Photo: Robert Comeau
The future of the North will be determined by the choices, aspirations, and priorities of its youth. The Youth Perspectives Series is a publishing platform for students to voice their opinions, share their experiences, and influence the debate about their homeland. The forum features articles, videos, illustrations, poems, and multimedia projects created by youth living in the Arctic on the issues that matter to them most. Hosted by The Arctic Institute (TAI), Youth Perspectives is produced in partnership with Students on Ice, Arctic Youth Ambassadors, and the Arctic Adaptation Exchange. The installment below is the first of many throughout 2016 that will be featured on the TAI’s forthcoming new website.
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Getting to experience the outdoors with Students on Ice (SOI) was a transformational experience for me and allowed me to experience and share my culture in new ways. What SOI facilitated was a space in which we, Inuit, were able to share our culture with non-Inuit but were also able to learn from each other. This helped a lot of Inuit, including myself, to come into their own during the expedition overcoming insecurities. We went on hikes in Sisimiut in western Greenland where we were shown the sod houses that Inuit inhabited before its colonization. Colonization is the deliberate process in which a supposedly dominant group attempts to dispossess another group of its land, culture, and identity to then reap the benefits whatever they may be. Throughout the rest of our trek across the circumpolar Arctic colonization was a consistent topic of conversation. As depicted through the imagery of contemporary housing in the background of the sod houses, we learned about the comings and goings of certain cultures and peoples. Whether it was the Vikings at the beginning of the millennia who brought new technologies, the whalers who brought disease, or missionaries that brought religion; Inuit have remained culturally resilient through contact.
So now picture this, 150+ individuals travelling through the homeland of about 40% of these individuals in the group. Considered by many the final frontier, the Arctic is a rich cultural landscape characterized by how Inuit came to interact with the rest of the world. The number of questions directed at Inuit about Inuit on the expedition was unrepentant. I guess this is just exacerbated when you’re one of the biggest and loudest considering that Inuit are known to be on the shier side. But these questions would come as we were travelling on the water, hiking around, or participating in workshops. During one of our landings we took core samples from a pond and studied its ecosystems. The biologist explained that you can identify the different time periods from the core samples. Each time period brought with it something different. So here you have the perfect allegory. Picture Inuit as the pond we were sampling, now picture the different characteristics of the sample from each time period as a new waves of colonization. Continue drawing this picture in your head by imagining a group of people analyzing the different samples (waves of colonization). What changes did this matter bring? How did these changes come to manifest themselves? What can we say about the ecosystem from which the samples come from? These questions are fundamentally the same questions that were consistently being asked by non-Inuit to Inuit. When did you guys move from sod houses to contemporary homes? Did all Inuit want to move into contemporary structured homes? Was the rest of the world living in contemporary homes? Maybe that’s as far as I’ll push the basis of this image. The importance of this imagery is to point out the ways in which SOI facilitates conversations that ask questions about the different waves of colonization (samples) and challenges every expeditioner to ask themselves the difficult questions. This was what reconciliation looks like to me.
Another instance in which it was apparent that SOI engenders reconciliation would be when another Inuk student and others gathered during a hike to build an Inuksuk together. An Inuksuk is a rock land marker constructed by an Inuk. If you watched the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, you will have seen one before, it’s the logo. These land markers had many different uses. Such as highlighting a trail, pointing to hunting grounds, or helping coral caribou in a valley. They are also built as a simple reminder to the next traveler that someone has been there previously. This is the kind the young Inuk was building on this hike. The Inuksuk is used today as a symbol of Inuit culture and pride as well as Canadian pride… As I stood and watched, I was asked questions about the Inuksuk and about Inuit culture. What’s he making? Why is he doing it? Wasn’t that the logo to the Olympics? Do all Inuit agree with it being used as a logo? Some questions were easier to answer than others. As difficult as some of the answers were to come up with, I knew that I could count on my fellow Inuit if I blundered or didn’t know the answer. What I experienced in that moment answering those questions was a feeling of pride. Having lived in an urban setting for many years, this opportunity to share who I am with people from around the world was unique and amazing. This is because I had to overcome my own personal insecurities with my Inuk identity. These insecurities stem from instances of lateral violence and intergenerational trauma of the Canadian colonial project.
Further along the SOI journey we pulled into Uummannaq, a town north of Sisimiut on the coast, and had to wait for a bit on the deck of a ship taking in the sight of the icebergs and each other’s company. A group of people were watching and then participating in traditional Inuit survival games. One of my part time jobs is presenting and facilitating these games. So to have Inuit from all over Canada teach me how to play these games a bit better, or their version of the game which various across Inuit Nunangat (places Inuit live) was something I will never forget. We got students from the south as well to join in on the activities and learn why our ancestors played these games and why we play them today. Before moving into contemporary societies, Inuit needed to stay limber and fit for the hunt, so they developed a variety of physically demanding “games”. These games are still played today in communities as well as international competitions like the Arctic Winter Games. These games are primarily corporal (body weight) and take little necessary equipment. But above all else these games challenge the player just as much mentally as physically. Usually pitting one player against another in competition style, these games help our ancestors survive a harsh reality. We play these games today to honor the hard work of our ancestors and to continue on pushing ourselves as a culture. Consequently, the individual personal connections created during our impromptu competition on the deck captures both learning from your environment as well as experiencing it.
It is a rare opportunity in today’s world to be able to cross traditional (aka Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, Indigenous Knowledge etc.) and scientific knowledge sharing and learning, and I was able to do it with world class educators. When two completely different ways of knowing collide, the consequences can be disastrous. Just ask any survivor of the Canadian Residential School system and they’ll be able to tell you how they were perceived by their colonizer. The Canadian Colonial project aims to dispossess an Indigenous person of their Indigenous ways of living and knowing. SOI does the complete opposite and empowers its Indigenous expeditioners and our ways of life. The expedition taught me how to step outside of my way of knowing to gain a greater appreciation as well as how to step into my way of knowing with confidence. It has also enabled me to help others in their efforts to step outside of the comfort their knowledge and step into something that isn’t as comfortable. SOI endows the individual to find itself within the collective. If reconciliation is to happen, it must embody the same ideas of self-analysis and empower those that have been systematically marginalized.
Living in four different Arctic countries under different Land Claim Agreements or Treaties, Inuit have been the subject discriminatory governmental policies since their appearance in our lives. However, this does not define who we are as a people. An example of this policy would be how government paternalistically attempted to define who an “eskimo” was by definition. In turn, my mom being Inuk and my father being Caucasian from Manitoba, I wouldn’t have fell under the government’s definition of “eskimo”. I am a “half breed” by blood and I do not look like the romantic Eskimo referenced in popular culture. I have been discriminated against by the colonial structure just as I have been discriminated against by fellow Inuit for not looking “Inuk-enough”. These instances of lateral violence are not how I allow myself to be defined. It’s easy to blame others and the system, but it takes a certain type of experience to overcome the blame and misplaced emotions. This experience is something that Canada as a nation is going through right now. We are redefining where we stand as indigenous peoples in the larger Canadian collective. One way we are doing this a nation is through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was released on December 15th, 2015. It was a day in history when our new Prime Minister of Canada announced that as a nation, we would work towards implementing the recommendations put forward by Aboriginal Canadians and the commission. By acknowledging an attempted “cultural genocide” the nation state is moving forward in the sense that this acknowledgement is just one step in the reconciliation process. We are on a new path in Canada where indigenous people feel equal and have a seat at the table with our government decision makers. This begins with empowering ourselves.
On the expedition this past summer, one of the topics we discussed was the creation of a Marine Protected Area in Lancaster Sound at the mouth of the North West Passage near the community of Pond Inlet. I bring this up because the efforts to create this protected area have been from primarily Inuit who use and occupy these waters with the help of national & international advocacy organizations. It was a great intersection of Inuit knowledge, culture, perceptions of these things, and southern interests. Inuit culture is predicated on respect for our environment the interconnectedness of all of earth’s beings. The waters of Lancaster Sound are inhabited by not only Inuit, but the animals we hunt to sustain ourselves like seals, narwhals, belugas, and walrus. This particular area has been one of the primary entry points for different waves of colonialism therefore representing a larger issue than just marine conservation. A tangible manner in which the Canadian government can operate with reconciliation would be to sit down with Inuit from the Lancaster Sound region and invest into Inuit capacity to administer the waters with our own knowledge systems enhanced by science. Giving Inuit the power to make the decision whether or not the area should be protected is a rejection of colonialism. Reconciliation to me is when Inuit are regarded as the stewards of the water, the air, and the land.
Organizing expeditions with people from all over the world, including Indigenous people, was a demonstration of the ability of SOI to enact and facilitate genuine reconciliation between different peoples and cultures. I will never forget what it has taught me about Canada, my culture, and how I can play a role in Canadian-Indigenous reconciliation.