Journey North

My muse has graced me with a way to sort out the new life of retirement ahead of me beginning now. An opportunity fell into my lap. I’ve been here in Arviat Nunavut for about two weeks to teach an 8-week course. I missed the first week having had a retirement trip planned for the Bahamas with Anne. After strolling palm and sand beaches and sailing in light breezes on turquoise water in the remote Exumas of the Bahamas, I am now walking on hard dry snow in a hamlet shuttered on the north-west shores of Hudson Bay; all around me is endless flat tundra and frozen water, the horizon thousands of miles distant. 

Because Arviat is flat, more so than other communities up here, it has the harshest climate. Howling blizzards over thousands of miles building to 100 km winds blow through these fragile tin homes barely attached to the building permafrost. I have missed by a week some very bad weather. And then when the winds die down, it’s still bitterly cold, though a dry cold. Surprisingly, as I’m well dressed in parka, face covered, arctic snow pants and boots, I’m walking around the hamlet feeling as warm and comfortable as I was on the beaches in the Bahamas. The feel of the snow under my feet is just as pleasurable as the sand was.

I had the wrong idea about the amount of light I’d see in a day. I’d worked in the Yukon for a number of summers and heard while summers were light all day, winters were dark all day, a tiny bit at midday. I was expecting mostly darkness in Arviat, hence planning my photography for the lunch break. Well, that would be true farther north, but I’m in the south end of Nunavut and the sun rises at 8 and sets at 5. And more it is the photographer’s dream, continuous “golden hour” light all day. Because I am so far north, the sun’s course is only just above the horizon even at noon, so all day I get that lovely low light of the ‘golden hour’ without the gold. Wow! 

I am in fact in awe, certainly of the landscape, but also the people. My students are Inuit wise family ancestors have been living nomadic lives on the land for thousands of years, and up to only a few decades ago, they have lived on this land as a nomadic people, crossing over thousands of miles of frozen land, living in one of the harshest climates on the planet, and they did survive with remarkable intelligence using simply the hides, bones and antlers of the wildlife to clothe themselves and provide tools for hunting and even the pieces for their games. Of the mammals and sea life they hunt, they hunt some very dangerous beasts: huge walrus and in a skin kayak and with a bone harpoon. One slip the wrong way when fighting in mortal combat with a walrus would be certain death.  They hunted whales. A small band of men went out to take on these massive powerful beasts. And they did it for their survival. They have no storage bins for grain, harvested berries and preserves. Everyday they needed to find food. Every day they had to shelter themselves from extreme cold. Every day they fought hard for their lives, just to survive. And they were often very cold, skin frostbitten, shivering, without food. It was a way of life; the life they lived. They had to be so resourceful. Every day they lived brought with it great danger. And they lived like this for thousands of years. They are an intelligent resourceful people who are extremely strong. They wandered the land, walked through blizzards that would knock them over, looking for food, often, for example, just missing the caribou and having for days to run after the herd with no food to fuel them, starving. For that they have a deep wisdom. I am here really to listen, to learn from them, learn of their wisdom. I will not even scratch the surface of that wisdom, but it will be something, something I can take with me, to build my life on, this future retirement life.

My students are very bright. They have deep thoughts. I’m amazed where they go with their self-reflection exercises. I am here to listen to them. I know my tribe has taken their soul from them, coercing them with cigarettes and pizza and TV. A lot to answer for, my tribe. The students are academically weak from the quality of their high school education. They have little confidence. They find managing money and long-term goals difficult. These are culturally embedded skills they haven’t had or needed until recently, just a generation or two. Of course they have in them thousands of years of the hunter/gatherer in every cell of their body, so yes they get their cheques and buy boxes of pizza and cans of coke to watch TV, and these are expensive, using up all their money and for the second half of the month they have no food. Of course they do this. It is the hunter and gatherer to consume what you have on hand, when it comes, when it’s available. It is how they are wired. A few weeks of courses doesn’t change things as the white world might imagine. This is deep learning taking the traditional knowing and fitting it to a modern way. 

I am using as much of my counselling training sensibility as my teacher sensibility to find my way to help them. They are gentle people and need to be treated gently and with respect. My job is to hear the deep wisdom they have in them, and share it back to them somehow in our lessons as we work together. Their humanity has been stolen from them. Their dignity, their self-respect, what gives meaning to their lives was beaten out of them by my tribe. My tribe decided to assert its own sovereignty to move the Inuit off the land, take away their nomadic life. Accounts of the elders here are of being forced onto a plane with only the clothes on their backs. The plane flew them off, they looking down from the plane window on their tents, their tools, their mementos, their beautiful, creative handi-work and sewing. These were later bulldozed. In-land people’s were taken to the place of shore peoples, a strange place for them, different mammals they did not know, a landscape they were uncertain of. They were made to live in desperate shacks. They were forced to kill their dogs, remarkable huskies that hundreds of miles away in a blinding snow storm could find their way back home. The dogs were killed, the breed nearly made extinct, so as to ensure the Inuit would not go back out on the land. Arviat was a Hudson Bay outpost. Inuit were forced to live here, were given government cheques to spend in the Hudson Bay Post. In the Canadian Museum for Human Rights there was a picture, not on display now unfortunately, of the Arviat trading post, what the Inuit would see when walking in the door. In the photo a clerk was standing behind a counter. The whole wall behind him displayed shelves of alcohol. The shelves beside the counter were filled with cigarettes. And why is that? Why? Because alcohol and cigarettes had the highest markup, made the most profit for the Hudson Bay corporation, its shareholders. My tribe has a lot to account for. What might one think if you take away a person’s way of life lived for thousands of years, and so take away their self-respect, the life that gave meaning and purpose and value to living each day, and in place of that confine them to depressing housing in a place that is strange to them, tell them they are worth nothing, their culture and art and highly developed skills for living on the land are worth nothing, deny them any dignity, and after all that, sell them alcohol and cigarettes. What do we think would happen to this beautiful people? Southerners make a lot of assumptions about the Inuit, about them being lazy, having no self-discipline, being leeches to society…. I want to listen here for the deep wisdom of this people. I am a guest. I have been blessed with this chance to see more of life, prepare myself for the life I have yet to live, install in me a new purpose and direction for my life. I must be silent here. Listen for the whisper in my ear of what is, what the silence has for me to hear.