Saturday, October 25, 2008

Quartaq for the weekend

On Thanksgiving weekend, Sophie and I went to Quartaq to visit some friends who used to live here. J-F was a teacher in Wakeham Bay last year and has become the principal in Quartaq. I had won the Arsaniq School hockey pool last year, and, along with $300, I received a free flight anywhere in Nunavik. Quaqtaq is the village closest to Wakeham, some 200km away. The flight takes about 20 minutes; and costs $470.00. We thought it would be a steep price to pay, but I had told J-F that we were going to come if I won the free ticket; and I had. I like to be a man of my word. And besides, whenever would we get another chance to travel to another village for the weekend?

I had been having a really rough week. Something unspeakable happened at the school, and I was having such a hard time with it that I was thinking about leaving. For good. Thus, the chance to get away for the weekend was just what we needed to reflect on our future up here.

We arrived at the airport one hour before our flight, as we were supposed to, to check in. Of course, we were the only ones there. The Air Inuit agent had not yet arrived. Shortly after, she did arrive, and we took our place at the front of the line.

"James, where are you going?"
"Are you going to the men's Bible conference?"
"No. You remember J-F? We're going to visit him." (I am not a religious man.)
"There's a thirty percent discount if you go to the conference."
"I am going to the men's conference." (I am Dutch.)
So, Sophie's ticket cost $270. Excellent, I thought. Just then, the mayor of our village came up to me.

"Are you going to Quartaq too?"
"Is it for personal travel?"
"Well the KRG (Kativik Regional Government) has a program to reimburse any residents for their personal travel around Nunavik. 50 % off any flight. You can get the forms from my office next week."

Already, this weekend was shaping up to be fantastic. A $470 flight had turned into a potential $135 dollar getaway weekend. "Thanks," I replied.

So, we boarded the plane and flew to Quartaq. Quartaq is, even compared to Kangirsujuaq, a wild place. They routinely have polar bears wander through the village (this year there were nine near the airport at once!). The village has a bear horn to warn people to stay inside. It's just Southeast of Cape Hopes Advance (an aptly named place) which is the corner of the Hudson Strait and the Ungava Bay (click here for a map). Icebergs dot the shoreline.
It is a village of 330 people; and even the view from the dump is beautiful.
J-F and Josianne were excellent hosts. They fed us excellent food, even though the local Co-op store has less than zero to offer. There had been no eggs for two months, no milk, and no cheese, unless you include Velveeta. It sure made the P'tit Quebec crap that I routinely ingest sound mighty appetizing. I can't believe that I should have actually brought them food from here!
Their house sits right on the Hudson Strait. Looking out the window, you can see the marina, and an island in the distance which is home to muskoxen.
As you step out their front door, you can hear the bubbling of a small waterfall.

They took us out on the land. First, we went to Cape Hopes Advance, where the remnants of a Cold War outpost mixed in with people's hunting cabins. I saw an iceberg and began running towards it like a fool. I didn't really take stock of the situation, I just felt compelled to go as close to the iceberg as I could, without thinking.
J-F and Josianne's two boys were getting hungry, and they politely told me that they wanted to go up to the cabins and feed them. "Excellent idea!" I replied," I'll be there in a few minutes." I turned and ran towards the iceberg. Only after Sophie and I had descended about a hundred metres did I realise that I was the one carrying the food. I stopped.
We fed the kids. I thought I had calmed down; until this happened.

I felt like a ten year old boy.

Shortly after, when my energy level had come down to that of an adult, something J-F had said to me began to sink in. He had suggested that some droppings next to us were those of a polar bear. I replied that I thought they were from a caribou. However, as I started to walk back up to the cabins, I saw some droppings that were far too big to be those of a caribou. We quickly ate, packed up, and headed for home.

Anyway, the Cape was amazing. The next day, we went to Inuksalik.

Although the landscape itself was less impressive, it too had its charms, including a city of camps and walrus fermenting houses.
The most impressive thing was a strange cave.

I remember in my first year of teaching up here; I had several extremely difficult students in my class, very little patience, and exactly zero savoir-faire which I could employ to deal with the problems. Two things saved me at the time. Sophie, and the outdoors. Sophie taught me how to teach, and supported me all the time, even when she had an equally difficult position. I suppose it didn't hurt that we also fell in love with each other and had a baby.

Going outside a lot also helped. Whether it was going for a hike or run to blow off some steam, walking the dog in the dark and cold, or just taking a few minutes to enjoy the view out of my class, it gave me a chance to think and reflect on what I was doing right, wrong, or not doing at all. This weekend, the outdoors gave me a chance to reflect on not only what I am doing, but what I am doing here. I don't know how long we'll stay, but I'll tell you this. Before Thanksgiving weekend, this year was most certainly our last. Now we're talking about going to other villages, or replacing so and so.

So it goes.

I'll leave you with Noah playing in the tub with his friend Benédict. He clearly says "encore!" (again).


Just when you think you are getting to know a place

For the past few weeks, I had been thinking that Kangirsujuaq was losing its northern edge. After all, there's a lot of money here (although horribly unevenly distributed), and a great deal of "progress" and developing infrastructure. Because of the profit-sharing program that Raglan mine has with the village, there is a great deal of construction going on. The pipeline linking our water source to the treatment plant has finally been repaired, the marina is being expanded so it will be accessible at both high and low tide, and the airport runway is being redone to accommodate more traffic. Next year the village may even get paved for crying out loud!

These projects, and all of the added activity that goes along with them: the gravel pits, the extra equipment on the road, the road updates to deal with the equipment, has got this sleepy village buzzing; and losing its romantic charm. It seems that I can't walk down any road without running into a construction project.

Sophie and I mentioned these phenomena to our new neighbour, a man who had lived here twenty-odd years ago and has returned this year. He began to recount what Kangirsujuaq was like when he first arrived. He told us that the airstrip was in different places in the summer and the winter. In the winter, the people in the village would get on their snowmobiles and head up to the lake just above the village to meet the plane. They would drive back and forth to create somewhere for the plane to land, and then park their skidoos perpendicular to the runway to illuminate it.

In the summer, the planes would land at the end of the bay (called Wakeham Beach), some eight kilometres away by boat. He recalled that a new teacher had been dropped at Wakeham Beach by the Air Inuit (or its equivalent) pilot and no one was there to pick her up. "Don't worry," the pilot assured her. "Someone will come and get you." She spent three hours waiting. Bienvenue à Nouveau-Quebec!

It occurred to me that the man recounting this history and I are not cut from the same cloth. I then began to think about the people who had come up here, let's say, before, or just when TV arrived, and the difference between them and the people who come up North today, in the age of the internet.

Today, people who come up here are largely urbanites (myself included I guess, it's been a long time since I live in High Prairie). We are modern and sometimes even stylish. Even a couple of the Inuit kids sport labels like Chanel. We order things online from JCrew and American Apparel and then complain when they don't arrive within two weeks. Twenty years ago, the qallunaat in town wore wool and local parkas. The smart ones brought their Canada Goose with them. The unprepared ones either adapted or froze.

We are appalled at the lack of available produce. Just today, I called the airport to see if my cargo was coming in because I wanted that real parmesan cheese to make risotto. Twenty years ago, the plane came once a week to deliver the mail. You either ate country food, out of a can, o not at all.

Last year, the water and sewage trucks started delivering seven days a week. Before that, they didn't move on Sunday. Now, if the low water light goes on in our house, I go outside, find the driver, and ask him to come to our house. I did it yesterday. Twenty-two years ago, there was no sewage truck. People shat in bags.

So, after our conversation, I began to feel that living up here was not so different than living in the South. As I was running yesterday, I was listening to a Big Ideas podcast lecture given by Salman Aktar. He argued that being an immigrant was inherently traumatic. He had moved to the United States 34 years ago. Before that, he lived in India, but he didn't feel like he was "living in India"; he was just living. After moving, he became immediately aware that he was living in the United States, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The cultural differences were too great not to notice. With time, his consciousness of these differences began to fade. Now, it is only once in a while when he is reminded that he is living in the United States.

I think I had begun to forget too. Then, a couple of days ago, I experienced a couple of those moments when you realise that you aren't chez vous. I was out in the early morning, before the sun came up, walking Iggaak. I had Noah in the stroller.

There are a couple of loose dogs who often join us on our daily promenade. We've endearlingly named one "Black Head" (he's white with a black head) and, the long-haired nuisance with whom he rolls we call "Shitlock" (think dreadlock). They chose to tag along.

Just as we rounded a corner, I heard what I thought was a dog screaming. We walk Iggaak without a leash, so I immediately turned towards the shriek, expecting to see Iggaak caught in a trap (it has happened before). That's not what I saw. I saw a red fox in a trap, facing Shitlock and Black Head. All three of them had their teeth bared. Then it was a as if the fox had realised that it was no match for the dogs which are at least twice its size. It submitted and laid down on its back, whimpering for mercy. There would be no mercy. The carnage began.

I called Iggaak, who had been hanging around a few metres away, and to my surprise she came. As I saw the fox squeal and jump to its feet, trying to get away and tugging on the chain, I realised that Noah, who was in the stroller, was probably watching this too. I turned back to the road and walked away, leaving the fox to his fate. After I reached my destination, I turned around and walked back. The dogs had finished their business, and the fox lay there in a heap. As we approached it, Black Head went back overto the fox and bit it again. Its legs twitched. I realised that this is still a pretty different place.

Later that day, I spoke to the culture teacher about the fox, and how its fur had probably been ruined. He himself was skinning a fox so he could dry the fur. He was teaching the Secondary 2/3 students. He complained that trappers should use a box instead of a leg trap, not out of sympathy for the foxes who have their legs broken by traps, but because nothing can get to it, and destroy the fur.

I went upstairs, somewhat reassured that there were responsible trappers out there. I sat down and planned until the next bell rang. My next class was Secondary 2/3 Math. One of the students came up the stairs and walked into my class wearing a bloody glove and holding a skinned fox leg (He wouldn't tell me what he was going to do with it. As far as I know, Inuit do not eat fox). He deliberately looked around for somewhere to put it. He did not want to sully his desk. So, laughing out loud, I walked over to the counter, took off a few sheets of paper towel, folded it up, set it on the windowsill, and simply said, "Here."

And to think, a few hours before I was thinking that things were not that different here. Excuse me, I have to go clean a goose.


Sunday, October 19, 2008


We picked a couple hundred mussels on Friday. It took about 15 minutes.

Noah loves them, and so do we.

Picking Berries

I'm just making up for not having put up videos for the first two months.

Marcela, if you're reading this, get a Mac and use iMovie to publish your videos.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Noah in the Tundra

This was a couple of months ago, but since I've found a new way to upload videos, I can put up longer ones.

Yogurt and Berries

Friday, October 17, 2008

The OSM in Nunavik

A few weeks ago, Kent Nagano and the world-renowned Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) came to Kangirsujuaq. It was excellent.

Avataq (named after the sealskin balloon Inuit used to attach to harpoons so as not to lose them), the cultural arm of the Kativik Regional Government, had invited Nagano to come up North this spring. In fact, when I was leaving in May last year, the head of Avataq who is from Wakeham flew down to Montreal on the same flight as me. He was very excited at the prospect of meeting with Nagano and having him come to Kangirsujuaq. Nagano, for his part, expressed his wish to end the OSM's cross-Canada tour with a tour of three Nunavik villages.

In preparation for the tour, the OSM engaged Alexina Louie, a first nations composer who had spent a great deal of time in the North West Territories, and was familiar with the sights and the sounds of the North. She wrote music that reflected her knowledge and connection to the land. Each piece was drawn from one aspect or another about the land. One was named "Snowy Owl," another "The Dog Sled Race," and so on. Louie had written parts for each of the seven musicians who took part in the chamber ensemble, as well as two throat singers from Pouvugnituk, a villae on the Hudson Coast. It was fantastic. Between each piece, the audience held silent, until my colleauge Forbes, who was standing next to me, was moved enough by the
"Snowy Owl" piece, that he remarked softly "that was marvelous" when the room fell silent. The audience agreed, and continued to applaud each short piece of music. A highlight of Louie's part of the music was "The Mosquito" when the musicians indeed made annoying sounds and Nagano clapped his hands to finish the piece.

Also on the programme was Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nacht Musik" and an adaptation of Stravinsky's A Soldier's Tale, in which all of the spoken parts had been translated into Inuttitut. The best part however, for many of my students, and probably myself, was when the students who had been practicing drumming performed for the OSM musicians. "I've been all over the world and played many many concerts, and that was the first time anyone has welcomed us with a concert," said Nagano when the students finished.

It seems to me that it's probably one of the only places on the planet where that could be possible. I can't imagine 12-14 year-old adolescents putting on a show for a world-famous orchestra conductor in Montreal. The people here sometimes surprise me. I don't know whether to call it innocence or whether just to say that sometimes people here find themselves unencumbered by the bullshit fear that their boldness might be interpreted as childish or insignificant by someone as "important" as Nagano. Well, they had nothing to fear. They performed better than I had ever heard them play, and I think he truly appreciated the welcome.

Sunday, October 05, 2008


He was so cute this week, I had to put up two videos.


Saturday, October 04, 2008

A New Job

This year, I have a new job. I now teach Secondary Math and English. I have followed the six best of my students from last year and have become their secondary 1 homeroom teacher. I no longer have to go outside with my students to supervise them throwing snowballs at each other. I no longer have to line them up and struggle to keep them form bothering other students when they go from class to class. Lining students up just to get them to and from class drained me. It easily soaked up more than half of my energy. I've learned over the past two years that primary teachers work way too hard.

Secondary teachers work plenty hard too. But we can also get interesting intellectual stimulation from interacting with the students. Sometimes, adolescent minds can surprise you with their insight and/or imagination. Take for example a short writing project I just completed with my students. We studied the effects of a local mine's profit-sharing program with the villagers.

This summer, the people in Kangirsujuaq and in Salluit received their share of the profits from Xstrata's Raglan nickel mine that is raping the land between the villages. The landholding corporations of each respective village decide what to do with the money. In Wakeham, it decided to pay off the new ice-making plant at the arena, the new gym ($4 million), fix the pool, extend the marina and runway, and build a fancy new hotel. The beneficiaries of the JBNQA (James Bay and Northern Quebec Hydroelectric Agreement) who live in Kangirsujuaq divided up the rest of the money amongst themselves. Each Kangiqsujuaq beneficiary, man woman, and child, received a cheque for a $4 700.

In Salluit, the landholding corporation decided to ask the people what to do with the money. A majority of the beneficiaries said "Screw infrastructure! Show me the money!" Thus, each adult in Salluit received $15 000, and each child a cool $3 500.

In both villages, it was as if everyone had won the lottery at the same time. Pandemonium.

In Wakeham, people went without water and sewage delivery for six days (our duplex, in which four adults and a toddler live, would run out of water and have a full sewage tank sometime on the third day. Some houses have up to twelve people living in them). Both the Co-op and Northern stores had empty shelves, and no one to restock them. Who wants to work after winning the lottery? At once, I'm sorry I missed the frenzy, but I'm also glad I wasn't here to experience it.

In Salluit, things were/are even crazier. The rehabilitation centre closed due to a lack of employees at the very time it was needed most. Problems with drugs and alcohol were rampant. After speaking with a member of the school team there, it appears that the day care was closed at the start of the school year, and many of the Inuktitut teachers were not going to work. The school was a mess because teachers couldn't bring their kids to day care.

The effects of the profit-sharing payout will only fully be realised after the next sealift ship arrives. In Salluit, 50+ new vehicles will arrive on the boat. Imagine what a kind of a difference
50 vehicles will make in a village of 1,100 people which has roads that lead nowhere. Already in Wakeham Bay, there are more Hondas, scooters and two-wheelers than ever before, and we await many more which will arrive in October. I could go on and on about this. If you want to read a really shitty article about the payouts, you can access it here. The Nunatsiaq News is a rag at its best, but it's the only news you can get coming out of Nunavik.

In my Secondary 4/5 class, we read this article and a letter to the editor responding to it (scroll down to "Free money doesn't build better society" . It's worth reading.). I had been teaching my students about the different "angles" one finds in a newspaper, and after reading and discussing these things, asked them to write an opinion piece about the profit-sharing payouts.

I got some interesting arguments. Some were happy that the landholding corporation used some of the money for infrastructure in Wakeham. Some wished that they got to spend the money like the people in Salluit. One young lady from another village, whose family received very little money compared to either Kangirsujuaq or Salluit was thankful because they "got to spend the money on clothes and food. [They] were poor."

The most interesting of the opinion pieces was little more than a list of questions, including: "What kind of a question is that? Why should we tell you if we liked the money or not? Did Raglan told (sic) you to ask us these questions?"

My comments: "I can't believe someone actually figured it out. I work for Raglan. Just kidding. I like how you are trying to get to the root of my thinking. It shows that you are being critical. Good job. "

I don't why she's so skeptical about my intentions. However, I find her skepticism to be a healthy refresher. It shows a high level of critical thinking. And dealing with critical thought is much more stimulating than lining up.