Sunday, April 20, 2008

Culture Day

"Hey, can I go inside?" I asked.

"You want to sleep here tonight? Go ahead."

The school's centre director, shop teacher, and maintenance man had built two snowhouses for Culture Day, which took place a couple of weeks ago.

I went in, and it was beautiful. It was the first time I had been in an igloo.

For me, the morning began when I woke to find that a blizzard had rolled in. It wasn't one of those bitterly cold February windfests which keep you inside, but the wind was strong and the snow was not falling so much as going somewhere else.

The first part of Culture Day took place in the gym, where students performed traditional Inuit drum dancing and throat singing, and something which they named "Cuba Dance".

A couple of teachers had gone to Varadero a few years ago to a Club Med and learned some dance moves, which 1) are not Cuban, and 2) are not suitable for young girls to do in front of elders. One song, which had some pretty cute steps was from Pakistan, I'm sure, but everyone had neglected to tell the students that they don't speak Urdu in Cuba. The other song, entitled "Movimientos sexy" well, you can imagine how that went. I wish I had brought my camera. I thought it was fantastic that students had led this project to learn these steps by themselves, but it wouldn't have hurt for the girls to have a little tasteful guidance.

The afternoon turned out to be fantastic. The wind had let up a little, but the snow hadn't. Now, it came down in huge, wet flakes at a 45-degree angle. It was beautiful.

We walked over to where the igloos had been built the day before, and there were already dozens of people there. Almost immediately, I went inside one f the igloos for tea, which was made on a qulik, a stone stove fueled by seal fat.

The qulik was tended by one of the village elders. The igloo was packed with people, and I began asking her questions about herself, through one of my former students as an interpreter. and she was eager to answer.

"Were you born in an igloo?"
"No, a tent."
"In the summer?"
"How old were you when you moved from an igloo into a house?"
"I don't know."
"How old are you now?"
"I don't know."
Sophie and Noah joined me in the igloo. Noah was safely snug inside his favourite place: his amautik. You should see how happy he is when I put him in his pouch on his mom's back. Seconds later, he does this:

Out cold.

After tea and bannock, I went outside and checked out some of the other things. Unfortunately, the dog teams didn't make it, but the Inuit teachers who organised the day were making up for it by having their own fun. We had an Inuit wrestling tournament (I lost to the phys. ed. teacher), and the kids slid down the mountain.

Then out came the fish and the misirak, the stuff I taped Jean Charest eating when he visited Wakeham for the Pingualuit Park opening.

This is a big bowl of misirak, which is fermented beluga fat, the Inuit equivalent of blue cheese. Every other time I've had it, I've had to hold my breath and choke it down, saying some banality like, "It's different," or "I could get used to that." Maybe I have, because I took scoop after scoop, using pieces of frozen char as a spoon and stuffed it into my mouth.

Mamartuk. Sophie and I walked away, satiated.

"Why is there only one Culture Day? Why does the school only pay lip service to Inuit culture?"
I asked Sophie.

"I think schools have to ask themselves what their purpose is. Should it really be the school's job to pass on the culture, or should it be to teach arithmetic and literature? I think schools everywhere are trying to do too much. Shouldn't parents show their kids how to build igloos?"
She answered.

That's why I made a baby with this woman.

In airports and schools all over Nunavik, there are pictures of elders with texts that pass on some wisdom. One features a stoic looking picture of Johnny Annanack from Kangiqsuallujjuaq (not here; George River) riding in his boat. He argues that today's Inuit leave too many things to the qalunaat and their schools, including raising Inuit children. Sophie and Johnny are right. If it is left to the schools, the bastion of imperialism, to perpetuate Inuit culture, then perhaps in a generation or two, no one will be able to make igloos. That would be a shame.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Noah's Video Pick of the Week

Just making up for last time.

Just to let you know he's back to life.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Twelve and cynical

In Kitchen Confidential, chef Anthony Bourdain writes, "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."

I'm not used to letting shameless sell-out celebrity chefs give me advice to live by. Nor am I an advocate of Manichean opposites. To me, the world is rarely so black-and-white. However, Bourdain's words have always resonated with me. I have always prided myself on being one of the former whenever possible, even before I read his book. My father is definitely a man of his word. Instilling this value so deeply into the very fibre of my consciousness is probably the best thing he ever did for me.

While teaching up here, I have made this my mantra. I have what I believe to be pretty serious shortcomings as a teacher. I make a lot of mistakes. However, I try to do what I say I'm going to do. When dealing with kids, especially ones with low self-esteem and zero confidence, doing anything else can have lasting repercussions.

Let's just say for instance, that a child comes from a broken home where the father doesn't really play a part, and the mother is forced to work a job which keep her out of the home for long stretches. When at home, the mother feels guilty for what she believes to be abandoning her child, and showers her with lavish gifts every paycheck. Indeed, the kid learns how to manipulate the mother into getting whatever she wants. The kid has very little structure in her life. She knows no boundaries or limits. To her, life is chaos.

She comes to school, where there are, at least ostensibly, some lines she cannot cross. She can't punch other kids or spit at people, that kind of thing. A teacher lays down further ground rules, such as "You cannot talk when I talk", or "If you do not do your work, you do not get to go to recess." The student, having no solid boundaries outside the school will obviously try to push the teacher's boundaries as well. That teacher has to be tough, rigid, and consistent.

Sadly, not enough of us are. I see teachers say that a kid cannot go for recess, and then upon realising that that means he/she will miss his/her recess as well, the teacher backs down. This renegotiation of rules already abrogated perpetuates the cycle of chaos that started at home. She can not possibly figure out where she stands in relation to authority figures who do not exercise their authority. The rules, which have become flexible guidelines, mean nothing.

Without solid boundaries, without some framework of guidelines telling a child what he can and cannot do, children are unable to develop any self-esteem. Without guidance or limits, how can a kid place himself in a position to try anything new?

Just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, is when someone tells a kid that they are going to do something together and then lets him down. Seven of my students are supposed to go on a hunting trip organised by a local extra-curricular body. They have been talking about April 16th for a long time. As the date approached, however, the kids started to complain that they might not go.

I asked one "why not?" yesterday.

"[The body] doesn't let kids skip school."

"What a lame excuse," I found myself saying out loud in front of about forty students. It's one of the perks about teaching in a second language; no one understands my spontaneous outbursts. This body has not contacted me, nor any of the other teachers whose students are going on the trip, nor the principal of the school.

Stuff like this, when it happens systematically, does irreparable damage to a child's self-esteem. She will feel like she can trust no one. Nor does she have a reason to.

So, this morning, when I greeted all of my students, I asked what happened. Apparently, their trip has been postponed for two weeks. The sad part is that not one student seemed to be surprised. None of them seem to believe that it will ever come to fruition. They can't; if they do, then if it doesn't happen, it will hurt that much more. How can you be twelve and cynical?Poor kids.

So today, instead of trying to get them to work during the last period, I've decided to take the students sliding because they're all feeling a little down. In two weeks, if their hearts get broken again, and I'm left to pick up the pieces, I'm not exactly sure what I'll do. But whatever I tell them we're going to do, I'll be damn sure that we find a way to do it.


Monday, April 14, 2008

Compromising Our Values

When I was living in Kingston, I became a food and farm activist. I started hanging around all of those pinko National Farmers' Union types (I miss you guys), and began writing articles about eating for the now defunct (I shed a tear) Independent Voice. I began consuming books about food and farm and I attended and helped organize a couple of rallies and events. It was great fun.

Moving up here turned out to be a bit of a challenge on the culinary front. Last year, other than the mussels which are available at low tide until the bay freezes over, and a little caribou we had given to us, we didn't really try. We ate Northern (the store) food instead of northern food, and without a lot of guilt. After all, what could we do?

This year, after reading Michael Pollan's masterpiece The Omnivore's Dilemma, we were determined to do as much as we could to eat locally and more responsibly. We started sprouting, and I picked about forty litres of berries. Our biggest shift was to try not to eat meat that didn't come from here. We picked and froze mussels, and got a little caribou, goose and fish, which we were determined to stretch through to the end of the year. We were fairly successful, but new regulations prevent Inuit from giving us meat. We can fish and collect mussels for ourselves, but nothing can be given to us. So, for next year, we will try to do the next best thing: not eat meat. Ha! I'm from Alberta. We'll buy and animal or two that was raised responsibly and bring it up here.

Vegetables and fruit, however, are a different story. When we walk into go shopping, it's like traveling back in time to February 1983. Remember that? Iceberg lettuce, bananas, bell peppers, white mushrooms, oranges, and apples. Taima.

We have two stores: the Co-op and the Northern. At Co-op (An Inuit-owned and run co-operative, not the Co-op of rural Canada. I want so badly for this to be the better store, I do), we can find peppers and celery in various states of decomposition, and bananas only suitable for making bread. The Northern store is much better, but still extremely limited. Whenever something other than the staples arrives via air cargo, we fight over it with our neighbours. Teachers are often seen going to the store at lunch or during precious prep periods to get to the goods before anyone else. More often than not, even when we time things so well that the people at Northern are unloading cargo, we are disappointed. It's always a practice of suspending one's disbelief.

Some examples of our rationalisations:

"Well, this zucchini is only soft on one side." (1.79 each)

"I can cut the moldy part off of this eggplant." (7.00 each)

"Some of this arugula isn't rotten." (6.99 a bag)

"Last time we got cucumbers they were rotting from the inside out... maybe we should only get one this time." (2.45 a cuke, and it was rotting too. We ate it.)

"Maybe I can soften up this avocado in the microwave." (1.69 each, Oh God that really did not work.)

"That bread is only a couple of days past its due date." (4.99 a loaf)

Believe it or not, our village has been blessed with a Quebec government pilot program, which subsudizes whole foods such as milk, bread eggs and produce. On top of that, our co-op and Northern managers are competent, friendly people who take suggestions. Apparently, we are very lucky to get what we have.

Many people supplement their nutritional income by ordering from stores in the South, or having someone bring food to Air Inuit in Montreal and send it up here. We've done both, and believe me, neither of these are foolproof.

Last week, I ordered a bunch of greens including bok choy, collard greens, and dandelion from a Metro store in Valleyfield called Marché Daoust. None of these things were available. Instead, they sent us snow peas. I also ordered mushrooms. I specifically wrote "champignons pas blancs" on the order form. When the cargo arrived, I was dismayed to find two packages of white mushrooms, something I could get at Northern. The mistakes are endemic. Believe me, this is no exception.

To try to avoid the mistakes, Sophie has begun asking her mother to send us stuff through cargo(merci beaucoup). Even this has turned out to be less than foolproof. We quickly tired of paying $4.59 for a loaf of what I have dubbed "cardbread" and decided that we would get Sophie's mother to send 30-40 loaves of Y-New-A bread at a time. This has solved our carbohydrate crises. Once however, Air Inuit lost track of our stuff and left it sit in the Quebec City Airport for a week, only to send us a furry, stinky, $100 box of what once was bread.

Last weekend, we went down to the Northern to get family portraits taken (I'll write about that some other time). The studio had been set up in the back of the store. As we were getting ready to pose, Sophie looked over at the trash can. Seeing a package of two sweet potatoes, she took a second glance. Upon closer inspection, one of the yams was hairy and growing some green fuzziness. The other one appeared to be in decent shape.

She looked at the manager. "May I?" she asked.

"Uhhhh, go ahead."

Indeed, there was nothing wrong with one of the sweet potatoes. We took it home and made tempura with it.

Now, I'm all for dumpster diving. I think that, living on the Plateau, we'll be able to make out pretty well as freegans. I'm also a little surprised that the Northern manager hadn't repackaged the spud as a single. But that this was nothing to either of us; just an example of our methods of feeding ourselves here, was a bit of a wake-up call. We needed to do something.

So we bought bacon. And we ordered some t-bones from a store in the South. And we had PC chicken wings. And a frozen peking duck.

And the food still sucks... except the bacon. The bacon is fantastic. It tastes like guilt.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

Noahès Video Pick of the Week

Nothing could sum up this week better than this. Poor baby.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

ilaaniungituk II

Hi all,

My post about my most rotten experience up here (which I've gotten over) has attracted some attention that frankly, I don't want.

So, I've taken down my archives and am going to take a break from blogging. I need to reflect on this.


Friday, April 04, 2008