Sunday, October 03, 2010

That was unexpected

Most of my students come from other villages in Nunavik3w. They have come here to prepare themselves for a chance at going to John Abbott College in Montreal. I have fifteen students, and the dozen who come from Kuujjuaq, Salluit, and Inukjuak, live in a residence, which is a beautiful building (by northern standards of course, it is still utilitarian) that overlooks Kangiqsujuaq and was constructed last year to the tune of six million of our taxpayers' dollars.

The program I teach is really not part of any Ministry of Education guidelines. It doesn't exist anywhere else. So, on one hand, I am sort of free to teach the content that I desire. On the other hand, there is no curriculum, and the whole thing rests on my shoulders. One of my goals is to try to create a relationship between the program and the college, and to build up a bank of resour..... wait. I sound like the rest of the Secondary 6 teachers who have come before me. I can tell myself that, but the few of us who have done this job realize that even four years of experience teaching ESL in Nunavik still leaves me feeling like I'm running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Gideon, who taught the program last year, did leave me some of his tricks on his desk. So far, the one I've used the most is his schedule. He gave courses on English, World History, Current Events, and something that he simply labeled "Projects".

Quickly, I decided to follow his lead. So, since most of my students live in a residence, I thought that it would be a propos to do a project about Residential School. They have to interview someone from their home community who went to residential school and use that as the basis to make a podcast.

On Thursday, I thought, "well wouldn't it be great if I could give them an example of a good podcast?" Of course it would! So, I remembered that the Secondary 2 and 3 students at our school made a podcast about the rapidly changing ways that Inuit learn about their culture. Author Joseph Graham and ex-CBC producer Mark Goldman came to our village a couple years ago and helped the kids make the podcast which was then presented at the "Voices from Quebec" exhibition of the Blue Metropolis literary festival in 2008. It was very cool and professionally done. Anchoring the podcast were three interviews to three different generations of one of the original families from Kangiqsujuaq. Naalak Nappaluk, recently deceased, was a local patriarch, legendary hunter and guardian of cultural knowledge. He passed much of this knowledge on to his son, Lucassie, who the students also interviewed. Finally, The students interviewed Lucassie's grandson and one of their classmates, Attasi, who revealed that he had not learned so much from his family, but rather from school. In addition to the interviews, the soundtrack of the podcast includes traditional throat singing, dog teams, skidoos, and even some heavy metal. It is truly well made. Check it out here.

So I played it for the students. Over the past two years, I have listened to this podcast many times. As the podcast nears its end broadcast journalist Mark Goldman says a few kind words about Attasi, who died shortly after the project's completion. I remember the first time I listened to it. I could feel the grief building up inside me and manifesting itself through a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. However, so much time has passed since then, and I had listened to it so many times, that I didn't really give it a second thought.

When I was a kid, I was a huge crybaby. Whenever I experienced an infinitesimal injustice, I screamed and cried for my mommy. My sister quickly learned that this was fun, and she was more than happy to oblige. Repeatedly. However, for the past 20 years, I can count the times I have cried on my fingers. Thus, I was really surprised to find that as I walked over to turn off the speakers, I suddenly went weak in the knees. I quickly decided to sit back down and try to collect myself. One of the students from Kangirsujuaq got up and left the class so no one could see him cry. I looked at another and tears were streaming down her face. I suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, found myself unable to speak as I wept.

"What's going on?" a student from another village asked. "What's wrong?"

"I'm sorry," I struggled. "Give me a minute." I stared at my desk and took a few breaths. "Attasi killed himself," I said quietly. I took another moment to shed a couple more tears. "After all this time, I didn't know that it was still going to hurt so much." I looked at the two crying students from Kangirsujuaq again. I apologized.

Finally, I looked at the third, who smiled oddly and said, "Well, that was unexpected," at which point everyone giggled. I tried to explain the quality and creativity involved in the podcast without blubbering any further. Indeed, that was unexpected.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Year #5

When I came up here four years ago, I had no attachments. I had come because I didn't really know what else to do. I truly was interested in living in an Inuit village, and taking on the challenge of teaching kids from another culture. Certainly, my upbringing instilled in me a desire to "help". However, I'm pretty sure that if you suggested that I would be back for a fifth year with a girlfriend, two kids, and a dog, I would have looked at you like you have two heads.

"This year is going to be our last year." We've been saying that for three years in a row. "This time it's for real." People heard us say that last year too. It has gotten so our friends don't really believe us anymore. Or they don't even listen. Or they don't even ask.

This time however, is different. Last spring, Sophie and I bought a duplex in Montreal. The excellent renters' laws in Quebec (from which Sophie and I have benefited for many years) don't allow us to move in until July 2011. Undeterred by this fact, when we came back up last year after my forced extended paternity leave, we were certain that we would not be returning this year. I even resigned from my position.

However, things have a way of working themselves out. The day after I handed in my resignation, I was standing outside my house while Noah rode his tricycle in circles. I began to scan the horizon, staring at the mountains, just as I have done countless times before. I began to choke up, and soon enough, a single tear welled up in my eyes and rolled down my cheek.

The next day, my boss told me about another job that might open up at the school. It was to be an eight-month contract teaching high-school graduates who were not yet strong enough to enter CEGEP, but nevertheless had an interest in doing so. I went home and had an interesting discussion with Sophie, who too had been harbouring melancholy about our departure.

Then, as we began to tell people at the school and in the village that we would be leaving, they unequivocally responded a generous outpouring of support and love. We were completely taken aback as to just how nice people were acting towards us. It felt really good to feel appreciated, especially because in the day-to-day drudgery of the job, it is very easy to feel un(der)appreciated.

The most telling, and most flattering comment I received, came from the Centre Director at the school. I went into his office and told him that we would not be returning the following year.

"What? but why not?"

"It's not that we don't love it here. We do. We've been missing our families a lot, and we really don't get to see them enough."

"I understand. You are welcome to come back to Kangiqsujuaq anytime. We like you here. You don't bother any Inuit."

"You don't bother any Inuit." The words have been ringing in my head ever since. These words from a community leader who was born in an igloo. It was truly one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.

It was these words that really made me want to come back. I applied for the job, and after some confusion (ask me in person, it's a great story), I got it. And so we're back.

My new job is so much easier than teaching the younger kids. Sure, my students are much more capable of progressing through their work, which leaves me with a considerable amount more planning and correction to do. However, so far, my heart hasn't broken as many times as it had teaching young adolescents, and I don't find myself as frustrated with behaviour and cultural differences as I did before.

However, I know at some point I'll have to come to terms with the fact that my job is one of the most overtly assimilationist possible. I've always been uncomfortable with my own position in the colonialist structure that is alive and well in the north. I am well aware of the irony that despite my discomfort, I am overtly trying to provide Inuit students with the skills to succeed in a Southern context. However, I think I'm more comfortable doing that than what I've been doing for the past four years, which is trying to give students the necessary skills to succeed in the North. That was truly scary.

At any rate, I'm happy to be back, and I think I'll enjoy my year... as long as I keep my goal simple: don't bother any Inuit.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Our bed

For the last four years, we have been sleeping on beds provided by the school board. While they have sufficed, this year, we decided that sleeping on our comfortable bed for six weeks in the summer and sleeping on inferior mattresses for 10 months a year was probably not the best way to stay rested. So, we had our bed sent up on a cargo plane, which, I'm sure, made my carbon footprint for the year bigger than someone who drives a hummer.

Anyway, for those of you who have lived in the North and have dealt with getting cargo into a fly-in community, here's what I remember of my conversation with Air Inuit yesterday, as I was trying to track down my lost queen-size mattress.

I must preface this conversation by saying that this was the third time I called Air Inuit Cargo in Montreal. The first two times, the man who answered said the system was down. The second time I called, he asked me for my name, number, and the waybill number. I gave him the first two, but said I could not provide the latter. He said that it was no problem, and that he would call me back when the system was back up and running. He never called. I called back.

"Air Inuit Cargo."

"Hi, I called yesterday. I'm trying to track down a piece of cargo that never arrived. Is your system up and running?"

"Yes. What's the waybill number."

"I dont have it, but when 'I called you yesterday you said it was no problem."

"I need your waybill number."

"Look, a guy from my school board dropped off my stuff and did not give me the waybill. How do I get it?"

"What community are you in?"



"Wakeham Bay. YWB."

"Okay, you have to call.... let me get the number.... okay... Wakeham Bay. 819-338..."

Of course, I already know the number to the local airport, so I finish his sentence while he's fumbling with some paper "3245. I'll call you right back."

I call the airport. "Hi. It's James Vandenberg. I'm looking for my mattress that didn't arrive with the rest of my cargo. I need the waybill number."

"Just wait." Silence. "Okay, it's 245-31289226."


I call Montreal again. "Air Inuit Cargo, bonjour."

"Hi, I just called. I have the waybill number."

"Okay. Go ahead."


"Okay let me plug that in.... Sir, that's a First Air waybill number. Air Inuit doesn't have your mattress."

"Ummm, I have to tell you that I live in Kangirsujuaq, First Air doesn't fly in here. The plane bringing my bed will be an Air Inuit plane."

"The waybill number is for First Air. It starts with 245. You have to call First Air."

"But First Air won't know where it is unless it's still in Montreal. They don't Fly to Kangirsujuaq."

"It's definitely not in Montreal. But you gave me a First Air waybill number. First Air is another airline company. You have to call them."

"Look, I called the Air Inuit agent here in Kangirsujuaq and asked them for my waybill number. The Air Inuit agent gave me that number."

"But it's the First Air waybill number. So, you..."

"Have to call First Air. Thanks."

So, I hang up and find the number for First Air Cargo. In Kuujjuaq.

I call.

"First Air Cargo, bonjour."

"Hi. I'm looking for a piece of cargo that didn't show up at my house"

"Okay, what village do you live in?"


"Let me transfer you to Air Inuit." Ringing and my muffled laughter.

"Air Inuit Cargo, bonjour." This time, I'm speaking with someone else in Kuujjuaq.

"Hi, I'm looking for a piece of cargo that didn't show up at my house."

"Do you have the waybill number?"

"Uhhh, I have to tell you. The number I'm going to give you is the First Air tracking number."

"That's the one. What happens is that First Air gives you a tracking number and we use the same one through to destination."

"Can someone please tell the guy at Air Inuit Cargo in Montreal that? He doesn't know how it works. I just gave him the number and he told me to call First Air. I did, and they immediately transferred me to you."

"Okay, what's the tracking number?"


"James Vandenberg? You're waiting for a mattress, right?"


"Go to the airport. Your mattress is on the flight today."

"You must be joking."

"No joke. You can sleep well tonight."


The whole thing made me think that people often call the airline "Air Maybe" because of the oft-delayed flights. I'd like to try out a new one. "Air Inuit: You Never Know".

Unfortunately, my sleep was interrupted mid-way through the night by a little boy who wanted to see his mama, which inevitably relegated me to his single bed. Maybe tonight?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Where's Sophie?

I've been thinking that I should start a blog about traveling with kids. Evie is six months old, and yesterday, she took her 11th flight. Noah tallied up sixty flights before his third birthday. We've taken our kid(s) to Alberta and Nunavik many times, and we've also been to Cuba and Central America. After taking a break this summer, we're planning to go cyclo-camping in Italy and Tunisia next spring. We have plenty of tales. Some day, ask me about Ramon.

You'd think we'd be good at traveling with kids by now. While I think Sophie's skill level is at least loosely correlated to her vast experience, I've shown over the past few flights to be a bumbling idiot. I haven't exactly lost a kid just yet, but every time I arrive at a terminal, I can feel a wave of impatience I no doubt inherited from my father coming over me. When it is compounded by the inevitable reality that I will be among the last people to deplane (when did that become a word?) carrying seventeen carry-on bags, a baby in a sling, and a three year-old on my shoulders, I forget stuff. On top of that, without fail, I think I'm so good at parenting that I couldn't possibly have forgotten anything. I scoff at Sophie as she checks under the seats and in the pockets in the back of the row in front of us, and guilt her into leaving the plane before she's satisfied that nothing has been left behind.

It happened again yesterday. We arrived in Kuujjuaq and waited to connect to Kangirsujuaq. For those of you envisioning a normal connection at Pearson or Trudeau, let me explain connecting in Kuujjuaq. You get off the plane down some stairs and walk across the tarmac, into the small, yet modern terminal which was finished about a year and a half ago (the old terminal was a labyrinth of Atco trailers that constantly smelled of urine). So you walk in and get your luggage, or more specifically those pieces which decided to follow you from Montreal or wherever you came from, and drag them across the terminal to check in at First Air or Air Inuit, depending on where you came from. Then, you go to the other counter with your luggage tags to find out when the rest of your stuff will arrive. After going through the motions and then finding out our plane would be delayed for a few hours due to fog in our village, Sophie asked me, "Where's Sophie? Did you forget her?"

Seems like an odd question, but all trendy young parents like us know that Sophie is a giraffe, made in France from natural rubber, and she is a classic. Sophie will celebrate her 50th anniversary next year, and is a must have for a teething baby. We needed one so bad that after we lost our first one a few days after purchasing it, I had to go across the city to buy another one. Picture a thirty-something yuppie wearing an American Apparel t-shirt holding out a squeaky toy for a dog with a far heftier price tag in front of a screaming baby. "Come on baby girl. (Squeak! Squeak!) You wanna play with Sophie?" Anyway, I took mild offense to Sophie the younger questioning my superior parenting abilities. "Why don't you look in the bags before accusing me?" I replied with certitude.

I looked in each bag. Three times. Sophie is indeed on the plane to Yellowknife, via Iqaluit and Rankin Inlet. I wish I could say it was the first time. Last time it was Freddie, one of Noah's trains. It turns out that my mountain of fantastic parenting skills was nothing more than a house of cards. It soon came tumbling down.

We found out that we would be staying in Kuujjuaq. A nice man from the school board came to drive us into town. I walked toward the door, loaded down with stuff, and Sophie, who was holding a sleeping Evie asked me, "do you have everything?"

"Yes," I replied. Well, not exactly everything. I remembered almost all of our checked luggage. When I realized that Noah was not pulling his suitcase, I dropped everything I was carrying and said quietly but very clearly, "shit!" I ran back into the terminal and collected his suitcase. When I came back out, a three year-old parrot was chirping "Shit! Shit! Shit!" I gave him his suitcase and laughed. I got into the van where Sophie informed me that our driver had graciously picked up all of the things I had forgotten: the baby carrier, the nursing pillow and a backpack.

I guess I need to rethink my awesomeness.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


We leave for Wakeham tomorrow.

If you had asked me four years ago if I would be going back up to Kangirsujuaq for a fifth year with my girlfriend and two kids, I don't know what I would have said. The familiar feeling of excitement and dread intertwined has been building up inside me all day. All of our boxes have been sent, and we just have our luggage left to pack. My suitcase has Noah's clothes, 24 notebooks, and a few of my things. By now, I've learned to travel fairly light for myself. Kids take up a lot of room. The 24 notebooks are a precaution I felt I had to take. The school board furnishes all of the students' school supplies, and last year, after being promised by a succession of principals that my notebooks would soon be arriving, I ultimately had to make due without them all year. This week, with some prodding from Sophie, I decided to take measures into my own hands.

Anyway, a new school year begins on Wednesday. This year, as always, I have found a new position that affords me the ability to work as few months of the year as possible. I'll be teaching the Secondary 6 college preparatory program for graduating students who were not strong enough to go straight to CEGEP. Stay tuned for a little fun and a whole lotta liberal guilt.

My summer ends tomorrow.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The dishes

When I was living in London, Ontario, I lived in an old farmhouse in the top floor apartment of Andy and Lori's house. I met some wonderful people in London, but I clicked with this couple who didn't know me, but who nevertheless welcomed me into their home at the suggestion of a mutual friend. No, not the Facebook kind of mutual friend, a real one with whom one of them had grown up and whose daughter I dated for six years kind of mutual friend. Anyway, Friday afternoon rituals were one of my favourite times in my short tenure in London. I would stroll in around 4:00 and Andy would offer me libations. Without exception I accepted. We wouldn't get drunk, but we would have a drink or two, and sometimes we would even put off supper by a couple of hours. When this happened, we would have conversations.

Sometimes I would tell them about living in Quebec, and how nationalism wasn't dead (although now I think it's irrelevant). Other times, he would educate me about the blues. Once, when we had put off supper for a couple of hours, Andy changed my ritual of doing the dishes. I don't know how we got on the topic, but I explained to him my order of dishes, and he calmly explained to me that the utensils had to soak while washing the mugs. Lori laughed at the both of us and upon reflection,we too decided that perhaps it was time to fire up the barbeque.

When I tried to do the dishes this morning, I got through the glasses and a few mugs, and I pulled the plug, leaving the utensils lying there in the bottom of the sink, waiting. I couldn't do it anymore.

You see, I have a skin condition called vitiligo. It's a lack of pigmentation that leaves weird, funky white patches on my skin. Apparently Michael Jackson had it, and as a black man, he couldn't take it. So, he somehow dyed himself white. For me, it's usually no big deal. Most of the time, I just forget about it. I have accepted the white blotches of skin on my hands and face and the white spots in my beard like I did the loss of my hair, or the growth of it on parts of my body that it shouldn't be.

I'll get to the point. Yesterday, the municipality invited the staff of our school to use one of our pedagogical days to go fishing. It was awesome. There is still a lot of snow, and it was about 8 or 9 degrees, and although I caught nothing, I had a great day.

I've always been a bit snake-bitten as a fisherman. I grew up in Northern Alberta and have gone fishing several times each year since I was a young child. I've caught a great deal of fish over the past two-and-a-half decades, but I would never consider myself good or even lucky. Invariably, if you fish for 25 or 30 years, you're going to snag a few from time to time.

A couple of years ago, I went fishing with my students on May 1st and got the worst sunburn of my life. My face was so sensitive that I lathered it repeatedly with a bunch of lanolin (used by nursing mothers for their cracked nipples) and didn't sleep for days. So, before we left the village, when we arrived at our destination, and a few more times throughout the day, I applied SPF 15 (the only lotion we have) to my face, neck, and ears. However, I neglected to touch the back of my hands. I spent the better part of five hours laying face-down on the ice with my head in a hole and only the back of my extra-sensitive, increasingly blotchy hands exposed to the sun's harmful rays.

By the time I got home, I knew I had made an important omission. I ran my hands under cold water for a few minutes, but ultimately underestimated the damage. This morning however, it took just seconds of submersion in the suds for me to realize that my hands were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. After I had finished the glasses, I noticed my hands were extraordinarily red. But it wasn't until half-way through the mugs that I realized that they were swelling up like Violet Beauregarde masticating a piece of experimental blueberry gum. They soon began to throb, and in the absence of a juicing room, I ran the cold water for a few minutes in a vain attempt to turn back time.

I went to school, and throughout the morning, students and teachers alike, several sporting sunburns of their own, remarked at my florescent pink, swollen hands. I could only answer one thing to them:

"Sure it hurts, but at least I can't do the dishes."

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Here we go again

When you walk past someone in a small village, no matter where you are, you wave, or say "hello" or tip your hat or make some sort of motion of recognition. Here it is no different. In Kangirsujuaq, and I'm assuming other Inuit villages, you say the person's name, followed by the greeting. I usually get one of two greetings: "James-ngai" or "Jaimisia".

So, when I walked by the residence one May morning last year to see one of the students I had taken to Europe two months before, standing on the front steps, I expected her to say one of these two things. She stood there and stared right through me. I said "good morning", and continued walking. I chalked the snub up to early morning cobwebs, and thought nothing else of it.

About an hour later, Neil came into my class and said, "Have you heard? There was a suicide at the residence."

"What?" Immediately, I flashed back to my awkward meeting with one of the residence students. At the time, there were only three students living in the residence. Two of them were my students, and one was in the French sector. Having seen one of my students that morning, I involuntarily prayed to myself that it hadn't been the other.

"Who?" I asked.

Neil confirmed that it had been the student in the French side. I began to feel odd, but I couldn't quite place the emotion. Another teacher, who is normally calm, collected, and polite walked into my class and let out a very uncharacteristic, "Again? What the fuck is going on?" in a shaky voice.

We discussed some of the details, which need not be repeated, and stared out the window at the gathering crowd of teachers, emergency workers, police, and students. It was 8:55. A sombre announcement came over the intercom, "School has been canceled for the day."

I didn't know this student very well. She was from another community, and had come to Kangirsujuaq to finish high school because her village is too small to support a secondary 3/4/5 teacher. However, it's not as if I had never interacted with her. She always wore a smile and was playful and apparently happy. She was a strong student, and seemed to have a positive attitude.

I walked down the stairs and sat down in the staff room. There was a group of Inuit teachers sitting in the lounge in silence. I sat down. We sat there, stewing in our confusion, and said nothing for what seemed like two eternities. All of a sudden, I felt an enormous wave of pressure that started at the floor and slowly rose until it almost forced tears from all of our eyes. For a millisecond, it appeared as if it would boil over, but then everyone got up simultaneously up and went in separate directions. One washed her hands. Another grabbed a coffee. Yet another went to the photocopier, and two disappeared out the door, one wiping her eyes.

I still couldn't place the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach. I realized I had to go home and tell Sophie. I put on my boots and walked outside to see a group of twenty or more people mulling about in what seemed like an organized confusion. I scanned their faces, and for some reason none of them registered. I knew every single one of them, but they seemed to be strangers. My panorama was interrupted when I laid eyes on one of the residence animators. These guys live with the students for one out of every two weeks. They cook them meals, help them with their homework, and try to ensure their safety and happiness.

When I saw this man, I recognized it: the complete and utter desperation that was certainly written across my face when I received the news about Attasi. His face was red, his lips were trembling, and a wrinkled brow that screamed out "why?"

Considering he and I shared a duplex at the time, we weren't very close. Inexplicably and unconsciously however, I walked up to him and embraced him. He exploded. After a few seconds, I let go, said nothing, and continued home to break the news to Sophie. On my way home, I identified the emotion that I had been feeling ever since I had heard the news.

It was a mixture of four things. I felt an enormous amount of relief that it wasn't one of the other two students, who I knew very well. I felt an equal amount of guilt for feeling the sense of relief. I felt good that, in a way, I would get to be part of the grieving process that I had missed a few weeks before. Finally, I felt nauseous that I felt good about something so horrible.

It had been a rough night with Noah, so I found Sophie and Noah in bed. I lied down next to Sophie.

"What is it?"

I told her. She held me. I cried.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My first mansage

I got my first mansage last weekend. I've been massaged by a quack, a physiotherapist, and even once by a massage therapist, but never once by a man. Until this weekend.

Last Friday was Culture Day at the school. Which means we loitered around outside for a few hours and took part in some interesting activities. I had a breakfast of frozen char topped with frozen walrus fat. The last time I ate walrus, it had been fermented, and it was the only time eating country foods that I wasn't able to go for seconds. However, I mustered up enough testosterone to give it another shot. This time, it was just frozen raw, fatty, and delicious. It was a lot like butter. I took generous chunks of it and spread it on my beautiful char steaks and stuffed my face.

Fresh off my conquest of raw meaty breakfast, I decided that I was man enough to step into the squared circle with Jacob for a little traditional Inuit wrestling. Inuit wrestling consists of two men putting each other in a semi-headlock, putting both hands on the ground, and then trying to push each other out of a circle drawn in the snow.

As we were about to dig in, one of the Inuk teachers said to me, "Hey James! After, we will do the women's contest. In the old days, we would take off all of our clothes and stand there naked. The one who lasted the longest with no clothes was the strongest." I have no idea if she was just pulling my leg or if she was being serious. Either Inuit ladies are really strong or really funny, but either way it left me with a smile as I entered the ring. Jacob quickly snapped me out of it.

Jacob is the guy who came to replace me while I was on parental leave (after my students had not teacher for a month, but more on that later), and took another position for the remainder of the year. He is about 5' 8", has dirty-blond hair, blue-green eyes, and a beard. We don't really look alike, but to the kids, we're one in the same. Sometimes the students in my classes call me Ben (who is six-feet tall) or Neil (who has all of his hair and is on a leave of absence) or even Thomas (who is apparently 6'4" and weighs in at over 250 lb. and left before I arrived... oh yeah, and he's black). Thus, Jacob has been called James a lot. Our names even have the same root for crying out loud.

I was sitting in the staff room a couple of days ago when Jacob came in and said, "Hey, do you have a shirt that looks like this?"

"Uhh, a little." I replied.

"I've decided to shave," announced Jacob, "we're too similar."

"If you think it will help, go ahead."

Jacob, however, has his aquamarine or raspberry belt or something in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. That's the one where two guys try to make each other say "uncle" by dislocating each others' shoulders and twisting their tendons. Unfortunately for me, he and I are very different in this regard. I had made a New Year's resolution this year to fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a ninja, but I decided not to go through with it after realizing that since the outlawing of the niqab, I would probably no longer be able to receive public services in Quebec without revealing my secret identity.

So, considering that my wrestling experience consists of giving my sister a DDT in the basement once when I was 13 and thought I could finally take her on after many years of abuse (we've gotten along swimmingly ever since) and watching the 62-year-old Cuban Assassin smack some other has been with a foreign object in the Polish Hall in Edmonton in 1998, I found myself completely outmatched. We dug in for the battle, and it was over before it started. My neck began throbbing almost immediately after Jacob tossed me out of the makeshift ring.

So, a few hours later, I stopped in to see my neighbour, who is a registered massage therapist. I explained the situation, and he told me to wait until Sunday, when he would see what he can do.

At 11:00 on Sunday, I went for my first mansage. I'm pretty comfortable with my sexuality. I'm no homophobe. I've lived with a gay couple for months. Moreover, my manseur isn't even gay. Still, getting touched on roughly 80% of your body by a male, former naturalist is still a bit weird. I didn't really know what to expect.

I lied down on his heated massage table in nothing but my underwear and waited. He touched my neck softly, and I had a George Costanza moment, thinking, "What if it moves?" However, I quickly laughed that off and, as he began to work on my feet, I promptly fell asleep.

My manseur woke me a couple of times to reposition me so he could work on my back, or my neck, or my arms, but really I was completely out of it. Just before I left to get the mansage, a friend was visiting our house, and she remarked, "I'd pay $50 just to go have a nap on that heated massage table." And that's what I did.

I remember the first time I got some sort of reflexology treatment. My girlfriend at the time gave me a gift certificate for what is called a Bowen treatment. It's a homeopathic procedure that follows the spirit of homeopathy pretty well. That is, less is more. I'm not exactly sure how swallowing sugar pills that may or may not contain one or more molecules of whatever is making you sick is supposed to help, but I can tell you something. I went into the place expecting a massage, and was left in a dark room for an hour, periodically being readjusted or cleansed or something. Not having paid for the treatment, I actually asked the Bowen Therapist for my hour back.

This time was not like that. My neighbour is a professional who takes pride in his work. Although I was comatose for the better part of an hour and a half, I awoke to aches and pains and at the same time felt refreshed. My first mansage was a success!

Noah Skis

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Saturday, April 17, 2010

My tattoos

Ever since Sophie and I decided to have another baby, I started to dream about getting two tattoos. One on each arm, mid-bicep, simply stating the name of each of my kids, in Inuktitut. In fact, I had had the idea to get Noah's name written in syllabics even before Evie became a twinkle in my eye.

I wanted to get Noah's name tattooed in Inuktitut on the back of my shoulder, thinking I would get our second baby's name on the other side. However, there was one small problem with that: my old tattoo. When I was eighteen, I went to Edmonton with a friend, determined to get a tattoo. Neither of us knew what we wanted, but we knew we wanted something. So, I sat down at "Raptors" tattoos shop, and flipped through a book. I didn't really see anything that was super inspiring. Clearly, the artists at the shop had talent, but their drawings meant very little to me. They didn't reflect who I was. Nevertheless, sitting in the shop, having told everyone I was going to get a a tattoo, I happened upon a simple sun which now situates itself in the middle of my back.

It hurt. A lot. I remember the tattoo artist saying, "If it hurts, wiggle your toes."

He touched me with his pen, and immediately, my toes started wiggling. Every time he crossed over my spine, the pain was almost intolerable. For the rest of the time, it was just interesting. 60 minutes later, I walked out in pain and $100 lighter. To add insult to injury, fifteen minutes after having been tattooed, I wondered,"now why the hell did I do that?" and "Well, at least it's on my back. I don't have to see it."

I spent years trying to explain why I got a tattoo. I made stuff up for a while. I began studying Latin American history, and tried out a story that it was a Mayan thing. That sounded pretty lame, so I ran through a few other possible significations, and settled eventually settled on the truth. When someone would ask, "What is that?" I would say, "my tattoo."

"Why did you get it?"

"I don't know."

"But what does it mean?"



Awkward silence.

Thus, I couldn't put my new tattoos, the ones that mean so much to me, anywhere near my old one. I needed a clean break, and this time I wanted to enjoy them. So, when we found out Sophie was pregnant, I thought of getting them on my arms. For each and every baby name that we thought of, I almost immediately consulted my syllabary to see what kind of tattoo it would make.

After Evie was born, I went to Pointe St. Charles tattoo shop on Centre, and explained what I wanted to one of the tattoo artists, named William. He told me to bring him the symbols so he could draw them. We discussed the style. Sophie suggested that each symbol be composed of small dots, resembling traditional Inuit tattoos, and William said he could make them look like rocks. I mulled it over, for weeks, and finally decided to get simple, bold, black lines. I rang up William and asked him if he could still do it before we came back to Kangirsujuaq.

Unfortunately, he was going on holidays the next day, but found a compromise. He could get Tony to do my tattoo. I asked, "does Tony know what he's doing?"

"He's been doing it for more than 50 years."

So, I went into the shop and waited while William took the syllabary and drew the tattoo. Apparently, Tony wasn't into that part, and William said he was honored to tag team with Tony.
As he was drawing the tattoo he looked up at me and said, "Ce n'est pas juste n'importe qui qui te tattoo. Tu peut dire que il est un légend." (ie Tony is important).

So, I sat down and watched the old man tattoo me. He said almost nothing. I just watched as the knife/pen thing jabbed into my arm thousands and thousands of times. Tattoos are really violent, but the pain is moderate and somewhat enjoyable. I got up, and stood there awkwardly waiting for instructions on payment and care.

"Oh, you want to pay me." We discussed the price, and I walked out pleased.

I went home with William's words ringing in my head. I googled Tony, and found out that he is indeed a legend. He had a tattoo shop in New York in the '60s where he tattooed gangsters and the who's who. There are articles about Tony in tattoo magazines in which he laments the lack of traditional tattooing. Other artists emulate his work, and it appears that there was some truth to what William had said.

I love my tattoos. However, there's just one hitch. I was teaching last week and one of my students noticed my tattoo. He asked me to show it to him. "Ivi?" he said, confused. Another student got up, looked at me with disgust and shook her head, walked over to me, and drew a little circle over the first syllable. My mind drifted back to a conversation with Sophie which centred around this little circle, which would put the emphasis on the first syllable. I didn't think it was necessary.

I decided to write to Evie's saunik (namesake) to find out what I should do. She wrote back.

"You should change that soon. Otherwise, she'll be Ivi, which means "dirty hands and mouth." After you've eaten food, there is left over food on your face, usually blood, you say ivi. She is Iivi."

I'm debating what looks more ridiculous: a stupid qallunaat with "dirty hands" written on his arm, or a stupid qallunaat with a tattoo that says "dirty hands" and a little circle made with a black permanent marker above the first syllable.

I wonder what Tony will say when I tell him the story. Probably nothing. But at least this time I have a story.

Friday, March 12, 2010

My Writer's Block

I haven't written much in a year. I've been struggling with this story. I've been thinking, do I really have the right to write about this? What are people in the village going to say if they read it? Should I include his real name? How will I synthesize the roller coaster of emotions that I went through a year ago? Am I ready? Indeed, even for me it still seems almost too raw to share.

About a year ago, I returned to Montreal and bid goodbye to the four students and my colleague with whom I had visited Italy and Greece. They went back to Kangiqsujuaq, and I prepared myself and family for a month-long cycling trip to Cuba. Sophie and I had purchased folding bicycles and a trailer for Noah, and we were on our way.

What a place to go cycling. The roads are in decent shape, and there is very little traffic. It was amazing. We spent the third week of our trip at an all-inclusive resort near Holguin for our friends Chris and Erin's wedding. All inclusives aren't really our thing, but we were able to hang out with friends we normally would not see outside of the country and it was fantastic. We were also able to do things that we weren't able to do in the rest of Cuba, like check our email. For those of you who received spam from my yahoo account about a year ago, this is when it happened. Alas, the spam was not the worst thing that happened as I sat at the internet kiosk in the hotel lobby.

I opened a two-week-old email from my then pregnant colleague Sayard which read:


We have some horrible news. It would not be appropriate to share it through email.

P.S. My baby and your dog are fine.

I immediately found Sophie and asked a friend to look after Noah for a few minutes. I said nothing, but he could read my face like a manual. "No problem James," he said, "Take your time."

What could be so horrible that it could not be written down? As we were walkind back to our room, we started to try and guess what could have happened. I thought that there had been an ATV accident, a disgruntled student came into the school armed, a murder in the village, all kinds of ridiculous things. Then Sophie stumbled across the magic word: "suicide". Even though there hadn't been any suicides in our community for over 20 years, our hearts started pounding as we realized that this had to be it.

We started naming names as we were cutting through the jungle to get to our room faster.
The most likely suspects immediately came to mind. They were all troubled teenagers who obviously had problems at school. We were terrified.

I rang up Sayard when we arrived at the room.

"Hello," she answered.

"Hi Sayard, it's James," I said.

"How are you?" she said with a shaky voice.

"We're having a wonderful time. But I was reading my email and..." I could tell she was already crying.

"Here, talk to Neil." she muttered.

"Hi James," he said. And then he immediately ripped off the band-aid, "Attasi killed himself."

Sophie could read the desperation on my face. "WHAT!?" she said.

"It's Attasi." I said. As she began to scream, I dropped the phone. I didn't hang it up, just dropped it, and let my friend and colleague hear us disintegrate.

This was unthinkable. He was the most polite and one of the strongest students in the school, a teachers' favourite. All kinds of disgusting thoughts raced through my head. I began by thinking "what happened to that poor boy?" as my mind raced through potential situations that he had gone through since we had left.

I turned to thoughts of what I could have done to prevent Attasi from doing what he had done. I searched and searched the inside of my mind and heart and came up empty-handed. This made me even more upset.

Then, more sinister thoughts began to bubble up from the depths of my subconscious. "Why couldn't it have been ...?" I became nauseous.

My nausea snapped me out of it. I realized that the phone was still off the hook. I picked it up, and Neil was still there, struggling himself. "Neil," I said, "let me call you back."

After we had gathered ourselves together, we called him back and got the details, which I cannot share here.

We wanted to do something. Call his mother, his brothers, his friends, and share our condolences, but we quickly realized that this would give them little solace. Their Attasi had been in the ground for over two weeks already.

We felt so far away, so helpless, so unable to do anything. There we were, in the lap of luxury, and there was a poor little northern town suffering without us. Not that we could have done anything to make it any easier for the people in the village. In fact, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had missed it. It was my own suffering and grief that was worsened by the fact that I couldn't mourn and get closure with the collective in Kangirsujuaq. When I realized that it was thoughts of myself and my suffering that were overwhelming me, a dark shroud of good old guilt settled in for the long haul.

When I again set eyes on the mountains of Kangirsujuaq, more than a month had passed since that tragic day. I didn't know what to do. The first time I saw each of his brothers, I hugged them and told them I was sorry for their loss. It was all I was capable of doing. I realize that it probably meant little to a family that was (and still is) hurting so deeply, but I couldn't just pretend that nothing had happened. I missed him, and I wanted them to know it.

The teachers themselves were still in the midst of the grieving process. Some were angry, some were brought to tears upon seeing us and realizing that they were about to revisit the pain that they had begun bottling up a couple of months before. I tried very hard to soothe my own grief, get some closure, and ease the guilt I felt. However, a few short weeks later, we would all revisit our frustration and desperation. But that's another story.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Monday, February 01, 2010

A New Addition

At 4:00 on Sunday morning, Sophie's uterus woke her up. At 6:30 she woke me. By 8:30, we were at the hospital, and by 11:54, 9 lb. 12 oz. Evie Anna Vandenberg was born. Will add more later.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Laser Tag

It's been months, I know. I've been procrastinating as much as I can. There's a post that I have to write one day, but I've found yet another way to avoid writing it. The last time you heard from me, I had my students on a ferry from Italy to Greece.

Our trip culminated with three days in Athens. By this point, we had been ushered into the Vatican vaults, had seen the Colusseum, visited Pompeii, Olympia and Epidaurus.

However, as far as one of my students was concerned, the best part of the trip so far was playing laser tag in Montreal. Because you cannot bank on getting out of Kangirsujuaq on the day you are scheduled to leave, we went to Montreal a couple of days early, and stayed in the Youth Hostel downtown. This alone was a pretty big deal for some of the kids. I was trying to show them that they could come down to Montreal and not stay at the Travelodge in Dorval where many Inuit stay when they come to Montreal. I wanted to show them what the city really had to offer. One of the students was adamant that we play laser tag. Begrudgingly, I acquiesced, and took the kids out. It didn't take very long for me to get into it. I must admit that laser tag is a whole lot of fun.

For one of the students, the experience couldn't be surpassed by the cultural and historical gems offered by Europe's ancient empires. At every turn, I asked him, "Is this better than laser tag?"
Without fail, he responded, "It's great, but no."

After getting our bearings in Athens and visiting some of the most important archaeological sites in all of Europe, I became comfortable with the city. It was easy. Athens is compact, busy, and easily walkable. One of my goals became taking the students out to see some live music. I consulted the tour guides and my guide book, and all signs pointed to Exarcheia.

Exarcheia is traditionally the leftist/activist neighbourhood of Athens. In the 1970s it was the centre of political activism and Marxist/anarchist thought. It was the site of the Polytechnic uprising in 1974, and parts of the 2008 riots as well. Indeed, while we were on the boat from Brindisi to Greece, I sat down in the café and began to watch the news. All that was being shown were scenes of chaos and fires and molotov cocktails and tear gas and rubber bullets and cops with their batons crashing into young adults' skulls. It made for good television, especially since I didn't understand any of the commentary. I asked a man what was going on. He told me there were riots happening in Exarcheia.

For all of its reputation, Exarcheia seems to be a neighbourhood which is going through an identity crisis. Although there were pallets burning in the central square as we approached, it was easy to spot the signs of gentrification. We sat at an chic café drinking coffee, and we could see that there was a crêperie on the other side of the plaza. Its sign read "αναρχία", which means "anarchy". I rolled my eyes... and then got a crêpe with nutella on it. Anarchy never tasted so delicious.

After coffee and crêpes, we went on the hunt for some live music. We passed a bar with a bunch of posters on the window. The posters were in Greek, so I asked a few locals who were sitting on the patio to translate for us. The locals turned out to be Irish, but they lived in the neighbourhood, and knew about a party that would have live music. We followed them to an empty lot, which was about to be converted into a community garden. There were about 100 people milling about, drinking, and talking to each other. We had missed the music, and as much as I would have liked to have stayed, it wasn't exactly an appropriate situation for the students. We moved on. We came to the border of the neighbourhood, and realized that there were police at every corner. I asked one of them if something was going to happen.

He replied, "You mean a riot? Probably."
"So... we should get out of here? Probably."

We scurried away, and just as it looked like we weren't going to succeed in finding the concert we wanted, we could hear some loud punk music coming from what looked like a three-storey house. We walked into it through a haze of smoke. The venue was really cool, and the band had just finished a set. Sayard, my colleague was about six and a half months pregnant at the time, and did not want to deprive her child of oxygen in this smoky venue, so she left with the girls. That left me alone with the guys.

The band began playing their second set, and I knew that the music would be right up the students' alley. Youth in Kangirsujuaq listen to almost exactly the same music as I did when I was their age. Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana, and other angry stuff. The two boys who had come to Europe are in a band called Samati, which is also in the metal/punk genre.

I turned to the guys and asked them after the band had finished its first song, "Have you ever been to a concert before?"

Both answered "no."

After a few more songs, I asked them, "Is it better than laser tag?"

They stopped banging their heads, looked up, nodded, and went back to enjoying themselves.