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From polar bear country to city life

in Featured/Unikkâk (Tell a Story) by

Atelihai! Welcome to my column. First of all, I would like to say thank you to The Independent for inviting me to share a few thoughts and points of view with you, its readers. We all have story behind us that leads the direction of our thoughts — and for me, my background is strong and evident. I share it proudly. I figure that before I dig into the many topics I hope to explore through my column, I’d give a bit of an introduction.

The person behind the screen

I grew up in Nain, the most northern permanent settlement of our province. Nain is one of five communities on the north coast of Labrador, which falls under the Torngat Mountains electoral district (excluding Natuashish, the only Innu community on the north coast), and the Nunatsiavut Government, which governs the Inuit of Labrador. Nunatsiavut, directly translated from Inuktitut to English, means “Our Beautiful Land”, and we use the term Nunatsiavut to describe the landscape that encompasses our territory.

I was born in St. John’s due to complications in my mother’s pregnancy, which lead her to bed rest for nearly four months. Labrador Grenfell Health does not have the facilities or resources to care for expectant mothers who need a bit of extra monitoring or are experiencing complications. (Here is a map that gives you an idea of the distance Inuit in Canada need to travel to obtain medical assistance.) She left behind my older sister (who was three at the time) and father in Nain until a green light was given for my early, safe delivery.

Despite Nunatsiavut’s remoteness and the at times harsh living conditions there—as in all other Canadian Inuit regions—it is the place I proudly call home. Nain was not always home to my grandmother and her family. My father’s (mother’s) family is from Nutak, Hebron, and other small communities that have been relocated by the provincial and federal governments. They have since settled in North West River (where my grandfather is from), Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and then, after the forced relocation in 1959, decided to call Nain home. It is where the majority of our family resided. This is a shared history among the people within Nunatsiavut, and the impacts of identity loss, intergenerational disconnect, and the need to hold onto and regain cultural practices is present in each new generation.

I am one among the first generation of my family who was not exposed to our traditional language, Inuktitut, from an early age. I am the first generation in my family who was not expected to rely exclusively on reading the land and animals for survival. I am also the first generation in my family to be exposed to, and understand the importance of, self-governance under Canada’s Indian Act, as our founding Inuit leaders are in the process of passing it down to us. I am a part of a generation that has learned about the forced cultural changes upon previous generations, and am now witnessing unpredictable new changes to my culture and environment.

A change in scenery

There are no colleges or university campuses within a 300-kilometer radius of Nain, so I moved to St. John’s to attend university. St. John’s seemed safe and it was the closest full university campus to my family and home, so I knew I would see more of my family while residing there than if I was attending university anywhere else. It also provides me with opportunities to travel home, but to my despair those trips to Labrador are less frequent than I initially hoped. A single return flight from St. John’s to Nain is just shy of $2,000, even with a student discount! The alternative is a two-day ferry from Nain to Goose Bay, or a 900 km skidoo trek in winter before travelling to the island.

Before diving into the world and a process of self-identification as a global citizen, I wanted to explore my roots in Newfoundland (my mother is from St. Anthony and her family still lives there today). I wanted to understand what it meant to be a part of our province as a whole, and to take opportunities to share with the southern end what it means to be from the northern end. Few people have actually ventured to the north. Those who have usually don’t spend enough time to dig into what it means to be Inuk and to maintain tradition. I myself am still learning what that means, and am opening up my experiences to those who are willing to listen and to learn.

Current events

My recent experiences have found me sitting in the House of Assembly as a page, where I got to sit through the longest filibuster in our history, the Search and Rescue / Burton Winters tragedy, the and the agreement of the Muskrat Falls mega project. At the ripe age of 15 I began participating in environmental scientific studies in the Torngat Mountains and have since gone on additional research expeditions in the Canadian Arctic and the Antarctic. You may find me on Memorial University campus at any time, in partnership with the Aboriginal Resource Office engaging other students to learn more about our presence, history and future as a people. Or giving a lecture here and there about my experiences and worldview from a small community that has taught me big lessons from being on the land and sitting with my elders. Having conversations, listening to the wisdom of my ancestors and the strength of our people.

Finding my place in university and what topics I would major and minor in took a full two years of discovery. Starting out in political science and communications, then getting experience in the field, taught me that I wasn’t following my real passion. The scientific studies I did in my spare time, with different universities and partners, I realized was what I wanted to turn into a career.

I attended the last International Polar Year conference, From Knowledge to Action 2012, in Montreal, Que. at the end of my second year as a circumpolar Northern youth leader. Here, I found like-minded youth, international leaders in their respective fields, and was inspired to change my major to geography and learn more about Aboriginal world views through an Aboriginal Studies minor. Since switching degrees, I have found myself working for the Nunatsiavut Government Executive Council and Department of Culture, MUN’s Geography department as a research assistant on an award-wining research project, and the Inuit Tapariit Kanatami Knowledge Centre. I have begun partnering with the likes of Dr. David Suzuki in the communication of the impacts of climate change, volunteering my time to different organizations such as Let’s Talk Science and Pauktuutit, writing for different platforms such as Skeptical Science and Labrador Life. I find myself at home every Christmas, summer and/or spring for a hunting trip with my dad and getting out on the land with my family.

Going forward

The environment and climate that we live in is essential to our well-being, as Inuit and as inhabitants of our planet. It is what we rely on to transmit our oral tradition and histories.  We now live in a time when our livelihoods have drastically changed and the climate is becoming increasingly unpredictable. In the midst of the change we find ourselves in, I try my best to remain rooted in my Inuk identity and help to tell the world a bit about the guardians of our Arctic.

Leaders of our province (and nation) often do not realize the impacts of policies and choices that are made in the south for the ‘betterment’ of all citizens, and how removed they can be from the needs of us in the north. I look forward to our journey together, exploring the topics and issues from my perspective in the north, with hopes of inspiring others to develop their own.


Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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