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.

Friday, May 20, 2011


Sometimes, I'm really good at finding stuff. Once, when Sophie and I were camping at Pingualuit Park (which I guess I have yet to tell you about) I lost the pin that holds my watch face onto its band. I had just walked a kilometer from our tent to the park's three cabins. We were camped just past the end of the airstrip, which seems a little unromantic I know, but it's not like your normal airstrip. It's very remote. The only planes that came in during our three day stay were the twin otter in which we arrived, and the other twin otter upon which we left. There wasn't another one for a week after we left.

Anyway, the path upon which I had just walked didn't look much like of the rest of the surrounding land. It was made of sandy gravel which had been poured over the tundra to make a road. And I had lost my watch pin somewhere along it. I told Sophie that I was going to go look for it, and she scoffed at me. However, I went anyway, determined to prove her wrong. I left and began scanning the ground immediately. Within ten minutes I was back in the shelter, repairing my watch to the surprise of everyone there, which is to say, Sophie.

As good as I am at finding stuff, I am amazing at losing things. Every day begins with a constant struggle to find my glasses, and it just gets worse from there. I regularly have to turn the house upside down looking for my keys, my iPod, and my wallet, but above all it's the honda key that I lose the most often. Like yesterday. Sophie needed to run to the store at lunch, so we got dressed. On our way out the door, I began what turned into a 15-minute frantic search and research of all of the usual places. Eventually, I lightly snapped at Sophie and she understandably decided to walk to the store. After she had left, I continued the search. I focused on these two boxes on top of the freezer that welcomes you when you enter this style of KSB duplex. These boxes contain our mitts and hats, and the Honda key about sixty-four percent of the time. At other times, it somehow finds its own way into various other places in the house.

I had diligently rummaged through each of the two boxes at least half a dozen times already, and Sophie herself had even taken a turn. A cold sense of panic had begun to slither up my spine, and soon enough my forehead became clammy just as my ears grew hot with rage. And then I saw it, right where it was supposed to be. It was right under my nose the whole time, as if it had been hiding somewhere undetectable until such a time as it chose to reveal itself to me. I swear that its cracked plastic hole which once held a key ring was smiling at me. I laughed it off and caught up with Sophie.

This morning, I began to plan writing this post with James, the hero, triumphant in his self-assuredness. I had even titled it "Lost and Found". Then the unthinkable happened.

I had planned my whole morning around my loaves of bread. Such is the life of an unemployed, stay-at-home dad. I had left the bread to rise for the second time, and the kids and I had an hour to get to the playground, have Evie tire of it and Noah complain that he wanted to stay, and then run to the Co-op to pick up a couple of essentials before lunch. I got the kids dressed in full-on, three-layer winter gear (it's still cold here) and stuck my hand in the box to feel around for the key. It was gone. For real.

A half-hour later, as Noah patiently sat on the Honda and Evie was waiting not so patiently in the unheated vestibule; after a couple of humiliating phone calls to Sophie at the school; after I lost my cool and rapidly and repeatedly smashed the woven box down on the freezer seven or eight times; after I screamed out an expletive so loud that Noah, sitting outside on the Honda called back "what daddy?"; and after finally I laughed, sighed, and replied "nothing Noah" I gave up.

At lunch, I followed in the footsteps of my daily forty-five minute walk to the waterfall in a vain effort to find it. My spirits were weakly and pathetically buoyed by the fact that years before Sophie had dropped a sealskin mitten that she had made for me on the very same walk and returned to the house defeated by its loss. I immediately walked outside, walked to the waterfall, and upon arriving looked down to see the mitten waiting patiently for me. While editing this, Sophie reminded me that I had also lost one of those mittens only to have Iggaak miraculously find it and bring it home. At which point I remembered that I had since lost one of them all together.

That's something great about living here. You can drop something and it waits for you. No one else comes along and decides that whatever you dropped would make them happier than it would make you. Even if someone does pick it up, you are more than likely to get it back. Sophie once dropped a package of American Apparel baby clothes on the way back from the store and I had received the news before she even got home.

It vaguely reminds me of the time that I was a toddler and my mom hit the ditch on the drive home to Nampa from Peace River. My father had found out before we arrived. Apparently, one of my dad's friends had seen us in the ditch and kept on going, only to make sure to drop in at his workplace to give him the news. With friends like that...

Anyway, in Montreal, something like this would never happen. The car accident thing happens daily I'm sure. I mean when you drop something on the street in Montreal, forget about it. It's gone. I remember moving apartments on July 1st, 2004. I had brought an ugly chair that I had paid $10 for at the Salvation Army two years earlier down three flights of stairs and set it on the curb. I returned into the apartment and came back out immediately with a box or something else only to find an octgenarian Italian walking away with my chair upside down and resting on the seat of his bike, and waving at me. This is just how Montrealers roll. Perhaps that's why Sophie didn't believe that I would find either the mitten or the watch pin that had been lost only moments before returning to look for them.

Alas, the Honda key has not yet decided to let us in on its cruel joke. I know it's out there, hidden in plain sight, taunting me. I tell you, I will miss many, many things about living in Wakeham. I will most certainly not miss looking for my Honda key. On the other hand, I will miss having a Honda very, very much. Oh, how my life is about to change.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


In 2001, Nunavik politician and social commentator Zebedee Nungak presented a paper at the Human Image Conference at London's British Museum. His paper was entitled "Qallunology: The Inuit Study of White People". It was basically a comical commentary on European and North American people's obsessions with other cultures in general, and Inuit culture in particular. It pointed out peculiarities inherent in white people's behaviour, and also made fun of how Inuit saw white people as well.

Ever since I came across this article while browsing back issues of Inuktitut Magazine (I am most certainly one of those people Nungak was poking fun at), I have used it in my English classes to see what my students think about me and my kin.

I've also been known to take the piss out of "white people" and how we treat/change/observe/help/ruin the cultures that we so eagerly desire to encounter. I'm not talking about everyday white people who go about their business doing white things and living white lives. I tend to leave them alone. When I make fun of "white people", I am talking about that thin slice of the Euro-North American population who purposefully displace themselves and land themselves in the midst of another culture, ostensibly to observe, live the adventure, make money, or "help" (or any combination of these characteristics). Which is to say, I like to make fun of myself.

"White people" don't even necessarily have to be white, per se. A good friend of mine is an Egyptian, Venezuelan, Cuban-American Jew who lives up North and has an Inuit family. He is a psychologist who is doing great work with the kids and with researching things like the social determinants of health. He once told me, "I had to come to Nunavik before I could be considered a white guy." I digress.

I have a dog. Like every other white person who moves to Nunavik, I adopted an abandoned puppy. Some people adopt non-abandoned puppies, thereby landing themselves in a lot of trouble. I had heard as much when I moved to Nunavik. At the KSB orientation, the pedagogical counselors warned us that we would be drawn to adopting these cute little things, and advised us not to do so in the first two weeks. I was determined not to be one of these people, so I waited at least three.

I was sitting around with a bunch of other "white people" when I was trying to think of a name for my dog. At the time, she had dark circles around her eyes, resembling sunglasses. Another teacher who had spent the previous year in Kangirsujuaq, and had picked up as much Qallunuktitut as any other sensitive newcomer who puts in a half-assed effort (but no more) to learn the local language, suggested "Iggaak". Perfect! The name of the traditional Inuit sunglasses.

After a while, the name started to weigh heavily on me. Was it okay to use an Inuktitut word to name my dog? Was that disrespectful? Had I appropriated someone's voice? All of those post-colonial theorists I had read in university would clearly have shunned my choice of names. I then realized that no one really cared, and it was probably okay.

When I would bring my dog to Montreal dog parks, sometimes I would want to just sit there and not talk to anyone. Inevitably, some well-meaning owner of a less-beautiful canine would ask me about my extraordinarily stunning dog. Soon, this white person would be asking me about her name, and where it came from, and soon enough, a plethora of questions about Inuit life, language, and culture. Even now, after five years, I feel basically uninformed about these subjects, so these were not conversations in which I really wanted to take part.

It almost made me want to change her name. Well, that, and (mostly) the fact that the circles around her eyes have faded, thus making her name confusing even to Inuit. I tried to find something that sounded a lot like Iggaak and was never really successful. Maybe I didn't try very hard, but her name remains the same.

Last year, when I got back from my paternity leave, I was fortunate enough to meet Jacob, the guy who replaced me, and then actually went on to replace Sophie. He and I are a lot alike. He's an intelligent, sensitive guy. He has light brown hair and green eyes. We both went to Concordia and studied history. We even basically have the same name for crying out loud. And, we both like to make fun of ourselves. Once, when we were sitting in the staff room both wearing green sweaters, jeans, and beards, he said to me, "James, can I tell you something? I've been thinking that we're too similar. I'm going to shave."

Anyway, in his first few weeks here, he too adopted a dog. She was in pretty rough shape, and his sensitive side got the best of him. He took her in and nursed her back to health. During the Easter Break, he brought her to live with his parents in Hudson. He called her Nuka, which is short for Nukapi, which he thought meant little sister, but it turns out is a misnomer as well.

After the summer break, he brought Nuka back to Kangirsujuaq. On his first day back, I noticed that he was calling her "Rosie". I asked him, "what's that all about?"

He told me that one of his friends took him to task for being such a "white person". He asked him, "why would you name your dog in Inuktitut? It's not like you speak Inuktitut. If you were to go to Samoa and live there, would you get a bunch of tattoos on your face? That's ridiculous!"

I stood there, rubbing my arms and laughing. We both looked at each other and said simultaneously, "white people".


When Noah was a baby, a couple of ladies from Iujivik and Povungnituk came to teach the students at our school how to do traditional throat singing and drum dancing. They came into my class to give my students a workshop on these and other aspects of traditional Inuit culture. Both women were energetic, beautiful and talented. They represented real role models who my students could emulate. It was a fantastic exercise put on by the Avataq Cultural Institute, and I wish that there were many more projects like this one.

One of the things they did was to teach the children a song, which has become a commonly used lullaby in my house, called "aya". It's a tale about how an owl gets a new pair of boots and is showing them off to his friends and falls down; a cautionary fable about not being too cocky. Anyway, Sophie brought Noah into the class to take part in the workshop, and one of the animators, Evie Mark from Ivujivik, softly sang the lullaby to Noah. He LOVED it.

More than a year later, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra came to Kangiqsujuaq. Kent Nagano, in partnership with Avataq, brought a chamber ensemble to Nunavik for a three-date tour of the region. In Kangiqsujuaq, we were lucky enough to play host to one of these shows. Along with the chamber ensemble came Evie Mark and Tarqalik Partridge, two throat singers who performed with the MSO musicians in some pieces composed by Alexina Louie. It was a fantastic experience.

As the show ended, everyone approached the stage to congratulate the performers and to their collect autographs. There were hundreds of people mulling about in the post-performance euphoria.We approached Evie Mark as there were literally dozens of people surrounding her. We recounted the story of her singing the lullaby to Noah and how much he loved it, and to our joy and surprise, she sang it to him again. Right in front of everyone.

When Sophie became pregnant, both of us thought she was going to have a boy. Her pregnancy was similar, her belly looked the same, and we sort of just felt it. So much so that when Evie emerged in the birthing room, I announced her sex to Sophie like this, "It's a ... girl?" Seriously.

We weren't caught totally by surprise, as some couples are. We had prepared both boys' and girls' names in advance. For boys, we had narrowed it down to three names: Manu, Miro, and Leo. For girls, however, there was hardly a doubt. There was only one name upon which we could both agree: Evie.

As I told you in the last post, naming your child after someone is a big deal in Inuit culture. We told Evie Mark we had just given her a new saunik the way that everyone tells everyone everything these days (Facebook), and she was ecstatic. Since that time, Evie has visited us several times. She has made Evie not one but two parkas, given her a dress, and showered her with gifts and copious amounts of love. Evie (Jr.) has yet to return the same intensity of affection, but she has warmed up to her over the course of her visits. Noah, on the other hand, has fallen head over heels for her sister's saunik. Every time she visits, Noah ends up pretending to be a panther, continually stalking Evie, his prey. Come to think of it, Sophie and I both have a pretty intense crush on her too, but of course we hold back on the feline advances.

We hope with all sincerity that this relationship will continue after we leave. Evie lives in Montreal, so we can't see why it wouldn't. It appears that being someone's saunik is extremely meaningful to Inuit, and since getting to know Evie, it has meant a great deal to us too.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


I've told you about Evie's namesake. Evie Mark: throat singer, mother, all around great person (and hot). However, I've never told you why Noah is named Noah.

He too has a saunik. Noah Annahatak is a local hunter and guide for the Pingualuit National Park. I met him playing hockey in 2006. I was teaching his daughter at the time, and he often asked me to tell him if I needed any help with his daughter's attendance or behaviour. It was years before I took him up on his offer. In my first year, I could have used all the help anyone had offered, but I was really too embarrassed by the state of my class and my teaching to explain its daily operations to the parents of my students.

Anyway, Noah is a man's man. He is an exceptional hunter, plays hockey, and even usually enters a team in the Ivakkak, the region's dogsled race that runs every two years. 2007 was no exception. The race was to run from Quaqtaq, which is 180 km east of Kangirsujuaq, to Ivujivik, some 300 km to the northwest. It ran right through the village, to much fan fare.

The first days of the race were not kind to its mushers. It was disgustingly cold and windy (-50 plus the windchill, thus making it almost as cold as Steven Harper's shriveled and dead heart). The race was delayed two or three days due to the inclement weather, and the teams waited for reprieve in tents and igloos out on the land (can you even imagine?)

The night that they finally made it to Kangirsujuaq, there was a big feast and party in the municipal gym celebrating their arrival and the revival of such an important part of Inuit culture. After the festivities, I stood next to Noah as he told me this story (whose details may not be exactly correct due to four years of memory[loss]).

On the second day of racing, the blizzard blew in. Some of the teams' dogs were in pretty rough shape due to the tough terrain and the ridiculous weather. Jusippi Qisiiq, another local musher, and his partner, stopped their team short of the checkpoint because they could risk going no further. They set up their tent and got their kerosene stove going to try to ward off the cold and wait out the storm.

During the race, the teams have some support. There are snowmobiles who follow them and track their progress, and each team has a radio which they use to communicate with race officials and their competitors. Noah and his son Elijah were safely in their tent at the checkpoint, but certainly worried about some of the other teams who had not made it. He was relieved when his friend Jusippi checked in that they had taken refuge and were safe.

A team passed Jusippi, still trying to forge its way on to the checkpoint. Some time later, they too decided to set up camp too because their dogs and bodies were exhausted. They checked in with race officials, and competitors who were horrified to hear the news.

"We've set up our tent, but we've run out of fuel for our stove. Our dogs are extremely tired and so are we. We're wet, we're cold, and our stove is going out. We cannot keep the snow from invading our tent. We keep shoveling it out, but it keeps coming back in."

When Noah told me this, I revealed my naivete. "So, did someone go back by skidoo and help them?"

He looked at me with surprise. "Have you ever gone anywhere by skidoo in a blizzard when it's -50?"

"Uhhhhhhh, no?"

It was at that point that I realized how serious he was. Up until then we stood side by side, staring at the kids running around in the gym. As if to emphasize the bleakness of the situation, he turned to faced me.

"So, what happened?"

Noah returned to the story. He and all the competitors and race officials heard the anxious announcements of the stranded mushers. They all felt extremely helpless and began to imagine the worst. Jusippi, on the other hand, decided to take matters into his own hands. He left the relatively comfortable confines of his tent, aroused his exhausted dogs, and risked life and limb venturing blindly into a blizzard, in what seemed like a vain attempt to help his comrades who were in deep trouble.

Astonishingly, he succeeded. He proved able to lead his dogs (or the other way around) to the team in need. When he arrived, they were both exhausted, sweaty, cold, and still. But still alive. He refueled their stove, and gave them something to eat and drink.

"He's a real hero," Noah said to me as he stared into my eyes, even as his began to almost imperceptibly tear up.

I recounted the story to Sophie later that night. Although it was months before we actually settled on naming our son Noah, I think his fate had probably been decided at that moment.

Sophie and I didn't realize what a big deal it is to name someone after someone else in the Inuit culture. We hadn't asked permission or anything, and the first few times I saw Noah upon returning after the birth, I felt a bit awkward.

Once, Noah asked me straight up, "did you name him after me?"

"Uhhh, yes," I said, embarrassed and looking at the ground and acting like a child.

"James, it's okay," he reassured me. I looked up, and I think I sensed some pride in his posture that was virtually undetectable.

Over the years, however, the clumsiness of the situation has melted away. Last Hallowe'en, we took Noah (Jr.) to Noah's (Sr.) house. We walked in.

"Sauningai!" he said to my son.

"Aa." Noah responded. "Sauningai." I don't think I hid my pride as well as Noah had.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Slave Lake

Last night, I was half-asleep when Sophie asked me, "What's going on in Slave Lake?"

A friend of mine had posted on Facebook that he hoped "everyone was okay." I remembered having read something earlier about the winds in Alberta, and we quickly visited the Environment Canada website. Sophie navigated to the Slave Lake page (which is the one I use to check the weather in my hometown, because EC doesn't have a station there) and we were both surprised by this icon with some flames and a bunch of smoke in place of the sun, clouds, or very often in the case of Kangirsujuaq, blowing snow.

I called my dad, and he told me that his neighbour's brother had just been evacuated from Atikameg (one of the outlying Cree reservations near High Prairie). He had heard that the hospital and police barracks in Slave Lake were gone, everyone had been asked to leave their homes, but at the time, could not leave the town of 7000 because the fires were burning along the highway in all three directions out of town. Read about it here.

Since our conversation, I have had a lump in my throat. It appears that a piece of my childhood is going up in flames even as I write this.

Slave Lake and my hometown High Prairie are situated at either end of the 110 km long Lesser Slave Lake (actually High Prairie is landlocked but I spent so much time on that lake that the area is all melded together in my mind). There are no major towns in between them, and are basically neighbours.

Naturally, this leads to a healthy rivalry between the two towns. The rivalry was most exciting (at least to me) when it came to minor hockey. We loved playing Slave Lake, which was a much bigger town than High Prairie. At one point, Slave Lake, which is really situated in a no-man's-land, decided to change leagues from one that encompassed the Peace Country (and High Prairie) to another further South. Although it was early in my adolescence, I realized that this had implications for us. We would only see Slave Lake in tournaments, and not during our regular league play. I remember being disappointed even then.

One of my former teammates families moved to Slave Lake mid-season, and I remember feeling let down, even betrayed, by something well beyond any of our fourteen year old abilities to control anything. The next time we played Slave Lake, we gave it to Kelly as hard as we could, and shook hands with him after the game remembering the good times.

The pinnacle of the rivalry happened during the annual home-and-home series between the two towns' principal public high schools: The E.W. Pratt Chargers from High Prairie, and the Roland Michener Rams from Slave Lake. It was always an intense match-up between the two teams with plenty of tension, energy, and fisticuffs.

Having attended Catholic school, I experienced this rivalry from the stands. Throughout my later teenage years, we travelled back and forth between communities supporting the Chargers. I'm not sure who won or lost most of these games (late-teens in Northern Alberta have been known to indulge from time to time), but I do remember one thing. The Chargers' faithful had come up with a clever, yet vulgar, chant to taunt the Roland Michener players. Imagine a small arena bursting with all of a town's young, enthralled by the tension and energy, screaming their mantra at the top of their lungs (cover the kiddies' ears), "RAMS FUCK SHEEP! RAMS FUCK SHEEP!"

I'm sorry Slave Lake. I hope you can bounce back.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

First Kiss

I was working at the student's residence the first time I kissed Sophie. One of the animators had gone to Kuujjuaq to prepare for the opening of another residence, and I was spilling off his partner for a week save for the time I was teaching at the school. I thought it was going to be a piece of cake, because I didn't have to do much.

The senior animator made supper before he left, and all I had to do was come in, hang out with the students, lock up at 11:30, and wake the kids up at 8:00. The first six days passed by without incident. Everyone had respected the curfew and I had had a thoroughly enjoyable time. On my final day, the day Sophie and I shared our first kiss, one of the students was still missing when 11:30 rolled around. I locked the door and prepared to go to sleep. Promptly, at 11:35 I heard the missing student banging on the door. The animator had told me not to open the door under any circumstances after the curfew had passed, but it had just been five minutes, I thought to myself, "I'll cut the kid a break."

I opened the door to see a young man, who was visibly drunk at the door. He demanded that I let him in to "see his cousin". I refused. He forced his way in between the two doors and asked me, "do you want me to fuck you up?"

"No." I replied honestly.

"Do you want me to fuck you up?" he repeated.

"Uhhh, get out of here."

By this time, a group of students had amassed behind me, and they stood there, watching. I looked back and told the crowd to call the police. Nobody budged. I began to feel isolated.

"If you call the cops, I'm going to kill you," the young man stammered, as he made and awkward gesture towards me. A bottle of vodka fell out of his pocket. I looked down at it. It was a 40 oz. of Smirnoff.

As I looked up, I saw it coming. A slow, uncontrolled left hand approached my right cheek. For some reason, I found myself unable to move. I've only ever been in one real fight (which I won, but it hurt so bad nevertheless that I decided at that point to try to use my mouth to get out of sticky situations). His left landed squarely, but surprisingly softly on my cheek.

I grabbed the bottle and pushed him out the door. He grabbed onto a handle on the inside of the door. I hit his fingers but he didn't lose his grip. I grabbed the same handle and slammed the door on his forearm but yet he did not let go. I did it repeatedly until he finally relented, and the incident was over.

During the melee, one of the students had actually called the police. They came many minutes later and took a statement. They told me to come in the next day and press charges for assault.

I was uncomfortable with the prospect of pressing charges against someone who had done so little damage. I had only been in the village for a few weeks, and I didn't want to ruffle anyone's feathers. In addition, even a few hours later, I understood that I could have handled the situation much more confidently and without incident if I had just pushed his drunk ass out the door to begin with. On the other hand, I didn't want the guy to feel he could come to the student's residence in such a state at such a time and hit me in the face and get away with it.

I decided to consult some of the leaders of the school community about what I should do. Without fail, they all told me to press charges. One of them told me that he was a troubled kid who constantly did bad things to good people. She told me several stories about what he had done in the past which had gone unpunished.

Only one person, the other residence animator, told me to do otherwise. "He was just drunk. Forget about it, James," he told me calmly.

I felt even more uncomfortable about going to the police after hearing about the other things he had done. However, after school, I found myself sitting across a desk from a police officer, recounting the events from the night before. The young officer quietly took notes.

As soon as I finished telling him the story, his partner approached us and asked what was going on. The nice young man who had heard my story recounted the major events to his partner, who immediately blurted out something like, "Oh that guy? Good. We've been looking for an excuse to get him. Why don't we go find him and tie him up to the hitch of our truck and drag him back here?"

I got up, said "I'm dropping the charges," and walked out. I decided to take the animator's advice and forget about it.

Fortunately, in five years in Kangirsujuaq, this was the only time that I have experienced violence. It is truly not representative of my life here. If it was, I would never have decided to raise my son and daughter in the village.

Even more fortunately, it wasn't the only time I got to kiss Sophie.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

25 days

In 25 days, it will be over. I can hardly believe it. Last week, I finished working as a teacher in Nunavik, and on June 8th, Noah and I will be leaving his hometown, not knowing if or when we'll return.

Years ago while I was looking for a book in Concordia's stacks while doing my master's, I came across a misplaced M.A. thesis about teacher turnover in Nunavik. I sat down and read it from cover to cover. At the time, I had grown tired of academia and wanted to do something else. Basically right then, and unbeknownst to anyone else, I decided to become a teacher for the sole purpose of teaching in Quebec's far north.

It took me a couple years, but in 2006, I found myself on an airplane which was about to land in Kangirsujuaq. The two-hour flight from Kuujjuaq had two stops, as it always does, in Kangirsuk and Quaqtaq. Landing in both of those villages was enjoyable enough. I found their landscapes to be beautiful and novel. But I'll never forget the feeling when I first saw what was to become my home for the next five years. I looked out the window to see the green mountains, orange and black lichens, and the deep blue waters of Wakeham Bay. I looked over my shoulder at Neil and Sayard, whom I had met the week before, and who were to become very good friends. We all sat there, speechless.

When I took the job in Kangirsujuaq, I had no idea what to expect. Not even in my wildest dreams could I have imagined what was in store for me. Five splendid years, a new partner, two amazing kids, and the warm welcome of a community of people that I have yet to fully appreciate.

Over the next twenty-five days, I will attempt to recount 25 of my most lasting memories of my life in Kangirsujuaq, in no particular order. I have no idea how I will say good-bye to this place. I love it here. I'm hoping that writing about my last five years will help me to let go.