Three kids above the treeline

For those who move there, raising children in the North is a learning experience for everyone

This week’s edition of 61st Parallel features another guest column from Charlene Paterson (author of From Bay D’Espoir to Hudson Bay). Charlene is from Bay D’Espoir and grew up in Torbay, Newfoundland and Labrador. She moved to Arviat, Nunavut to teach after completing her education degree at MUN, and has now been living and working in Arviat for almost a decade. She and her husband have three children, all under six years old.

Wherever parents decide to raise their children, the intent is the same. Love them, nourish them, have fun with them, and show them dignity. The demands and rewards of being a working mother of three in Northern Canada are unique, yet they relate to parenting everywhere.

The way our Inuit friends in Arviat naturally and casually include their children in every facet of their daily experience inspired my husband and I to adopt this approach, and contrary to what we expected, it worked. For example, at a community feast I noticed Inuit parents feeding babies from mouth to mouth, and it dawned on me what a clever concept this was. The babies seemed satisfied and not fussy about what they were eating. Despite what the books said about when and how to introduce solid food, country food (like fish and caribou) was chewed up first and taken expectantly by gaping little mouths, from parent to child. After trying this ourselves, we never had an issue with providing sustenance to any of our children thereafter. They eat what everyone else is eating, and we add or take away food at our discretion.

New trends, ancient practices

Today, while attachment parenting is trending, generations of Arctic babies have thrived by being carried on their mothers’ backs. Both my husband and I have had rich experiences using these brilliant inventions, the homemade snuggley and amautik (traditional child carrier). Without them, getting to work in minus forty degree weather, making meals, cleaning up, coaching teams at school, and traveling would have proved a little more complicated with small children. At the same time, we learned to put our babies down and let them sort things out. The less we coddled, the more content and independent they became. When babies are first given the privilege of the over-the-shoulder, birds-eye view, there seems to be less resistance to being put down. Carrying your child skin to skin for close to two years creates a practical and rewarding experience in any environment, whether the beaches of Middle Cove or the Arctic tundra.

During our first summer traveling home to Newfoundland with our daughter, there was a recurring observation about the way we, as parents, interacted with her and the way she reacted openly to the world. Most people applauded our no-fuss approach while a few judged openly. Like any new parent, we accepted cautions and opinions thrown our way but were determined to not be limited by our lack of experience. We whisked our one-year-old up around the globe for eight weeks. This open minded approach to parenthood allowed us to continue doing the things we love while exposing our children to unique cultural experiences.

Connecting to nature

A child’s connection with nature and the environment in Arviat seems to create an earlier awareness of their physical abilities, and childhood seems to last just that little bit longer for children of the North: playing in the dirt, chasing birds, riding old beater bikes, and looking for eggs knee deep in marshland. Kids slide on cardboard down man-made snow hills, not discouraged by the lack of plastic sleds, or the lack of real hills. Their definition of play translates the same as any child, however: where there’s a mess, typically there’s fun.

Being North of 60, we’ve been happily surprised by our children’s cultural adaptation. Humorously, our children are leading us in a lot of respects. Our eldest panik (daughter) refers to herself exclusively as an “Inuk” and scorns us for being the “kallunaaq” (white person) who literally cannot speak her other language. Daily all three of our children dance between Inuktitut and English, depending on the context and company. Oftentimes, Howmik will amuse herself by refusing to speak English in public to force us to figure out what she is saying. For a child who is one of half a dozen “kallunaaq” in her elementary school, her acceptance by others and identification with and love for both cultures is remarkable.

Our eldest panik (daughter) refers to herself exclusively as an “Inuk”…For a child who is one of half a dozen “kallunaaq” in her elementary school, her acceptance by others and identification with and love for both cultures is remarkable.

There is cultural adaptation for parents too. Making outdoor clothing for your family is a mother’s rite of passage up here. After having jackets made for me (and paying through my teeth for them), my interest in sewing was re-ignited when I became a parent. I started to notice how so many children had their names and favourite numbers (like jersey numbers) on the backs of their jackets, and they proudly wear a new coat, snowpants, hat, mitts, or kamiks (skin boots) as a statement of who they are as individuals. After having a few dear Inuit friends help me create patterns and sew, I embarked on my first sewing projects, and by the time Howmik was five, she had her second parka: made by mom, name on the back in Inuktitut syllabics, imperfectly perfect. The day she left our home, she walked to kindergarten with her head held high and the excitement that she exuded explained a lot to me about the exchange between parent and child in the North. We may not have ballet classes, swimming pools, or shopping malls, but we do have the same human efforts that translate into pride, confidence, and growth for our children.

There are many influential and special people in Arviat who have made us feel at home. All of our children have an Inuit name and have been given namesakes of Inuit people who represent strength, beauty, and originality. It is an Inuit belief that the name you give someone will allow the qualities of their predecessor or namesake to live on in them. Being so far away from our Newfoundland family, a whole community has stepped up to take their place. An elder across the street has taken our daughter into her care on bright sunny days to show her the tradition of preparing skins with circles of women. Friends have taken her out to pick berries.

Up here, children play under the midnight sky. In this beautiful place, a sunset skidoo ride to a nearby iglu adds a unique dimension to bedtime routines. We may not have a mini-van but we have fun sandwiching five people on our skidoo or ATV, riding in a kamautik, or simply walking together. Pulling my children to school or to the grocery store on a slide against the Arctic wind after a full day’s work is equal to any gym workout I ever had, except it is free. Strangers have shown all our children guidance, acceptance, and genuine love. Regardless of where you live, what more could a parent want?

The views and opinions in this column are those of the author alone, and are not necessarily those of the Hamlet of Arviat, Government of Nunavut, any of its departments or agencies, or anybody else.

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