Wednesday, June 22, 2011


A couple of years ago, there was a nurse who was leaving Wakeham after 10 years of service. One of her Inuit colleagues said to her, "Qallunaat. They leave after they've taken enough." I'm not exactly sure how the nurse looked back on her decade of service, but I'm almost certain that she had never thought of it primarily as an exercise in taking.

I try not to think of the relationship that Kangirsujuaq and I have in terms of give-and-take. I try to think of it as an exchange of service.

Once, a friend of mine told me an interesting story. He was working in an isolated reserve, and by isloated I mean isolated. Each week, he had to travel two days to get to the reserve, work two days, and travel one to get back (I know it doesn't make any sense, something to do with ferries). He asked the chief one day, "You know, if you found some lodging for me, I could stay on the reserve and work five days a w...."

The chief cut him off. "You aren't welcome on my reserve. You are here to provide a service, nothing more. So, you can continue to travel two days in, work two days, and travel one day out each week, thank you very much."

Although this story is not at all indicative of my experience in Kangirsujuaq, I have kept it in the back of my mind as an angle through which I see the qallunaat teacher or other professional experience in the North. If I see it as an exchange of service for money, then I don't have to come to terms with what I have actually taken out of this place compared to the insignificant amount I have put back in. But now, because I like torturing myself, I'm going to go through this process anyway.

I have taken a great deal out of Kangirsujuaq. Sure, Kangirsujuaq provided me with a salary substantial enough to save myself from near financial ruin and get many of the material things I wanted, but that's not what I'm talking about. It was Kangirsujuaq that provided me with a loving relationship with a beautiful woman. I'll never forget those first few weeks Sophie and I spent together walking on the tundra and talking, and well... Kangirsujuaq also provided me with two amazing children (actually, I think one of them was made in Quaqtaq, but that's just splitting hairs). I hope I can also take some other long-term relationships with the friends I have made here. Indeed, it appears that not matter how much I gave or even could have given to Kangirsujuaq, it has paid me back a thousand-fold.

Yes Kangirsujuaq, I have taken enough. Thank you so much for all you have given me. I hope someday I can come back, even if just to visit, so I can take a little bit more.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Thank you

What can I write in my penultimate post? Today, I've been busy cleaning the house and packing the last couple of things. Mostly, I've been trying to keep myself occupied to stop me from thinking about what is happening. Every once in a while, a rush of emotion comes over me and I have to pause from cleaning the walls to breathe deeply and take pause, before being able to continue on.

I would like to reflect on some of the things I will miss about living here. I will miss the country food. I will miss my former students, colleagues, and friends. I will miss the sense of community that comes with living in a small, isolated village, even if I am largely disconnected from the community itself. I will miss the slow pace of life and my one-minute commute. I will miss hearing Inuttitut. Mostly, I will miss the many people who have welcomed me and my family into their community, if only for a short time.

Finally, I will miss writing something interesting enough for at least a couple dozen people to read. I feel like I have been extremely lucky to have had the chance to say goodbye like this over the past few weeks. About a month ago I realized that there have been five long-term teachers who have left Kangirsujuaq since I arrived. Sophie and I will make seven. Over the course of those five years, not one of the other five people left at the end of the year. Some departed in the midst of depression and sickness, while others left to have children mid-year and ave yet to return. Most of them never got to say a proper goodbye to the place they loved so much. I'm sure in some way, it still haunts them. By contrast, the past month has been like a farewell tour for me that will, at least I hope, bring some closure to my northern sojourn.

Thank you for sharing in my experience for the past five years. I'll miss you too.

Fifth Year

This year, I had the best job at the KSB. Teaching secondary 6 afforded me the opportunity to wake up in the morning and actually want to go to work. I'm not talking about tolerating work, or even accepting it. I wanted to go to work.

The task seemed simple enough. Take KSB graduates who were not strong enough to get into college and give them the skills to succeed in post-secondary education. At first, it seemed like the quintessential colonialist position. I was to get these kids ready for assimilation into the most Western of institutions: post secondary education. It didn't take me long to accept my mission openly, for at the very least, I wasn't trying to ready young Inuit for life in the North like I had been naively attempting to do for the past four years. This year, I didn't have to pretend.

My students were fantastic; that is, the ones who stuck it out. Over the course of the year, I had 21 different students enrolled in secondary 6. Only 8 finished. But they're all going to college next year. I hope I did my part to give them the tools to last more than a couple of weeks. I guess only time will tell.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The F Word

Last weekend was beautiful. The sun was out, it was warm enough to wear only a sweater, and there was no wind. On Saturday, we went for a picnic about 5 km from the village with our neighbours who then fed us a steak dinner later that evening.

On Sunday, we didn't do much, but at 7:30 last night, Noah asked me, "Daddy, can we go up the little mountain and see the big inukshuk?"

Just like that, my son wanted to go climb a mountain. So we set out quickly, and a few minutes later we were basking in the beauty of Kangirsujuaq. Thankfully, Sophie brought her camera to capture the magic.

This morning, when I awoke, I wasn't surprised by what I saw. I had checked the forecast, and knew that the beautiful weather we had this weekend was bound to be finished. In a word, it was foggy.

Around these parts, "fog" has become more vulgar than its four-letter counterpart. Among travelers in Nunavik, it is the most vile concept ever hurdled upon mankind. Fog wreaks havoc on people's lives. It separates families, and it torments even the most stoic of migrants. Flights cannot get in or out. When the fog rolls in over Kangiqsujuaq, it feels like mother nature has spread her blanket of isolation over a place that has only just recently been opened up to rapid travel by technological progress.

I once asked a nurse what would happen if there was someone who really needed to get out of the village with a medical emergency, like a heart attack or a ski-doo accident. I had expected her to tell me something about a helicopter or special plane, but she just said, "Well, that person could die."

Last year, not one but two babies were born in Kangiqsujuaq because it was too foggy to get the mothers to Kuujjuaq in time. Most recently, this morning the search for three missing hunters from Salluit had to be postponed due to fog. Yes, the f-word can be a very serious thing indeed.

And routine. Personally, I've been delayed so many times that I really have lost count. I've contemplated starting a semi-fictional blog called "stuck" to try to share the feelings of stress and helplessness that the f-word brings out of even the strongest of people. However, my attempts at capturing the frustration always implode, and the blog just sits there like the fog, waiting for something to happen.

Let me give you an example. It was December 16th, 2009. Sophie had gone down to Montreal by herself a few days earlier to rest her tired, pregnant body while I stayed with Noah in Kangiqsujuaq. The day after she left, the fog rolled in. And like that quiet uncle who comes to your parents house at Christmas, eats, watches television, and overstays his welcome, it didn't leave for another six days. No flights came in or out of Kangiqsujuaq.

The fog teased us. It would open up just a little, and we could hear the planes trying to cut their way through the shroud of condensation en route to and from Salluit, but to no avail. We were called out with our luggage onto the street so many times that I lost count and stopped caring. There were fights between teachers and one even threatened to stay here over the holidays. At least that way, he could feel like he was in control.

In the midst of the fog-induced chaos, there was a little boy who missed his mama. He had been promised that he would see her in no more than three days. But those three days came and went, as did another three days. Have you ever tried to explain the logistics of air travel and inclement weather to a two-and-a-half year old boy? Amazingly, Noah held it together. Once, he was frustrated with my attempts to reason with him and he just couldn't hold it in anymore. Lip trembling, eyes watery, he stammered, "Where's mam..." Sensing the lost look on my face, it almost seemed like he knew it was no use, as he stopped short, buried his face into my chest and sighed deeply.

On the fourth and final day of our delay, we were at the airport. I asked Pierre, a teacher of 20 years in Kangirsujuaq, what the longest he had ever been stranded had been.

"Me?" he replied. "10 days. But I remember talking to another teacher when I first arrived. He had been here for 20 years before me, a time when there was no airport. Back then, the flight only came once a week, and it landed on the bay. Every time the plane attempted to land, it was too windy, and the waves were too big. He was stuck here the whole summer."

Although Pierre's story did little to comfort a group of stranded travelers who were trying to get to their destinations in time to get at least the leftovers from Christmas dinner (we actually arrived on the 22nd, but it felt like we were going to miss it), it did say a lot to me about how much the north has changed in the past half-century. I might complain when there's no milk in the village for a couple of weeks or no eggs for a month. However, life is pretty comfortable up here compared to the way is was just a couple of short decades ago.

This time, it doesn't matter to me whether the f-word rolls in on Wednesday. Don't get me wrong, I would like to spare myself the stress of not knowing when we are going to leave. However, it might be evident to you from my daily doses of melancholy that it's not exactly like I want to get the "f" out of here or anything.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fourth Year

On August 1st, 2009, Sophie and I came back for a fourth year. We had come up a couple of weeks early to go to Pingualuit National Park. Pingualuit is an almost perfectly circular crater made when a meteorite crashed into the Canadian shield some 10 million odd years ago.

The mountains created by the impact are the only major topographical feature in an otherwise flat plateau that dominates the Ungava Peninsula. I can only imagine the first time an inuk, probably hunting caribou, climbed up to the top of these mountains to see what was on the other side. This is what he would have seen:

In 2009, the park was fully operational, and we flew in for a three-day camping trip. The first day was beautiful. We climbed up to the crater and basked in its beauty. The next two days, however, were rainy. One night, it was so rainy and windy that I didn't sleep a wink and actually got out of the tent to check the pegs not once but twice.

As we were getting ready to fly back to Kangirsujuaq, the skies opened up. We were in for a treat.

Actually, the more impressive part of the flight came when we flew in the valley of the Wakeham River as we were approaching Kangirsujuaq. Unfortunately, the battery on the camera died en route from the crater, and we have only our memories of its incredible beauty.

That year, I taught social studies. I was able to take my students on a trip to Qajartalik, an island which is home to Canada's only arctic Dorset-era petroglyphs. There are hundreds of masks carved into the rocks at Qajartalik. We set out by boat on the Hudson Strait on October 1st and had an amazingly beautiful day.

We rode in a Peterhead boat named Qilalougak (beluga). We towed a canoe so some of the guides could go seal hunting.

We had fresh seal for lunch. I was a bit apprehensive at first, but found the heart and the ribs to be delicious.

One of the masks.
What a perfect day.

We arrived home after dark, tired and hungry, but completely content. The next day, I was bed ridden with a migraine headache and nausea. I couldn't even move. I think it may have been a combination of to much sun, not enough water, and camp stove fuel exhaust, but whatever, it was still worth it.

After Christmas, Sophie and I didn't return right away. Sophie was due to have Evie on the 17th of January, so I took a leave of absence from work until the beginning of April. I had asked for a shorter leave, but the school board suggested that I take a longer one because it would be easier to replace me. I obliged. By the time we had left, they had hired someone. He contacted me, and right from the beginning, I could tell that he was not going to go through with his commitments. I wrote him no less than 30 different emails, trying to allay his fears about everything under the sun. I even spent an hour and a half on the telephone with him on Christmas Eve trying to explain this and that. Sure enough, on January 5th, he was a no show at the airport.

This is one of the biggest differences between teaching in the South and in Nunavik. When you're sick, there is no one to replace you. If you take a paternity leave, there is no one to replace you. If you quit, there is no one to replace you; and if you don't show up for work, there is no one to replace you.

At one point, I wrote my flake of a would-be replacement an email. I'm not sure if he ever read it. In fact, I'm sure he flagged it as spam and went on with his life. I leave the text to you:

You probably have your reasons for backing out, and I'm not going to question them. I just thought that you should know that those students still do not have a teacher.

"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." - Anthony Bourdain.


My students went weeks without a teacher. Just as this began to weigh heavily on my mind and we began to consider coming back early, the school board found Jacob, who came for the last six weeks of my leave and later stayed to fill another position. Since then, he has become a dear friend to all of us. In the end, it turned out to be a good thing that my replacement didn't show up.

We returned in April to finish out the year. When we arrived, we had no intention of coming back. However, I was outside with Noah on our first day back, and I was staring at the horizon that I had come to know so well. A rush of emotion welled up inside me and it was all I could do to not break down. I knew that Kangirsujuaq and I were not quite finished with each other. When we announced that we were moving to Montreal, the outpouring of support for us was so intense and overwhelming that when another opportunity to stay arose, we decided to take it.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

More Goodbyes

Last night, we went to our friend Mary's house for what she called "the last supper" (I wonder who is going to get crucified). Actually, it was also the first at her house, but who is counting.

On the menu was roll-it-yourself sushi, featuring fresh arctic char as the star of the show. I sat at the table and gobbled roll after roll. I think I said "I'm really going to miss this fish," about thirty or forty times last night. I have been stuffing my gullet with country food for the past few weeks, trying to cram in as much as I possibly can before we re-enter the industrial protein chain. Mary and her husband were more than happy to oblige. For the first time in my life, I was also able to eat wild caught eggs.

Lukasi and a group of local hunters had spent the day on the land chasing eider duck, Canada goose, and seagull hens out of their nests in order to steal their brood.

We were able to try each of them. The eider duck egg was mild and rich, as was the goose egg. The most interesting was the seagull egg. I know you all are probably thinking how disgusting (or enticing, depending on your point of view) a McGull egg would be. But these animals do not dine on day-old buns behind the neighbourhood KFC. They eat fish, like you would imagine that something named "seagull" would. The shell was a dark camouflage. The inside was orange and soft-boiled. The yolk was very creamy and tasted of the ocean. With the combination of the texture, the surprising taste, and the temperature (it was cold), a few bites were more than enough. After satiating ourselves on fish and eggs, we walked home and I reflected on this and other dining experiences we've had over the past five years.

I remember once Sophie and Noah were in Montreal and I was here. The school's Centre Director came up to me just before lunch and asked me who was cooking for me. I motioned to myself, and he immediately insisted that I go home with him for lunch. "We don't want you to starve now," he said, matter of factly. Obediently, I followed.

We arrived to a spread of beluga muktuk (skin and fat) and arctic char. I sat down on the floor (the table in his house is covered in stuff and doesn't look like it gets used) with him, his wife, a couple of his grandchildren, and Adamie Inukpuk, who once played Nanook of the North in the movie Kabloonak. I remember thinking, "this is the coolest thing ever." I have had several similarly interesting culinary/cultural experiences over the past five years, and I am truly grateful for having lived each of them.

As much as I like to reflect on northern cuisine, I've spent an equally substantial amount of my time here thinking about what I'm going to eat when I get to Montreal. Near the end of every four-to-six month stint in Kangirsujuaq, my mind begins to wander and inevitably ends up fixating on one thing, and one thing only: Bangkok. I can't wait to go to Bangkok. I know, it's just a food court vendor, but over the past several weeks, I've again developed an obsessive craving for some squid with eggplant.

In Kangirsujuaq, we don't have access to a lot of the things that make city living agreeable. There are no restaurants. The produce comes in intermittently and often arrives in an already inedible and expensive state. They don't carry my type of razor blades at the Co-op Northern doesn't carry razor blades at all. A few weeks ago, I saw that they finally started carrying contact solution. My glasses are currently being held together with a piece of a twist tie because there are no opticians within 1000 km who could supply one of those little screws that holds the arms onto the frames.

But the protein... oh the protein. Fresher fish than you can find at any market. Organic, lean, and socially responsible caribou, fowl that lives outside and actually flies, and the freest of free range eggs.

I am going to miss that fish. I am going to miss that fish. I am going to miss that fish.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Day Care

For the past two years, I have sat on the Board of Directors at the day care. Let me tell you, when the school secretary called me in September 2009 to ask me if I wanted to be nominated, I was touched. However, I never expected that being on the day care committee would be such a tough gig.

The day care itself is a Southern concept, just like the school or the fire hall. After moving into villages and starting the 9-5 life, it only made sense for the Inuit villages to start day cares. Unlike the school, however, the day care is run and staffed almost exclusively by Inuit women.

Shortly before I started my two-year term, we had a group of five educators graduate from a CEGEP-level programme in Early Childhood Education, and not a moment too soon. Before that, the educators tried really hard, but most were really not trained well enough to know what to do to keep a group of 13 kids busy. It was often hard for us to send our son there.

After the educators graduated, the day care started to function more smoothly on a day-to-day basis. However, because it's such a small village, and such a difficult job, there are only just enough qualified educators to cover each of the classrooms. When your kid's educator is not there, they are often taken care of by someone who doesn't know what she is doing. I'm not being condescending or mean here. The replacements are just not trained. So, because I have a view of the day care from my kitchen table, my morning routine includes sitting at the table with baited breath, hoping to see my daughter's educator's car and my son's educator's Honda. When both are there, a smile spreads across my face.

Working as an educator in a day care is an extremely difficult job. If you have an office job, no matter how hard you work, these ladies are working harder. Have you ever taken care of 12 three-year-old kids at once? Would you? Not me, thank you very much. I couldn't take more than two years of looking after a dozen 11-year-olds, and had to move to teaching at the secondary level.

My term on the day care committee has been chock-full of small town drama. In-fighting between staff members, bickering between the staff and parents, and battles between parents themselves. When you are working with people's children, the expectations are high and the emotions are raw. When something happens, there is plenty of complaining and even more passion, and that's understandable. Two years ago, I had several issues with the day care, and that's one of the reasons why I joined the board.

Let me give you and example. At our meeting last week, we re-hired someone who we had previously fired because there was an opening and we realized that the kids needed her back. During the same meeting, we banned a parent from entering the day care for his transgressions. Both of these people had grown angry because of something that had happened to their child, and ultimately had to pay a hefty price for it.

As I was sitting there in the meeting, I realized that I was the only non-Inuk in the room (there are actually two qallunaat on the board but my colleague had to leave early). I was sitting there with five Inuit ladies. I scanned their faces and realized that three of these five women had buried their full-grown children during my 5-year tenure in Kangiqsujuaq. One of them had been beaten to death, another was killed by a drunk driver, and yet another committed suicide. On top of that, one had just buried her one-year-old grandson who died of poisoning. What is truly telling is that their experiences are not the exception, but rather the rule around here. There is enough pain and suffering in these little villages to fill a town ten times their size with paralyzing grief.

I couldn't imagine the pain that these women must have suffered and were in the midst of suffering. Yet amazingly, they continue to function and work hard to ensure the safety and happiness of the village's children.

Over the weekend, the drama with the parent we suspended had continued, so when I heard that we were going to have another meeting last night, I wasn't surprised. I was, however taken aback to discover upon arrival that all of the staff and board were throwing my family and I a going-away party. Each one of them took turns thanking us and telling us how much they love our kids.

Over the past few weeks, I've been thinking that one of the things I won't miss about Kangirsujuaq would be the day care. I stand corrected. I won't miss the drama, but I will miss the people.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Inuit leader, philosopher, and former politician Zeebedee Nungak once wrote in his excellent tongue-in-cheek article "Qallunology: The Inuit Study of White People" that "qallunaat were born to be nicknamed when they are living among Inuit". The practice originates from a time when there were few qallunaat here, and virtually no Inuit spoke English.

A few days ago, I got my nickname. I was sitting in the staff room with several Inuit teachers and another qallunaaq, and everyone was speaking in Inuttitut. As usual, I was sitting there with no idea what was going on. When this happens, I just sit there and passively listen, completely lost, soaking up every last minute of something that I won't get to experience in 10 short days. At some point, I clued in that the younger teachers were asking an elder how to say my colleague Jacob's name in Inuttitut. Apparently, it's Jakupusi. Then, they moved on to me. I've heard "Jaimisi" so many times that I knew what was coming. However, the elder didn't say "Jaimisi", she said "Kayuapik". Then I realised what was happening. She was giving Jacob and I nicknames.

Jacob had clued in too. "How do you decide on a nickname?"

"Well, in the old days Inuit couldn't say qallunaat names, so we made up a name by looking at their faces. I remember there was this old missionary that everyone used to call "umigaaalaq" (forgive/correct me if I'm wrong), because he had a huge beard."

In "Qallunology," Nungak adds that "it was not mere inability to pronounce English or French names, which gave rise to this custom. There was an attitude of ‘During your time in my space and environment, I will call you as I see you’ about it."

"So, what's mine again?" I asked

"Kayuapik," the elder replied.

"What does that mean?"

"Ummm.... brown." Later, I found out it actually means "little brown". Wonderful.

"So, does everyone have a nickname?"

"No, we don't do it that much anymore. We can say all of your names now."

I had read "Qallunaology" several times before that, so I knew very well that this practice was in the process of dying out. Nungak writes, " [Qallunaat] are now so common in such great numbers all over Inuit Nunangat that they have ceased to be the novelty they once were. Besides, the Qallunaat turnover rate is such that it is literally impossible to get a ‘feel in the bones’ handle on a subject sufficient to rate him or her with a decent atinnguaq [nickname]."

It only took five years for me to get my atinnguaq; just in time for me to become another statistic in the turnover rate.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Red House Dance Club

On Thursday, we had a garage sale.

We didn't make signs or take out an ad in the paper (actually, I made signs, but Sophie just laughed at me. She was right). Rather, the day before and the day of the garage sale, I simply called the local radio station, known simply as the FM.

Ever since complaining that white people don't speak enough Inuttitut, I've thrown off my shroud of shame, and have been flaunting my pathetic vocabulary just to make people smile. Now, I'm repeating it to impress you (actually, it's totally the only reason I wrote this whole post). I called the FM and announced the garage sale. "Ullumi, garage salelangnaju, illu aupartuk iliniatitsiji Sophielu Jaimisilu, 4:00-6:00. Nakurmiik. Bring your money!"

Almost immediately, I got a call from the school secretary telling me how well I did. "You sounded just like a missionary!" He told me. I was touched. You see, years ago, when the missionaries began coming to Kangiqsujuaq, they all learned how to speak Inuttitut. They had no choice.

Well, let me tell you, if you want to throw a party in Kangiqsujuaq, just announce it on the FM. At 4:00 sharp, the red house was packed. It was seriously just like a dance club. We actually had to turn sideways and put our arms over our heads just to get from place to place. As the bartender, I didn't even have a chance to understand what was happening.

I felt like a bookie at the Kentucky Derby who was giving great odds. Everything was really cheap. Some things were so cheap that people actually giggled and made big eyes at each other.

At one point, an elder was eyeing up a glass bowl. Sophie had actually bought it at her daughter's garage sale five years ago before she moved to Montreal. She insisted that the elder take it for free. At another point, a woman tried to buy a little vase with flowers on it and a little poem about friendship that her husband gave me three years ago for my birthday. I also had to let it go for nothing. Only in a small village.

Anyway, the point wasn't to make money. It was to get rid of our stuff, and get rid of it we did. Then, all of a sudden and altogether too soon, it was over and our house was empty. I felt like a prostitute who had just had sex with a rich, teenage boy (whoah, slow down... hey... oh... that's it? Where are you going? Where did all of this money come from?). In twenty short minutes, a Sophie-James-Noah-Evies's-stuff-diaspora had spread throughout the village. Hopefully, people will think of us from time to time when using our old forks, binoculars, and unopened cans of shaving foam. If not, at least our stuff didn't end up in the dump.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

This morning, Noah woke up screaming from a nightmare. I went in to comfort him, and had the bright idea to tell him a story. I thought that "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" would be a good one, so I started in.

You see, Sophie and I read to Noah all the time. However, we don't ever just tell him stories. We had discussed this fact after speaking to our neighbour, an Inuk, who grew up in a home where the parents' stories were a large part of the entertainment in the home. In an era like ours in which early childhood education is becoming more and more scientific (or at least that's what scientists would have us believe) books reign supreme. I guess I figured that Noah was going to miss out on something, so I told him a classic.

Let me tell you, I was rusty. Here's my recollection of how it went (with my simultaneous thought process in parentheses):

"Noah, do you know the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears?"

He looked at me like I had a golf ball-sized tumour growing out of my forehead.

Goldilocks was walking in the forest (you know Noah, with trees? Those things on TV?) one day and she got lost (is that how this thing starts?). Goldilocks was a little girl with beautiful blonde curly hair, and she didn't listen to her mama, who said "don't go into the forest" (shit, that's Little Red Riding Hood). So, she was walking through the forest and she got lost.

She came upon this house, and she could smell oatmeal. She was so tired and hungry from wandering around all night (was she wandering around all night? Oh boy, am I in trouble). She smelled the oatmeal and followed her nose (Dear God, that's so lame). She went into the house and saw three bowls of oatmeal (where the hell are the bears anyway? Who leaves hot oatmeal on the table?).

She sat down and tried papa bear's bowl. It was too hot. She tried mama bear's bowl, and it was too cold. She tried baby bear's bowl and it was just right. She ate the whoooooolllllle bowl. (Hit the panic button. How the &%$@ does this end? Does she get eaten? I'm not telling him that. That's ridiculous. I know she goes to sleep. Uuggghh, this is going to get worse before it gets better.)

Then she realized that she was really tired and climbed up the stairs and went to bed. The end! (I'm such a failure. Where the hell is google when you need it? Why can't they just wire it into my brain like in Feed? Then I wouldn't have to remember anything. I'm googling "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" later.)

I looked at Noah, he laughed at me. He had never heard the story before, but he knew. Oh he knew his old man %&$#ed that one up.

Anyone else? What happens?

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Clean Shaven

Today, I shaved off my beard. Before I moved up here, I almost never wore a beard. I did all sorts of ridiculous stuff with my facial hair, but I never rocked the full beard. In my first year in Nunavik, I definitely had a little Farley Mowat/Grizzly Adams mentality going on, so I let it go. Plus, it's really freaking cold here. It snowed about four inches today. Anyway, over the years, my beard has become part of my identity.

The last time I shaved off my beard was in January. I set two feet outside to go for a run in the -30 winter before deciding that it would not come off again before I left Kangirsujuaq. However, my desire to pack the clippers today got the best of me, and I found myself clean shaven at 7:55 p.m.

Not that any of this really matters, but it did get me thinking about how different I am than I was when I arrived. I know that the changes go a lot deeper than the follicles of my facial hair, but I can't help but think that a more than significant part of me will stay here with my shavings when I go.

It's not that I want to pine over the North forever. I want to be able to get on with other things. However, I don't want to leave behind everything that I made here for myself. I guess it's a good thing that the most important things I made living in Kangirsujuaq were a couple of kids and a loving relationship with their mother. I guess I just hope that some of the other relationships that I've made will endure the distance as well.

People say they will visit, and I say I will stay in touch, but there is a part of me that wonders if Kangiqsujuaq and I will cut off our ties to each other the way I cut off my beard today. I hope not.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Our First Last Year: The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

Our third year was the year we began playing the game of cat and mouse which has taken over my consciousness and has had me spilling my thoughts onto the page for the last month. Our third year was supposed to be our final stint in the North. I had forgone my permanent position as the grade 7 teacher to move into the secondary side of the school and do a six-month replacement for a teacher who was on maternity leave. Then, that was supposed to be it. We were done. It was a done deal. We told all of our friends that we would be moving back to Montreal.

Of course, after leaving in March, I came back to replace another pregnant teacher in May to finish out the year, and then replaced her all the next year and then took another job this year, but that's beside the point. Our Northern journey was coming to an end, and what a year we had to end it.

2008-2009 provided the best and the worst that the North has to offer. In a school that has ample staff and available replacements, a principal would never let a permanent teacher take a replacement contract for part of the year. They could just as easily find someone to fill in the holes. Being a principal here, as far as I can tell, is not unlike sticking your fingers in the dike to plug the holes as they appear, and using every available extremity to delay the inevitable flood of discontented parents and students who understandably are confused as to why there is no teacher for such and such a class.

That year also humbled me as a teacher. I remember painstakingly trying to help a student to simple arithmetic in a secondary 3 Math class only to look up and see that the rest of the students, who were much quicker than the one I to whom I was devoting all that attention were asleep; tired of waiting for me to get to the point. All of these boys have since dropped out, no doubt in part due to having had their patience tested for so many years. It was at that point that I began to really appreciate how teachers' will to leave no one behind often pulls everyone down and drill holes in the hull of an already sinking ship. Since then, I've tried to raise the bar and have the students grab it instead of lowering it so the weakest can hurdle it while the strong students couldn't be bothered to leave the starting blocks.

On the plus side, another teacher and I organized a graduation trip to Rome and Athens without really thinking about it. We asked for money, and it came (one-third of it came six months after we had taken the trip, but that's splitting hairs, right). We asked to go into the Vatican Vaults, and they let us in. I was supposed to go on a leave of absence on the day I left Wakeham to go on the trip and I asked to get paid. To my utter surprise, the school board paid me to go to Europe.

The North also offered up enough money for Sophie and I to use the break between my contracts to go to Cuba and cycle around for a month. And what a month. But even during our tropical sojourn to Cuba, we felt a little sub-arctic village pulling us back. Mid-way through the trip, we called our neighbours only to find out that our favourite student had killed himself. I know we're not supposed to have favourites, but anyone who taught that boy knows what I'm talking about.

To be brutally honest with you, the part that I found most frustrating was that I wasn't here when it happened. I'm not so naive as to think I could, or better yet should, have done something to stop it from happening. My motives were much more selfish than that. I wanted to be here for my own grief, for my personal closure... and to not miss it. I needn't have worried. We arrived back here only to have another student take her own life a couple of weeks later.

Finally, upon coming back to Nunavik, Sophie became pregnant with Evie. I mean it. Upon arrival in the North, Sophie became pregnant. I'm not sure if there's something in the water here...

What a year. No wonder we decided to come back for more.

Monday, June 06, 2011


I packed my cross-country skis today. Up until last week, I thought this year was the worst ski season ever. We hadn't really had any snow since February, and the bay was glare ice. I had been able to run across it a couple of times this year, but found it too icy to ski for more than a few minutes. Last Sunday, Sophie asked me if she could pack the skis. I said that I wanted to go one more time.

The next morning, I took them out and skied down to the bay. I had to dodge the bare patches of land on the way down, but when I arrived, I found the best ski conditions I've ever had. I skied all the way across the bay and back, a distance of 10km round-trip. It took less than an hour. I went again on Wednesday, and skated all the way there and back. 47 minutes. And again on Friday, 44. I'm not exactly and expert skier, so I have no idea if that's any good. Let's see... google 10km cross-country ski race times... In the 2006 White Pine Stampede 10km I would have been about 60th. If I was 45 years old, I would have been close to the lead in my age group. Which is to say, not better than mediocre, but it was fantastic for me. Once, one of my iPod earbuds fell out, so I started gliding, took off a glove, put the earbud back in, put my glove back on, and I was STILL GLIDING. However the sun had been beating down on the sea ice all week, so it wouldn't be long before there were puddles on top of the ice, thus rendering skiing impossible. I knew my time was limited.

On Saturday night, I was baking bread (I know, my life is that interesting. Jealous?). I went into the laundry to get my apron. The closet door was open, so as I was walking by, I pushed it shut and kept walking. One of my ski poles was stuck in the door jamb and the door bounced back.

A sudden pain rushed to my temple as my glasses fell to the floor. I went to touch it and found myself weak in the knees. I fell onto my back and stared up at the stars (I was inside). I remember struggling with all of the concentration the door hadn't knocked out of me, desperate to not lose consciousness. I saw myself get up and dust myself off, but it didn't actually happen; I just laid there on the floor, holding my head. After what seemed like an eternity, I felt the pain rush back to my temple. I couldn't tell if I was bleeding or not, so I stood up to take a look in the mirror. I foresaw a nasty gash and some stitches, but instead just found a measly lump protruding from underneath my eyebrow.

I took it as a sign, and as soon as I found the courage to venture near the closet, I grabbed the poles and put them and the skis away. Well that, and now there are puddles on the bay. At the very least, Kangiqsujuaq saved its best ski conditions for the end.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Cut my finger

Sorry all (seventeen of you). I cut my typing finger. It's not too bad, just painful while typing. Actually, I use four fingers to type, but blogging and reminiscing will have to wait a day or two. It's okay, I was looking for an excuse to take a mini-break. It's hard to be productive every day. I realized that the quality has been going downhill, and I probably need to recharge anyway.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Second Year

At the end of my first year, I had a meeting with the principal. He informed me that he was trying to get one of the problem students who needed to repeat grade 7 into another program called Individual Paths of Learning (or IPL). I told Sophie. She made me promise that this kid, who drove me crazy, would not be in my class in the following year, or we would not be coming back. I did.

What she didn't know was that it was still up in the air when I left with three weeks left in the school year. Sophie was 8 1/2 months pregnant, and I didn't want to miss the birth of my son, so I wrapped up exams early, planned a few projects for my replacement, and went to Montreal.

A couple of weeks later, the principal called me up and told me that the student who was supposed to go into the IPL program would repeat grade 7 and again be in my class. There was just no way around it. I had had such a hard time with him, but I really did not want to leave Kangiqsujuaq just like that. So, I neglected to tell Sophie.

Let me tell you, when we arrived and I announced my class list to her, she wasn't very impressed with me. However, secretly I think she was glad that I hadn't told her. She wanted to come back too.

I had a much more enjoyable year. Despite the challenges posed by the student in question, I had a much stronger and more well-behaved group than in my first year. It certainly helped that I had a year of experience under my belt. At the time, I thought that four of my students would graduate in five or six years. We were able to do much, much more than my first year class. At the end of the year, I was generally more upbeat about education in Nunavik.

However, even though I had a more agreeable year, the results are much the same. From that first tough year with the enormous behavioural problems, I had one student who made it as far as grade 10. From my second year, so far there is one in grade 10, with the possibility of one more moving up to grade 10 next year. The others, for one reason or another, have all dropped out.

Uggghhh. That's not exactly an uplifting note to end on, but I'm just not feeling it today.

Monday, May 30, 2011

First Year

My first year was tough. Like all first year teachers, I sucked. Fortunately, I had the toughest class in the school. I was faced with inappropriate, unacceptable behaviour on a daily basis, and I had no skills to deal with it. I often found myself frustrated, even angry, and on several occasions I lashed out at my students. I basically felt overworked and under-appreciated.

Every year, the school board holds a "teacher appreciation week". There is very little fan fare, and almost no activity, but the local administration usually doles out gifts from head office and buys everyone coffee and cake. The head office communications officer also send out a message to the teachers thanking them for their service. It's not much, but there's nothing teachers the world over like more than appreciation (except possibly the sympathy that comes along not being appreciated enough).

During my second year, the long-time principal of a couple of KSB schools sent out a message to the entire board thanking everyone for their hard work, but also asking the teachers to try to "limit the damage" they inflict upon the students. Admittedly, I remember feeling a bit hurt by his message, but in retrospect I see it differently.

There's nothing like a good scolding from someone who has been up here a long time to get the hair on the backs of the teachers' necks to stand up. Teachers in general, but especially those who work with disadvantaged students are used to hearing from their friends about how "noble" their profession is or how "admirable" their patience, dedication, and perseverance are. Some teachers get infected by what I call their selfleshness and start to believe the hype. I've heard such things as "I'm tired of giving," or "I give, and I give, and I give, and what do I get out of it (lots of $, it's a job!)". Once, I even heard a teacher justify keeping some school property by saying, "I've given enough to that school". Seriously.

Now, before everyone thinks I'm anti-teacher, I realize that most teachers do not say things like that. However, we're certainly not used to being accused of inflicting damage upon the students we are ostensibly trying to help. I'll be the first to admit that I probably inflicted some damage during my first year. I had no idea what I was doing, and my class was so difficult that it had been split into two the year before I arrived in an effort to maintain the teachers' sanity. One of them stuck it out until the end of the year, God bless her heart, but couldn't take it anymore and left. Which is where I came in.

I faced many, many challenges that year. Some of the behaviour was clearly unacceptable to anyone regardless of culture, but much of it had to do with neither me nor the students knowing what to expect of each other. While in the class, I was constantly running on an elevated level of stress, and the kids could tell. It wore me down and inevitably, I would reach a breaking point and lose my cool. It didn't happen often, but I sometimes found myself yelling at children. Let me tell you, that does not feel good.

A great deal of this frustration came out of a clash of cultures. I had different expectations of the students than they were used to from their parents or the more experienced teachers they had had before me. It takes a great deal of effort and time for most Southerners to adjust their expectations and their reactions to behavior problems in class. Most new teachers find themselves frustrated by this at one point or another.

The problem is complicated by the extremely high teacher turnover rate in Nunavik. Every year, dozens and dozens of new teachers arrive, and through no real fault of their own, prevent a healthy school culture from developing.

Unfortunately, some of the kids sometimes do incredible stuff. Violence and disrespect are fairly commonplace. Often, the kids are mirroring anti-social behaviour that they see happen in their homes. Much of the misconduct is a manifestation of the depression borne out of a loss of traditional Inuit cultural values, including parenting and education. To a large extent, loss of traditional identity can be chalked up directly to the imperialist education system that shattered many of the familial bonds that had existed for centuries.

With the possible exception of the church, the school has been the most important tool of colonization in the North. Last year, I remember bringing my students to the elders' residence to conduct interviews as part of the social studies curriculum. My students asked these ladies, who had actually lived the transition from the nomadic to sedentary lifestyle all kinds of questions. Most notably, one asked, "What was the biggest change you've seen in your life?"

She answered, "The biggest change happened when everybody had to bring their kids to school. After that, we couldn't travel for months at a time. We had to move to town."

I'm not trying to rationalize some of the things that we see happen in the school. There may be a logical explanation for the unacceptable behaviour, but that doesn't justify it. Violence and disrespect need to be recognized as such and condemned readily. Schools also need to offer positive alternatives to violence and reinforce them. However, the kids are under all kinds of pressure at school to follow a bunch of rules that they don't really understand and aren't willing to follow. Most of them go to school in spite of the fact that they don't really see the point. Eventually, the vast majority (85%) become disillusioned and drop out. The education system is failing them. It's not like we're not trying to do the right thing. We just don't really know what we're doing. Any white guy who tells you different is either delusional or arrogant.

So, when you take it all together, the teachers up here are just the tip on the pencil held by a colonialist monstrosity which is attempting to write Inuit culture into the pages of history. Indeed, perhaps the best we can do is to try to "limit the damage".

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Last summer, Sophie and I were in Montreal. We were walking with our kids and one of our generous hosts along the Lachine Canal in Pointe St. Charles. From a distance, I saw a shirtless man in cut-off jeans and in-line skates approaching us on the bike path. He was swinging his arms widely and rhythmically back and forth as if he was a long-distance speed skater. It seemed like he was taking himself a bit too seriously, so I pointed him out to Sophie.

"Hey, look at this guy...." I was about to continue, but then I realized that I knew him.

"Pierre!" Sophie called out.

It was out former principal in Kangirsujuaq. I started to feel guilty about almost having made fun of him, but whatever he didn't know, right?

"Bonjour! Sophie! James! Ça va?"

We introduced our kids and began a round of small talk. He told us that since moving back to Montreal, he had become the assistant principal of a school for kids who suffered from autism. Sophie, who for years worked with an autistic boy conversed with him about the school. At one point, he asked me what I was doing these days.

"Are you still teaching grade seven?" he asked me.

"Well, after two years of teaching grade seven I began teaching in secondary, but this year the school board moved the grade 7 class into the secondary side for budgetary reasons (secondary students are more-well funded than primary ones, so can you blame them?), and they call it pre-secondary. I thought I had gotten away from teaching it, but this year, I became the grade 7 homeroom teacher again."

"Are you going back next year?"

"Yes," I replied. "But I won't be teaching grade 7. Next year, I'll be teaching secondary 6."

"Good for you! I've got to go. I'm training right now for a race in which we skate all the way around the island of Montreal (I don't even know how far that is, but it's long. 60km?)."

Hence the swinging, sweating, and seriousness. As Pierre skated away, François, who had been standing next to us listening to the conversation, asked us, "What the hell were you guys talking about? Grade 7? Secondary 6?"

These two levels do not exist in Quebec outside of the Kativik School Board. The students up here don't start learning in either French or English until grade 4. So, they get an extra year of school to prepare for the secondary programs, and yet another one to prepare them for college. I've spent the majority of my time teaching two things that don't exist outside of the very small context of Nunavik. Explaining the need for these two additional years is pretty easy. However, explaining what it is to be a teacher in Nunavik is not.

I will spend the next couple of posts trying to make sense of my five years of teaching experience up here. I hope I can be sensitive enough to my former employer that I don't get any bad references. I hope I can be clear enough that I explain the role of the parents without offending anyone in the community. I hope I can do justice to the situation the kids find themselves in when they arrive at the school. This is not going to be easy.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

If you like it, do it

I normally don't write about my dealings with my colleagues. It's not that I don't have any interesting stories. Oh, I do. By far some of my most noteworthy experiences come from my working relationships. It's just not very professional to write about it. (If you ask me, over coffee sometime, I'll probably tell you some good ones. Hey, I live in a small town. We all gossip behind each others' backs.) Come to think of it, I don't know what the difference is between telling tales about co-workers and bosses and writing about my life in the community. I guess I can't get fired for it, and I like money. Today however, I am feeling liberated, so I am going to write about a conversation I had with a colleague. I can't get fired if I don't have a job! Not that this conversation is that controversial or anything.

I can see Sophie rolling her eyes as she reads this. If you find my writing tangential, try having a conversation with me. It's just one long parenthesis after another. You don't know how many times I am writing and go to put a phrase in parenthesis (like this whole paragraph), only to realize that I'm already writing in parenthesis (this has already happened once in this post). I have actually had to make a unwritten (until right about now) rule that I cannot double-up and employ the square parenthesis [like this] to get me out of a literary mess. In fact, I have already used up my self-imposed parenthesis quota for this post (like you care!) Anyway, on with it James!

"How are you doing?" she asked me.

"I'm great! I haven't worked in a couple of weeks," I replied.

"No, I mean you're leaving very soon. How do you feel about that? Happy, excited, depressed, melancholic?" she inquired.

"Exactly." I responded. She really hit the nail on the head. "What about you, are you coming back next year? Have you decided? When do you have to decide?" She arrived here a few months ago to replace another teacher.

"June 1st I think." she said. "I keep flip-flopping back and forth. Being single here is tough, and I just don't know if I need to spend more than a few months up here."

"Yeah, I whole year is quite a commitment," I replied.

"I admire you guys for having come back year after year like that..."

I interrupted her "I'm sorry, but I don't find what we have done to be admirable. We love it here. We get paid well to do something we like. I would agree that it's very hard sometimes, but not admirable."

"But if you talk to people in the South, they mention all of the things you give up to be here. You sacrifice a lot."

She's right, there are some sacrifices involved in living in the North. We don't have access to quality fresh produce all year round. Once in a while, there's no milk or eggs in town. But it's not that bad. We don't get to hang out with our friends from the South. However, I had moved around so much in the decade before coming up here that I was already quite used to that feeling, and besides, we've made some excellent friends here too. The biggest sacrifice is our extended family. You can make new friends, but you can't make new grandparents for your kids. At a certain point, we realized that this was too much for us, so we decided to move to Montreal.

However, there are plenty of advantages to living in a little community like this. I made sure to let her know how I felt. "Sacrifices? Like an hour-long commute? I can leave the school and see my kids one minute later. We also don't have to stress about money while we live here. And, the people here are very nice to us. We like it here, no... I love it here. That's why we kept coming back. I guess my advice to you is this," I could detect a little condescension building in my voice for which I will have to apologize the next time I see her. She didn't deserve that. However, I would offer this advice to anyone who is working in the North. "If you like it, come back. If you don't, don't. Otherwise, you're going to be miserable."

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Vatican Vaults Revisited

You can do things in the North that you can't do anywhere else. Two and a half years ago, one of the graduating students informed my colleague that the graduating class of 2009 would like to go on a school trip. After a couple of weeks of hemming and hawing, they decided that they wanted to go to Rome and Athens.

Such a trip in the South would involve a lot more students, a great deal of planning, and some fund raising. Here, however, things can happen a lot more quickly. The parents are not expected to contribute much to such things in Nunavik, but there is plenty of governmental money to be had for positive youth projects. Normally, they have to be cultural. So, before proceeding any further, I did a quick google search: Inuit Rome. The first hit at the time was about a Toronto businessman who had heard about a massive collection of Inuit artifacts in the Vatican vaults. Half of them had not been seen by the public for 85 years. It had been more than a century since the other half had been on display.

I thought, "It would be cool if we could go see that."

So, we wrote letters to the Vatican, to the guy who saw them, to anyone who would listen, not really expecting anyone to respond. It was merely a means to an end. As long as we were trying to make this happen, we would probably get enough funding from local governmental programs to get the students to Europe.

The Avataq Cultural Institute took us seriously and put us into contact with a Quebecois-Italian anthropologist named Gabriella Massa (for whom I have the greatest of gratitude and respect), who had made an Inuit exhibit for the 2006 Turino Olympics. She got back to me, and said she would contact the Vatican on our behalf. She was sure to mention that it was highly unlikely that this could happen. However, it gave us a glimmer of hope.

A couple of weeks later, Dr. Massa wrote me an emphatic email exclaiming that they had, beyond all expectations said yes! Apparently, archaeologists at the Vatican were actually in the process of cataloging the collection and even restoring some of it in hopes of doing an exposition sometime in the future. We were going to do it!

After that, the money began rolling in and soon enough we had booked a trip and were on the red-eye across the Atlantic.

Upon arrival, we were immediately ushered to the Pigorini Museum. En route, our EF tour guide (we booked a tour with them and took eave of them from time to time to do our own thing) mentioned in passing that all museums in Rome were closed on Mondays. I approached the door of the unlit, empty museum, and pulled on the door. Of course, it was locked. A security guard arrived shortly, and I mentioned Dr. Massa's name, at which point he stopped speaking to me and turned around. He motioned for me to follow. We stopped at a telephone and he dialed. He handed it to me. It was her. She said she was about to arrive. We were let into the museum, and Dr. Massa arrived shortly.

We followed her to a laboratory where we sat down, and a team of anthropologists and archaeologists brought out boxes of artifacts and bombarded the students with questions about the artifacts. The students were not ready for this to happen. After a few minutes, I politely told them that this was not a very open cultural exchange, and asked them why all of this old Inuit stuff was in Rome anyway. They looked at me funny, and I explained to the students that there was a movement for the repatriation of much of the cultural artifacts that had been taken by anthropologists all over the world. After that, the scientists cut the kids a bit of slack, and the rest of the visit was enjoyable.

The next morning we met Dr. Massa outside the Vatican Museums, which are some of the largest museums in the world. There were thousands of people outside waiting to get in, but we were able to jump the queue like millionaires. We actually by-passed the security, but a guard made sure to look in my bag, where there were three sculptures from local artists that we were going to give to the lab and to Dr. Massa. They guard was about to confiscate them, but Dr. Massa said, something like, "It's okay, he's with me," at which point the kind man handed me my bag and turned around to deal with the hordes of tourists clamoring to get in.

We were whisked away through dark, closed, and empty parts of the Vatican Museums, where new exhibits were being prepared and old ones were being taken down. We arrived at a lab only to find another team of archaeologists there to welcome us. We were brought in to the lab and I thought, "here we go again," but to my surprise, the experience was far more agreeable. The scientists still did bring out artifacts and ask my students questions about them, but it seemed to be less abrupt, and more respectful of the students. Perhaps a few hours sleep in a good bed merely changed my perception of how things were going down.

At one point, an archaeologist laid what she thought was a game in front of one of the class. She said,"How do I play this game?"

Now, I must say that many Inuit teens, including this one, are pretty disconnected from their traditional roots. But this was her moment to shine.

"That's not a game," she said as she rearranged the pieces."It's a necklace."

She may not have known much about old games, but she sure knows beautiful jewelry when she sees it. The archaeologists were completely floored. They had spent a lot of time surmising as to what this thing was, and they were not even in the ballpark.

After about an hour, we were then led to the vaults themselves. The archaeologists led us down some stairs where they opened two stainless steel doors only to reveal an incomprehensible amount of ... stuff. We walked past the treasures of the cultures of every corner of the globe. My eyes did not even know where to focus. I saw thousands and thousands of artifacts but cannot remember a single one. Eventually, we arrived in front of a kayak from the 1870s. The archaeologists asked us a few questions about it, and one of the students interrupted.

"Can we take it back?"

The scientists didn't know what to say.

"It is ours, isn't it?"

They started to explain how it was very difficult to repatriate things when there was nowhere to put them.

"But we have a museum," he continued. "There's even an old kayak in it."

They started talking about red tape and complications at which point the student asked, tongue-in-cheek, "Well, maybe we could just take some Ancient Roman artifacts instead?"

I beamed with pride.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


An important part of teachers' tasks in the North is ordering materials. This year, I was able to order two new novels for the Secondary 6 program. I chose a book called Cut, by Patricia McCormick, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Little did I know that there is a cool teacher in Kuujjuaq who had already taught the latter to three of my students. So, I went on a search throughout the school to find a novel that no one in my class had read. Between the students, who come from several different communities, they had read them all.

So, I asked them what to do. We had no more budget, and we needed to buy something to read.

"Let's fund raise."

Fundraise to buy a book to read? Uhhh, my students were apparently much cooler than I had thought. We decided on a book called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian which comedically chronicles the adolescence of Sherman Alexie, a Spokane Indian who left his reservation to go to an all-white school in a nearby town. It was not only appropriate for my students to read, but also ridiculously hilarious.

So, after a few minutes of brainstorming, we decided to do a takeout Pizza night, using the school's kitchen.

I make great pizza. At least that's what everyone tells me. It involves a lot of work, but with the team I had, it was not going to be a problem. Making enough money to cover the cost of the novels was not problematic either. There is no restaurant in Kangirsujuaq, so anytime people can go a night without making their own food (which is not very often) they jump at the chance.

The class decided, to make it worth our while, we should make 40 pizzas. At 15 bucks a pop, that would give us $600. Because of our participation in an earlier contest, we had the ingredients furnished free from the school's cooking program. It would all be profit. The cost of the novels was a mere $115, so we needed to find something else to do with the money.

"We could buy more books," one of the students suggested.

At first, I thought that this was a good idea. My students want to work to get money for books? Okay, no problem.

When I mentioned it to Sophie, she had some questions. "Cooking pizza once during school hours is not exactly work. It's fun. Why not have them buy books for little kids that they know so they can read it to them?"

Thus the Youth Partnership for Nunavik Literacy was born. The goal of the group was to promote literacy of the very young by providing them with books to read with a role model (my students) who also loved to read.It was an ad-hoc group that lasted all of one afternoon and held but one event, but I thought it sounded cool.

We started to make pizzas. I am normally my own worst critic when it comes to food, but I know my pizza is good. Thus, I was confident that this was going to turn out well. Nevermind the fact that I had not made them in mass quantities before. Nevermind also that I am not familiar with the convection ovens in the school. I know my way a round a kitchen, and I was ready.

It all started off reasonably well. In the morning I had one student make the sauce while the others prepared the dough. My pizza dough is much more humid than most, and the students had a hard time battling the stickiness, but eventually, everyone conquered the crust.

The sauce, however, was a different story. The onions and garlic went fine. It was when we added what I thought were two huge cans of crushed tomatoes to a pot that I first became aware that something had gone seriously wrong. It was very thick and hard to stir even for the largest of my students, who had sweat beading up on his forehead. I took a second glance at the cans and realized that we had used tomato paste instead of crushed tomatoes. After some reassurance from other teachers that pizzerias often use only tomato paste as their sauce (yeah, but have you tasted their disgusting pizza?), and that it didn't matter that much, I reluctantly decided not to start it all over.

After lunch, we constructed the pizzas, which went off without a hitch. We popped one in the convection oven at 400 F and 12 minutes later we had our first pizza. We used it as a test, and although I wasn't happy with the sauce, I knew that if they were all that well-cooked, it wouldn't arouse any complaints from the hungry masses.

We began baking them on a mass scale using the two convection ovens in the kitchen. We could make 16 at a time. This was not going to take long. The hot pizzas were coming out quickly, and we bagged them, ready for to take home.

At one point, the students cut into another pizza. It was raw in the middle. You know when you order pizzas and the crust doesn't go "crunch" when you bite into it? You know, the pizza doesn't stand up on its own but rather flops in your hand? Well, this was much, much worse. It was raw. I couldn't believe it. I suspended my disbelief long enough to eat not one but two pieces. Then I realized we couldn't sell them like that.

I began thinking, "Why was the first one so good and the rest were not cooked enough?" I began to connect the dots. We didn't have pizza boxes, so we found some aluminum plates at the Co-op. We only had 36 plates, so the first four pizzas we cooked were cooked directly on the large sheets that go into the convection oven. The rest, on the other hand, sat on the plates, on top of the sheets, thus leaving the crust undercooked. The one we cut into happened to be on a proper pizza pan on top of one of the sheets, which made it inedible.

We had time to salvage most of the pizzas, as they had not yet been sold, and we put them back in the oven. They weren't perfect, but the people who bought them would not be returning them or going on the radio to tell everyone how bad they were. Some, however, went out in partly-cooked form.

I began to feel a knot growing in my stomach. I couldn't decipher whether it was the disappointment or the several ounces of uncooked white bread in my gut, but it was truly a humbling experience. The final nail in the coffin holding my dignity was pounded by what happened when I returned home with a couple of pizzas for supper. Between the bad sauce and the worse crust, I found my family picking at the toppings and leaving the rest of it behind. I swear I could actually see the face of Edesia, the Roman goddess of food laughing at me in Sophie's cheeseless, mushroomless mess as I shamefully cleared the table (I should have tried to auction that sucker off on Ebay). I even started calling around and asking the people who bought pizzas if they were undercooked. Everyone politely said that they were excellent, although I wonder how many of them had to be returned to the oven before hitting the table.

So, probably contrary to popular opinion in Kangirsujuaq, I really do make good pizza. Seriously. Believe me.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Yesterday, while I was at the Co-op buying an ignition for my Honda, one of the concierges from the school asked me, "James, aren't you supposed to be teaching right now?"

"No," I replied, "My students are all gone for the summer. I'm not working anymore."

"So, are you just going to stay here for the whole summer?" she inquired.

"No, we'll be leaving at the end of June," I responded.

Then came the inevitable question. "Are you coming back?"

"No, we're moving to Montreal,"I informed her.


I responded truthfully with one simple word: "Grandparents."

"Asuu," she replied softly. I understand. "Why do you guys have to leave now that you speak Inuktitut?"

"I don't speak very much Inuktitut." I answered. "Sophie and I just know a little bit more than the rest of the qallunaat."

That's not true. I've met plenty of white people who can speak more Inuktitut than me. All but four of them are either children (like Noah), or are in mixed relationships. One is Father Dion, the oblate missionary who has been in Kangirsujuaq for more than five decades. No one considers him to be a qallunaaq, or at least not one in the same sense that I am. Two of the remaining three were teachers who lived in Kanirsujuaq for eight and nine years respectively, and for one reason or another were able to get over the hump, so to speak. The last is a French anthropologist and friend of mine who really speaks Inuktitut. Fluently. Enough to make the rest of us feel bad. The guilt doesn't actually motivate us to learn how to speak Inuktitut, it just makes us sweat a little bit.

Let me give you an example of how little Inuktitut white people speak around here. At the beginning of the school year, we hold a general assembly. The teachers all line up at the front of the gym and introduce themselves (the turnover rate is so high that the kids will not often know as much as a third of the staff) to the students, parents, and community.

This year, when it was my turn I said, "Jaimisivunga. Iliniatitsijivunga secondary six qallunaatitut." My name is James. I'm the secondary six English teacher. That's all I said.

Two things happened. First, the crowd broke out into applause. I'm not talking about a few hands clapping here and there, I'm talking loud, sustained applause with whistling and whooping. Second, teachers, some of them who have been here longer than me, began to approach me and ask me to teach them how to speak in Inuktitut. I was incredulous, almost angry, and very ashamed that white people are known to speak so little Inuktitut that three ordinary words could evoke such an extraordinary response. I didn't even know (and still don't) how to say "secondary six" so I said it in English... and yet the people truly appreciated it.

I'll give you another example. A few weeks ago, I was at the Co-op and the phone was ringing. I was standing next to it, at the time, so I thought I'd answer. "Ai."

"Aa. Levina Arnaituk." The person on the other end said. In Inuktitut, there is no mandatory small talk on the telephone to start the conversation. You simply and politely name the person with whom you would like to speak. I've been in the Co-op countless times when someone called, so I knew the protocol intimately. However, I wanted to make sure I got it right. "Kina?" I asked.

"Levina Arnaituk."

"Levina!" I announced.

There were plenty of people around, and someone in the crowd responded, "she left."

"Tamaaniungituk." I replied. Not here.

"Taima." The brief exchange was over and I hung up the phone. I turned around and faced the dozen or so people in the two lines at the cash registers. I scanned their familiar faces, and I detected surprise, appreciation, and pride. One, an Inuk teacher, was clapping. The school secretary was giving me the thumbs up. I once again became embarrassed on behalf of my people. How is it possible that we are not expected to be able to have even the simplest of conversations in the local language?

Moreover, how are teachers, as the gatekeepers to knowledge, able to pretend that we are doing more than paying lip service to Inuit culture if we can't even be bothered to learn the language? Even as we expect them to openly try to learn ours? The people here really appreciate it when we attempt, no matter how feebly, to try to speak Inuktitut, and yet we're too shy or not interested enough to oblige? That is, in a word, unacceptable.

Sure, some of us try to learn how to speak Inuktitut. It's true. I began in my first year by taking courses with Father Dion who in an odd twist of fate, has become a guardian of the language. This is a man who, excuse the pun, practices what he preaches. However, I didn't find his lessons very helpful. He attempted to explain the grammar of the language, and he was doing it in French. When I arrived in Kangirsujuaq, I spoke some French, but not nearly enough to be able to take language lessons for yet another language in French... or at least that's what I was able to tell myself, and I stopped taking them. Now, I definitely speak French well enough to get more out of it, but something keeps me from going back.

I guess the reason that I'm feeling so crappy about this is because I'm leaving having not learned to speak Inuktitut. As long as I stayed, I could point out that I was improving, even if very slowly. The sentiment is even more acute now because I feel as if my knowledge of Inuktitut is on the cusp of exploding just as I am about to sever the fuse.

I don't know why it is that the vast majority of white people who move up here do not learn how to speak Inuktitut. Maybe it's the continued colonial mentality. It certainly has a lot to do with the fact that we don't have to learn how to speak Inuktitut in order to function in Nunavik. Whatever it is, we could do better. You know it's true. Shame on us.


As a teacher in Nunavik, one never has a long commute. Sure, Kuujjuaq is now so spread out that, depending on where one lives, life could require a car. But it's not that big. There are no freeways, no jerks on the metro who won't get up for a nine-month-pregnant woman, and much less honking and fingering than almost anywhere else I know of.

For years, I regularly took the Greyhound from Edmonton to High Prairie. It used to stop in Slave Lake, but I'm not sure if the bus station still exists after the wildfires that destroyed 40% of the town last week. So, it would stop in Slave Lake for a half-hour while Orest the bus driver (I'm sure that there are many different ones but I have actually met not one but two Orests who drove the bus on that route) sat down at the diner in the Sawridge Truck Stop and scarfed down a hot-turkey sandwich with fries, gravy, and little peas (okay, sometimes Orest would get a hot hamburger sandwich too. As they say, variety is the spice of life). Then we would climb back on the bus and begin the hour-and-a-half trip to High Prairie.

Once, just as we were pulling out of the parking space, a woman ran up to the bus and banged on the door. Orest brought the bus to a stop and opened the door. A woman with whom I used to go to High school climbed the stairs and said, "Sorry I'm late. You know, traffic."

No kidding. Let me guess, you got stuck at the only light behind the other car? I digress.

Kangirsujuaq too has become subject to rural sprawl. In the last few years, a new development has popped up in which all of the houses on each street are the not only the same model pre-fab, but the same color too. I've heard it referred to as nouveau Kangirsujuaq, Wakeham by the lake (as it borders a lake instead of the bay), and East W-Bay. Actually, I made the last two up, but you get the point. Even living on the extreme periphery of the village would involve an eight-to-ten minute walk to work.

Luckily, I don't have to suffer that burden. I live in the teachers' ghetto, as much as there is one. Almost all of the teachers live on one street bordering Nunavik's premier golfing attraction, the Wakeham Bay public golf course. We've become accustomed to calling the street "Chemin du Golf" (Golf Course Road). Actually, the road has a proper name, "atsuuk", which roughly translates as "I don't know". You see, after five years, I am completely and utterly embarrassed about how much Inuktitut I can speak. I'm so out of it that I don't even know the name of my street (I'll bombard you with a rant about this tomorrow). Anyway, Sophie once wrote "Chemin du Golf" while filling out her address on some form, and it has stuck. Really. As far as the Canada Revenue Agency is concerned, I live on Chemin du Golf.

Right next to the red duplex on Chemin du Golf is the Mikijuq Day Care, where my children have been receiving their early childhood education. Our house, the day care, and our place of work are so conveniently located that we may have the shortest commute in the world of any parents who brings their kids to day care before going to work.

I'm not exaggerating. The day care is next to our house. It takes Noah sixty seconds to walk there (although most of the time he requests "something to ride" like a sled or bike before we leave the house). From there, the school is across the parking lot, a mere seventy seconds away. I timed it. Twice. We often leave the house at ten minutes to nine, drop the kids off at day care (which invariably consists of taking off at least three layers of their clothes), before heading out the door and over to the school where we can be comfortably in our classrooms before the bell sounds at the top of the hour.

I don't think such a short commute is possible in Montreal. Sure, it would be possible to live in a building which houses one's work, home, and childcare service. However, living and commuting in such a building would most likely involve waiting for elevators, a contingency that would inevitably have to be included in the time line of the daily routine.

All of this to say that life in a little northern village can be challenging, for sure. We are isolated from many of our friends and family, whom we miss dearly. We must make all of our own meals from scratch from a limited selection of ingredients. However, our commute is one of the many, many advantages of living here. And I'm sure I'll appreciate it even more as I'm commuting at least a half hour (if I'm extremely lucky) on the way to work in Montreal.

I love my commute. Love it. Love it. Love it. Who said that you don't know what you got till it's gone, anyway?

Sunday, May 22, 2011


BluePrint for Life arrived today. What's BluePrint for Life?

BluePrint is the brainchild of Stephen Leafloor, Ottawa area social worker and one of the founding members of the legendary Canadian Floor Masters, a break dance crew from the early 1980s. Leafloor, whose B-boy name is Buddha, makes his living these days by combining hip hp and social work. He takes people from hip hop culture (b-boys and b-girls, DJ's, beat boxers, rappers, spoken word artists) and brings them into at-risk communities all over Canada, spreading positivity and agency among the communities' youth. A sizable chunk of BluePrint's time is spent in the Arctic, and much of that in Nunavik.

Last fall, BluePrint spent a week in Kangiqsujuaq. For one week, Blue Print completely took over the secondary program in our school. The students had a wonderful time. The mornings were spent dancing and the afternoons provided workshops that touched on social issues that the many of the youth in our village unfortunately have to struggle with from day to day.

From the beginning, I could see that this project would have mass appeal among students and drop-outs alike, and I wanted to jump on board as well as I could. But something was bothering me, so I asked Buddha about it.

"Buddha, this is a great project. I really love what you're doing here. I just have one question for you: what do we do when you're gone? I mean, the students will have a wonderful time and probably do some short-term healing, but what are they going to do when you're not here to help them and they have to go back to their (sometimes ab)normal lives?"

"Yeah, sustainability is always a problem. Some people in other communities started hip-hop clubs. If you want, later on in the week, I'll give you some stuff that can help you start one up."

The week was wonderful. The students were introduced to a world that they had previously known only through 50 Cent videos and "Step-up 2" (I'm old, there's probably like "Step up 14" by now). BluePrint's dancers are some of the best b-boys and b-girls in Canada. They showed them all kinds of moves and short choreographies in preparation for a one-night only dance battle that took place on the Friday night. They brought powerful and innovative messages, and the dancers drew upon their own personal experiences to show the kids that it was okay to open up and seek help. At best, Buddha and his crew were able to help the kids open up and give them a few tools to deal with their growing pains. At the very least, BluePrint provided the kid with a week-long break from whatever their usual circumstances happened to be. It was marvelous.

On the Thursday afternoon, the dancers and kids formed a cipher, which is the circle in which b-boys and b-girls perform their solos and short dances to show off their skills. I was impressed by just how much they had learned, and even more so by how much they were willing to put themselves out there.

One of my former students, who I had in my very tough first year (he was the brightest and one of the toughest students) challenged me to show off what I had learned. I had participated off-and-on during the week, and hadn't really learned much. I declined.

"James," he replied. "You always push me to try stuff that I don't want to do. Now it's your turn."

I didn't know what to say, but I didn't have anything to offer, so despite much insisting by the people around me, I couldn't find myself able to do it. I'm not exactly a hip hop guy, and I really don't dance. However, I don't wear hypocrisy very well, so, I decided to dedicate myself to learning something that I could perform without completely embarrassing myself at the dance battle. About 30 hours later, I found myself break dancing and throat singing in front of the whole community. I found myself break dancing and throat singing in front of the whole community.

BluePrint afforded one of my former students the opportunity to turn the tables on me. He found the confidence to challenge and inspire me to step out of my comfort zone and do something I never thought I would do. Good for him, and good for me too. I had a blast.

So, BluePrint's back this week to do poetry, dance, and healing workshops after school with some of the kids. I'll let you know what happens.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

One Month

In one month, I'll be leaving Kangiqsujuaq, not knowing when or if I'll .... that's right. You read it correctly. It will be one more month before we go.

Originally, Noah and I were going to leave on June 8th to get our new 95-year-old house ready to inhabit before Sophie and Evie arrived on the 22nd. Indeed, there is a lot to do; much more than two weeks' worth of effort could provide. The house needs to be painted from top to bottom. We have no furniture, save a couple of mattresses and an old table and a few chairs that Sophie found on the street many years ago. We have no appliances except for the ancient dishwasher that our tenants left behind when they moved into their new house. We need new faucets in the kitchen and the bathroom, new window treatments (I think), and then there is the matter of receiving all of our many boxes of crap that we send South from here and have in storage that we're somehow magically going to fit into 750 sq. ft. of living space. And that's before we get to the real renovations that will eventually have to happen at one time or another. You can probably see where my desire to get a head start on all of this was coming from.

However, as the departure date grew nearer, I decided that I couldn't just leave like that. If I left that early, I would miss the end of the year, the graduation, and the traditional time when people get to say goodbye to those people who will not be returning. Most of all, however, I didn't want to leave early.Much of the time , I feel like I don't want to leave at all. Since moving out of my parents' house, I have never lived in one place for as long as I've lived in Kangirsujuaq.

I would never go as far as to say that I consider it my home town. I remember once during me first year, I saw some young men walking around the school. They seemed to just be loitering, and as far as I knew, they weren't students. I followed them, meaning to ask them if I could help them find someone or something, but eventually, they stopped by the office and began speaking to the schools' centre director. He is not originally from Kangirsujuaq, but Quaqtaq, the neighbouring village to the Southeast. He moved to Wakeham more than thirty years ago and has since become very involved in the community. He and his wife are preachers at one of the local churches. I basically saw him as one of the community leaders.

A few minutes later, after the young men had left, I went up to the centre director and asked him what those two young men were doing in the school. He said, "those are some of the original inhabitants of Kangirsujuaq. They have the right to ask me what I am doing here."

It reminds me of this joke I once heard about small-town Vermont:

There are these two old guys sitting in rocking chairs discussing their recently deceased neighbour, who had moved to the town some five decades earlier.

"You hear the new guy died?"

Anyway, I'm not so naive as to think that the people of Kangirsujuaq think of me as more than a johnny-come-lately, as much as they might think of me at all. When we announce to people that we will be moving to Montreal in June, the almost unanimous response is "already? Why?"

At times, it makes me feel bad, almost guilty, for moving to a place where my kids' grandparents can afford to regularly visit them. On the whole, however, I feel pretty good about the reactions. The disappointment people show when we say we are leaving makes us feel loved. At any rate, it's much better than a shrug of the shoulders or "good riddance"... not that the people here would say something like that to anyone.


On April 27th, the people of Nunavik voted in a referendum on whether or not to adopt the final agreement, of the Nunavik Regional Government. The product of more than 10 years of negotiations, the NRG would have seen the three major governmental organizations, the school board, the health board, and the regional government amalgamate into one. An elected executive would have been placed on top of it, in order to make budgetary and executive decisions.

A former colleague of mine explained it to me thus. Right now, it is as if the government of Quebec gives each organization an envelope full of money (LOTS of money). The proposed system would have seen Quebec City give the NRG executive one envelope with $300 million dollars in it, and people who were directly elected by Nunavimmiut would decide what to do with it.

For two years, I've been trying to get my students excited about the NRG. I took all of the promotional/informative material and sifted through it several times. I wanted to find something that my students could get excited about. Despite the fact that under the proposed system, the people would directly elect an executive (which doesn't happen anywhere else in Canada), I couldn't really get turned on about the NRG... and I'm a complete nerd.

I was looking for something cool, something tangible. I wanted to teach to my students (who had learned about treaties and land claims last year, and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa this year) about real self-government. This was not nearly as exciting as the Egyptian or Libyan protests, and I found that frustrating. Anyway, I came to the conclusion that although there wasn't much to get excited about in the agreement, it was probably going to pass.

Boy am I out of touch with the people. In the weeks leading up to the vote, my good friend Sarah wrote a series of articles in the Nunatsiaq News, the North's only newspaper, covering the story. One, entitled "Nunavik debates new government on Facebook", directed me and my students to a Facebook group where the debate seemed to have heated up. There were almost a thousand members of this forum, and the debate was lively. People on the "yes" side argued that the NRG would be a refreshing change from the status quo, and signaled hope in a place often riddled by cynicism and misunderstanding. The "no" side, for its part, cried out for "real Inuit self-government" instead of the public government (in which newcomers to the region could also have their say) that would take shape under the NRG.

For my part, I didn't really think I should have a say. I guess I was a soft "no" until the day of the referendum. Two things made me change my mind. The mayor of Kangirsujuaq, who I deeply respect, had spoken out on behalf of the "yes" side. I also had an email exchange with a well-informed friend who convinced me that I was wrong and that the the proposed government was probably a step in the right direction.

When speaking to my students, who were all old enough to vote, I tried to remain completely objective. We studied both sides closely, and I deflected any questions about how I felt about it by saying that I don't think my opinion should matter much when it comes to what Inuit want to do with their governance.

The day of the referendum came and during our last period, I took the students to vote. Several of them said that they couldn't make up their minds as to what to do. They argued that they were not well-informed enough to make such a decision. After pleading with them to vote one way or the other and realizing that most were not going to do it, I came up with a compromise. I showed them how to spoil their ballots. I argued that spoiling a ballot is a political act and, although not perfect, it sure beats staying home on referendum day.

We went down to the local municipal office, where the students waited in line and eventually all voted. One of them looked at me and said, "well, aren't you going to vote? You made us do it."

I firmly believed that I shouldn't have had the right to decide. As I opened my mouth to say as much, I realized that this was a huge cop-out, and entered the office with the sole intention of spoiling my ballot. The returning officer looked at me and said, "you're not on the list". I had studied this sucker for years and knew that I met all of the criteria, so I said, "I should be, that's weird."

She made a phone call to Kuujjuaq, but the person at the other end said he would call her back. As we waited, I said to her, "I came here so my students could have a say in their own government. I don't really believe that I should get to decide. I was just going to spoil my ballot anyway."

She looked at me like I had two heads. "What? Why would you want to do a thing like that?" The tone of her made it clear that she thought I was a weirdo.

There are many millions of people who would fight for the chance to have a say in who governs them. Furthermore, most people who don't feel they have a right to decide probably don't head out to the polling booth. I realized at that point that I then represented the ultimate in privilege: a guy who is arguing that he should be on the voters' list in order to have a chance to spoil his ballot because he doesn't think he should be on the voters' list. The worst part is that for a minute, I actually felt a little bit cheated out of the process. White people.

For better or for worse, on April 27th the people of Nunavik rejected the proposed NRG. There has been much debate on Facebook and in the Nunatsiaq News about why the people did so and what that bodes for the future. The results are available at Referendum Nunavik 2011. If you look at the results closely, you'll notice a slightly higher number of rejected ballots from Kangiqsujuaq. Unethically, I asked my students if they had actually spoiled their ballots. They each assured me that they hadn't. I'm not so sure.