Friday, November 30, 2007

Charest, Throat Singing, Whale Blubber, and a Hole in the Ground

Quebec Premier Jean Charest was here today.

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

Noah Joanesi?

When we decided to try to have a baby (and then made one immediately afterward), Sophie and I decided that we would give him or her an inuit name. There are so many beautiful names in Inuktitut: Calai, Akinesi, Ulluria, Ullayu, Akumalik, and so on. Kangirsujuaq was the place where we had met, and it just seemed like the right thing to do. Joanesi (I wanted it to be spelled Joanasi) was the first name that came to both of us. We tried on some of the other names, but ultimately concluded that naming a boy "Ikuagasak" when he will grow up in the South, would be a little too much.

When I first became interested in the North years ago, I took a class at Concordia on First Nations literature in Canada. The prof was set on stripping us of our cultural assumptions. She had us read a bit of poetry by an Inuk elder who was mourning the loss of Christianity in his culture. So much of what we read or see or hear about the Inuit reminds us of how Christianity supplanted the Inuit worldviews, but very little recognises that, for better or worse, people up here are becoming more and more secular and leaving Christianity behind.

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.

I went up to his teacher the next day and said to him, "Samuili grabbed me by the soft ones last night and called Sophie a fatty! Can you believe that?" Neil offered a deadpan reply: "Yes."

So, because the kids here are so friendly to us, we wanted to give Noah an Inuit name. Joanesi (pronounced yo-A-nesi) was always our first choice. Adami was another name by which we were both enamoured. However, after my student of the same name decided that he was going to pee on the floor in the library and laugh in my face, we elected not to have him be our son's saunik (namesake). In the end, Noah, which basically works as is in Inuktitut, somehow snuck up on us in the last month of Sophie's pregnancy. However, we could not just discard Joanesi; we loved it too much. On top of that, my midde name is John, my father's name is Johannes, so is his father's, and his, and so on.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Sophie turned me onto reading Sweet Juniper a few days ago. It’s a blog written by an ex-lawyer-cum-stay-at-home dad in San Francisco, who goes by the moniker “Dutch”. It’s funny. It has also prompted me to resurrect my own blog.

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.