Sunday, February 24, 2008


The Inuit kids here have a saying, which I will try to spell out for you. As far as I can tell, it goes something like "ckqai-ckqai". No matter which way I spell it with this alphabet, I cannot convey the correct sound. The kids here say it more than anything else, followed by "languaqunga" (I'm joking) and "niliktunga" (I farted).

It's just so prevalent. I have heard it in so many contexts, but most of them are derogatory.
Whenever anyone does anything silly, mean, or stupid, or makes a mistake, it appears that "ckqai-ckqai" is the appropriate answer.

I've begun to really get interested in the word: imitating it; researching it. A while ago, I was playing volleyball with the residence students (who come from small communities that do not offer upper-level secondary grades) at the school gym. I dove for a ball. It hit my arm, carommed off, and hit me in the face. "Ckqai-ckqai", I said, pre-empting everyone's laughter, and it made them laugh even more.

It has even become one of those sayings over which the cool kids claim ownership. I was speaking with one of the residence students from Kangirsuk. I asked him, "why do all of the kids say ckqai-ckqai?"

"Ckqai-ckqai?" he answered, "Oh, that comes from Kangirsuk. We started that when we were kids." Yes, of course. I remember my friends and I yearning to be the original geniuses that came up with colloquialisms too. I know people who probably still lay claim to coining "strobin" (something one does after taking substances that alter one's state; also known as, "doing very little).

I swear I heard Noah say it a while ago. It was then that it dawned on me. Many of these kids have such limited language skills that they resort to speaking like an infant. Language is the basis of our thought structures. It is virtually impossible to abstract with out some advanced language skills. Just as it is hard for me to abstract in French or Spanish, it is difficult for my students. The difference is that these kids have very limited language skills in their mother tongue.

Inuttitut, and to some extent Cree, are still very much alive. In North America, they are certainly the strongest native languages. However, they are traditional languages, not only in the sense that they are what the elders speak, but also in the vocabulary they contain.

The first day I arrived here, my colleague and friend Marion gave me the low down. "They need to come up with vocabulary adapted to the modern world." Indeed. A month or so ago, I was asked by my neighbour at school, Taqa, to come into her class. She asked me what she should do to teach the continents to her students. There is no word for "continent" in Inuttitut.

I said, "what about 'really big land?'"

She replied, "'Nunaqjuat'. But it's all the same."

"What about really big island?"





In the end, I suggested to just call them by their proper names and hope that the students didn't ask, or as an alternative, coin a phrase. At the time, their was a large conference happening in the school gym. The conference was attended by groups of elders from each of the Nunavik communities to discuss the present state, and future of life and culture in the North. Oddly enough, there were all kinds of qalunaat in town for it as well. It was a little weird to see a whole bunch of white folks run a conference for the Inuit discussing Inuit culture. Anyway, Taqa said to me, "I'm going down there to tell them that they need to make up words for these things."

"Continent" is not the only concept which has no equivalent in Inuttitut. As Marion explained to me on the first day I was here, there are many words in Inuttitut, but relatively few concepts which reflect modern and technological concepts. Indeed, no matter how many words you have for snow and clouds, it will hardly explain the workings of the economy, anti-virus systems, or nuclear fission.

On top of that, the kids speak poor Inuttitut. So says Père Dion, a Belgian Catholic priest who has been living in Nunavik for more than 50 years, and has become a guardian of the Inuttitut language. So, the kids speak a language that uses circumlocutions for many things in the modern world, and they speak it poorly. Often "ckqai-ckqai" is probably all they can come up with.

So, why is their Inuttitut so bad? The school system is partly to blame. In most of Nunavik, students attend school in Inuttitut for Kindergarten, and grades 1 and 2. In grade three, their parents decide whether they will go into French or English school (in Wakeham, the switch happens after grade 3). After this switch, the Inuttitut language is treated as a fringe language. The students get two hours of Inuttitut language classes, and one and a half hours of gym and Culture, which are both taught in Inuttitut. The result has been that students do not get introduced to their second language early enough, and their mother tongue education is basically abandoned when their capacities to abstract in their own language are only in their infancy. It seems, at least to me, to be the worst of both worlds.

The long-term goal of the school board is to eventually have every subject taught in Inuttitut other than the second language itself, like English in Franco-Quebec schools, or French in Alberta. I'm not sure how wise of an idea that would be either, but at least people realise that things are not working the way they are going now. Last year, when I was in Kuujjuaq for orientation, we were walking with some young kids who were speaking English to each other. For Inuttitut, this doesn't seem like a healthy development, and the Inuit know it. The problem is two fold. One, the language needs to be updated to include the vocabulary needed to teach Social Studies, Math, and Science at secondary levels. Second, the school board is hard-pressed to find people qualified to teach the limited number of subjects that it offers in Inuttitut now. I cannot imagine how it could come up with twice as many teachers qualified to teach more advanced subjects.

Things are not all bad. There are some kids that have used the opportunities of having a trilingual environment to their advantage. One secondary student, who is Fluent in French and English as well as Inuttitut, was sitting in the computer lab listening to Rammstein when I went to get something I had printed. I asked him, "Why Rammstein?" to which he replied, "I'm teaching myself to speak German."



Sunday, February 17, 2008

Willie P.Bennett

I shed a tear tonight for Willie P. Bennett. May he rest in peace.

One of Canada's best folk songwriters, he had played for the past two decades with Fred Eaglesmith. Both have been decorated with many awards.

I don't even know what else to say. I'm sad. I've seen Willie play literally dozens of times. I feel like I've lost a friend.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day

Today was difficult. It started at 12:18 a.m. when one of my students came up the stairs and began screaming my name. Normally, I would have just shut the blinds and waited for him to go away, but the poor boy had had a rough day. So, I got up, got dressed, and went downstairs, only for him to run away as I approached the door. I tried to go back to sleep, but the events of the day before kept replaying in my head.

"Where's my son?"
"I don't know, he just left. It's after 3:45."
"The fucking social worker wants to take me to court because my son is a bad student! Jesus Christ!"
"Whoah, wait. What happened?"

So it went. The end of my day yesterday. From there it only got worse, with my student and his mom in a screaming match in the principal's office, which culminated in him yelling, "I hate my life! I hate myself! I want to kill myself!"

The leading cause of death in Nunavik is suicide. 22% of all deaths are suicide. Statistically, I can look at my class of ten students; two of them are likely to off themselves. He is certainly the leading candidate. So, even though I REALLY do not enjoy it when students come to my house and wake my family up in the middle of the night, I thought I would give him the benefit of the doubt and see what he had to say.

He ran away. Of course he did. He didn't show up for school today.

With the absence of the most high-maintenance student, the morning appeared to be going reasonably well, until recess. One of my boys decided that it would be funny to knee me directly in the balls. Then, as my students were coming in, one of them said, "Look, they're fighting!" I looked back out the doors through the window to see two of the girls from my class fighting. This was no usual little girl pushing match. The gloves were literally off, and they were swinging. By the time I had my shoes back on and had run back down the stairs, one had a huge scratch on her cheek and a black eye.

After I had left the three of them in the office, and had gone upstairs with the rest of my class, I asked the students what happened. As one of them was giving the rest of us the blow-by-blow, the school secretary's voice came over the intercom and called at least a dozen primary students, most of them girls, down to the office. It turns out over the past couple of days, two rival gangs of girls had taken root in the primary sector, and all sorts of fights had been taking place. The lunch hour saw two more such battles take place.

The afternoon continued to be a tough one. I had decided to take the opportunity to try to give these kids some alternatives to fighting when trying to resolve conflicts. I noticed that one of my students was scribbling in the back of her journal:

I am tired on my life. forever.
I am tired on my life. forever.
I am tired on my life. forever.
I am tired on my life. forever.

At least it was cursive writing.

Happy Valentine's Day.


Friday, February 01, 2008

On raising a baby Part 1

Sometimes, it can be tough. It's something I'm sure all parents go through. Having everyone tell you that everything that you are doing is wrong. You know nothing, and they know everything. Having it happen in the North is just a variation on a common theme.

So, when I walked down to the Co-op store in Kangirsujuaq about two weeks before we left for the Christmas holidays with Noah in a baby carrier inside my Canada Goose jacket in -20 C weather, I was expecting to hear about it.

"Ikqi!" (Cold!) everyone yells when they see Noah either in my parka or in the stroller, which is fitted with a sleeping bag made for Canadian winters. I assure you that it is not cold in my parka. It's a Canada Goose Expedition, the same kind that the scientists at McMurdo in Antarctica have been using for 20 years.

However, contradicting local knowledge about raising babies is like telling Albertans how to raise cattle or Quebecois how to make tourtière. It's just something you cannot do. The Inuit know their babies.

When I walked into Co-op, it was just after five on a pay day, and it was packed. Everyone was there. We did our shopping and got into line. It was then that what seemed like a mob of women accosted me for having the baby in the parka, and Sophie for not having an amautik (the Inuit baby carrier).

We tried to reason with them. "Look, touch his neck, he's not cold!" Sophie pleaded with one. She snapped back in Inuttitut, and we waited for the translation.

"That's because he's in the Co-op!"

I undid the parka because Noah had awoken due to all of the commotion. Now, before I continue, I must say that Sophie and I had already discussed what to do about the baby carrier, as it was beginning to get tight in there. When I opened my parka, Noah peeled his face off of my shirt only to reveal a perfectly round temporary button tattoo on his cheek. A hush came over the crowd. It didn't last long.

"Takugi! (Look!)" an elder exclaimed, pointing to the button mark on his face..

It was at that point that we decided to buy an amautik. However, we told no one. That didn't matter. The next day, Taqa, one of my colleagues came up to me and said, "My mother wants to know what colour you want for the amautik." It appears that we no longer had a choice.

A couple of days later, we had this:

Noah's Video Pick of the Week