to accomplish one thing. While up in High Prairie, I made my annual pilgrimage to midnight mass with my mother, father, and twenty or so extended family members. When my dad and I arrived, we sat down in one of the middle pews, and I saw my mother sitting in the front, waiting for the rest of the choir to arrive. I thought, "now is the perfect time, even if they don't like what I tell them, we're in Church, so they'll have to forgive me." I dragged my dad up to the front pew, sat down between my parents and said, "You are going to be grandparents."
I'm going to be a father! Not long after Sophie and I began our relationship, we decided to have a child. As I've said before, things seem to happen very quickly up North. The baby is due on June 21st. I cannot wait for the biggest day of my life since my own birth. It's going to be a trip.