Saturday, 3 September 2011

Ode to Inuvik

A month ago, I returned to Ottawa after six weeks in Inuvik. Since I've been back, friends have been asking me what I miss most about the North. After much thought, I've come up with three main (and conveniently alliterative) things: the pace, the peace and the people.

The Pace:
I like that time is more ... hmmmm .... flexible ... in Inuvik. For the most part, people aren't watching the clock. Things happen when they happen, and they take as long as they take. (I realize that this would drive A-type personalities crazy!) I like the ebb and flow of it all—although even I will admit, the night I waited four hours for the jigging contest to start was a little much. But once you accept that the posted schedule is merely a suggested guideline for how an event will go, you can relax and socialize while you wait.

The Peace:
Inuvik is quiet. Sure, there are cars—and trucks, lots of black pick-up trucks—but what is missing is that constant hum of traffic and airplanes, the white noise of more populated places. After my first trip to Inuvik, in 2009, it took me months to get used to the loudness of Victoria again!

I don't know if this counts as peace ... perhaps it's more peace of mind ... but there's no pollution in Inuvik. OK, if I'm honest with myself, I would have to say, sadly, that there probably is—but certainly not to the degree it exists in the South. In the same way you don't realize how noisy your world is until it is completely silent, you don't realize how tainted your air is until you breathe the pure fresh air of the Arctic.

The People:
As one of the TRC commissioners said, Inuvik is a model of inclusivity. It is a town where everyone is accepted and taken care of. "Nobody goes hungry," is a common mantra. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, all races and religions, able-bodied and disabled, children and elders ... everyone who lives there is part of the community. 

People say hello when they pass on the street; everyone is 
welcome at community events—even non-residents like me; and everybody DANCES!!    I love a place where men, women, even teenage boys get on the floor and dance. 

With all this friendliness and good humour, that's not to say there are no social problems in Inuvik. Alcohol and drug abuse are a reality; some kids don't have enough to do, so they steal bicycles; and dogs are not necessarily treated as furry members of the family—many are left to fend for themselves.

So ... Inuvik is not a perfect place. The cost of groceries and housing is outrageous; the people who forget to go to bed in the summer because the sun never sets, and then have parties outside your window at 3 a.m. are annoying; and the swarms of mosquitoes 
that don't seem to understand the "Off" part of Deep Woods Off are downright ruthless.

But I still love it there. Let me qualify that ... I love it there in the summer. Not sure how I'd feel about December when the sun never rises, or February when it's -50 C. But I sure love that midnight sun.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Gracious Elder, Talented Carver

I'm back in Ottawa, but I still have a few stories to tell about my visit to the far North. This one is about Bernadette Saumik, a soapstone carver from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.

I met Bernadette the first day of the Great Northern Arts Festival, or GNAF (that's "guh-NAFF" to those in the know).

Like the other dozen-or-so carvers at the festival, Bernadette set up her carving corner — or should I say carved out her carving corner (har har) — under the designated outdoor tent.

She chose her chunks of soapstone with care, then allowed the birds and animals living within the stone to reveal themselves to her.
Bernadette was one of just two women carvers at GNAF. (The other was Marion Taylor Pokiak, a young gal from Tuktoyaktuk.) At 72, Bernadette was a good 40 to 50 years older than most of her carving colleagues at the festival. She has been carving since age 11.

What made Bernadette so memorable was her carving style. As the other sculptors set to work with their power saws, Dremels and electric grinders, Bernadette sat on the floor in the corner with her handsaw, file, hammer and chisel, carving by hand.

The irony amused me — here was this tiny elder sawing away at her stone, while all the strapping young men blasted at the rock with their power tools. 

After that first meeting with Bernadette, I visited her daily, watching her work and following her progress.

Her English is limited, and my Inuktitut is nil, so we communicated using hand signals and mime. As her first sculpture emerged from the stone, she told me it was
"nanuq, nanuq, aiviq" — that's two polar bears and a walrus.

The next one was "ukpiquaq," which I thought meant ptarmigan, but now I think it must mean snowy owls (plural, versus ukpiq, singular), because the finished sculpture was a mama snowy owl and two young'uns.

Another day, Bernadette sang — and acted out — a song for me. I guessed it was about dreaming she'd turned into a bird that flew high into the sky. (She confirmed that storyline later through a translator.)

In the evenings, I searched the Internet for easy Inuktitut words to try out on her. I went in one day and said "ulaakut" (good morning); she corrected my pronunciation, so I said it again her way. She repeated it; I repeated it; she repeated it; I repeated it ... I thought she was correcting me each time but, when another Inuktitut-speaking carver started laughing at us, I realized we were just saying "good morning" ... "good
morning" ...  "good morning" ... "good morning" ... back and forth. We all had a good laugh. That didn't need a translator.

In the end, Bernadette carved six sculptures during the 10-day festival. And she won the Artists' Choice Award for Best Sculpting/Carving.

On the festival's closing day, I interviewed Bernadette (via a translator), just in case I can find a venue to publish a story about her. Then I practised another new word: "qujannamiik." Thank you.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Tufting & Felting

When I heard my moose hair tufting workshop at the Great Northern Arts Festival had been cancelled, I was heartbroken. It was one of the things I was most looking forward to during my summer in Inuvik. Within a few days, though, the workshop coordinator had tracked down a caribou hair tufter from Carmacks, YT, to take over the class.

Apparently moose hair is very wiry and difficult to work with, so the replacement teacher, Twyla Wheeler, prefers to use caribou. She also dyes the hair wild colours rather than working with the natural hair.

Tufting sounds simple enough — push a threaded needle up through the leather, then back down, to make a loop on the top-side of the leather ... stuff a half-inch bundle of hair through the loop ... then pull the thread tight and knot it to make the hairs stand on end. Then you trim the hair bundle into shape with tiny scissors. Et voilà, a tuft.

Here are the things that can go wrong: you don't pull the thread tight enough and the hair falls out; you don't make a proper knot and the hair falls out; you cut the tuft too short and the hair falls out ... OR you poke the needle through your finger; you get impatient and cut the tuft right off with the tiny scissors; you can't get the needle through the leather in the first place.

The first day, I made three tufts on my piece of leather — Twyla did the rest for me. So I went back the next day, got some one-on-one coaching and mastered the technique (sort of). Still, it took me two hours to make six tufts. If caribou is the easy version of this art form, I'm pretty sure I'm not ready for moose.
Alison and Ninja

Twyla was kind enough to send me home with a bag of multi-coloured caribou hair, which is still attached to the multi-coloured caribou hide. The cat attacked it.

A few days later at the arts festival, I took a class called "wet felting." The teacher, Alison McCreash of Yellowknife, NWT, assured me it was foolproof.

It was also really fun. And messy. And while the felting technique may be foolproof, the artistic ability of the felter is not.

So, for any of you who happen to see my lovely felt creation ... just so ya know ... it is the Northern Lights. Above mountains. With trees. Feel free to ooh & ahh appropriately.

A carver at work
Next time I come to GNAF (as it is known up here), I'm going to take a soapstone carving workshop. Rocks, hammers, chisels and power tools — what could possibly go wrong?

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Adventure in Aklavik

Every time I told someone in Inuvik I was going to spend a day in Aklavik, a 15-minute plane ride to the west, the response was: "Why?"

"It's a swamp there," said one store clerk. "There's nothing to do there," said the gal at the visitor centre, who grew up in Aklavik. "Nothing there but mosquitoes," said an artist from Aklavik.

Undiscouraged, and because the airfare to Aklavik is the only affordable ticket in the Delta, I went anyway. After completing half of the "Aklavik Walking Tour," as outlined in the tourist brochure, I started to think all those people were right — there is nothing to do in Aklavik.

The museum is long since closed; the Restaurant & Gas Bar is no more; the General Store is out of business; even the Community Gazebo is boarded up. I spent quite a bit of time taking pictures in the cemetery that houses the famous
 Mad Trapper's Gravesite, which is, quite frankly, an overgrown swamp swarming with more mosquitoes than I've ever seen in one place at one time.

On top of that, I hardly saw any people. And it was cold. And cloudy. I was starting to wonder how I was going to fill five more hours before my return flight, when I decided to go to the Post Office. I figured if anyone would know what I could do in this town, it would be the postmaster.

She told me I'd picked a bad day to come to Aklavik because pretty much the whole town was away at Shingle Point (a two-hour boat ride to the north) for Summer Games and whaling. BUT ... there was a craft store around the corner that the owner would open up for me if she was home. She was. "There's a tourist here who wants to see your craft shop," the postmaster said into the phone. I walked to the shop; an older woman answered my knock at the door: "Are you the tourist?"

Yup. I am the tourist.

Annie C. Gordon in her shop
Annie's store was small, and I felt compelled to purchase something as we chatted. I told her I was disappointed there was nothing much to do in Aklavik — not even a place to sit and have a cup of tea. "Do you want a cup of tea?" she asked, then took me next door to her house, where she fed me homemade bread with a cuppa. Her husband Danny was also at home, and the three of us spent the next two hours or so chatting and laughing. Then Annie took me for a drive around the village, before dropping me back at the Post Office.

By then the sun was out, the mosquitoes had died down (although I still had to apply "bug dope" as if it were hairspray or cheap perfume), and the clouds had lifted so I could see the beautiful Richardson Mountains in the distance. I found a sunny rock by the river where I could sit and watch the birds — and the occasional boat — zip by. I walked around some more, took a ton-o'-pictures and, in the end, had to rush to get to the plane in time.

It ended up being a memorable day. I'm glad I didn't give up on Aklavik — as the village motto says, "Never Say Die."

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Conundrum solution

First sunset
Based on my own observations, a bit of research and some logical thinking, the answer to the conundrum I posed last week is that, at this time of year, the sun sets and rises over Inuvik in the north. The first sunset after two months of 24-hour sun happens slightly to the northwest. A few minutes later, the sun rises a tiny bit to the northeast.

Every day after that, the sun sets a bit further to the west and rises a bit further to the east —until the fall equinox, when the sunsets are as close to due west, and the sunrises as close to due east as they get. After that, the sunsets and sunrises start moving southwest and southeast, respectively. The final, early-December sunset before a month of 24-hour-a-day darkness, is almost due south (but a tiny bit west).

Friday, 15 July 2011

A Conundrum

July 15, 12:30 a.m.
Something I've been thinking about whenever I gaze out at the sun in the middle of the night ...

According to the National Research Council, the sun will set over Inuvik — for the first time in two months — on July 21 at 2:22 a.m. It will rise again 19 minutes later.

We know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. So ... when it sets and rises in virtually the same spot on the horizon, is that east or west?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Three More "Restaurant" Reviews

One is a bar, one is the rec centre and one is the Legion — but they all count as "Places to Eat in Inuvik," according to the Inuvik Tourism Centre. And two of them are surprisingly good.

The first time I went to the Twisted Ladle, aka the concession stand at the Midnight Sun Rec Centre, there were no tables. They had been taken out for the TRC event and hadn't been replaced yet. But I found one around the corner, in a hallway, and pulled up a chair to eat my chicken quesadilla. It was fantastic! So ... atmosphere 0, food 10!

A few days later, I accidentally went back to the Twisted Ladle with my new friend Mary. We were already at the rec centre, having just painted some walls for the upcoming Great Northern Arts Festival. (More on that in a future blog.) I was on my way home, but Mary asked if I'd go to brunch with her and, since we were already at the rec centre, it made sense to eat there. We both had Greek omelettes with home fries. Again, the food was amazingly good. This time, too, there were tables — those long, wooden ones they have at summer camp. So ... atmosphere 2, food 10! (Expensive, though ... $15 for the omelette, ditto for the quesadilla.)

Also in the atmosphere 2, food 10 category is Café 220, better known as lunch at the Legion. It looks like ... well ... a Legion. But again, excellent food. I only had corn chowder because the lunch that day was a full-on roast chicken dinner, and I didn't want to eat that much at that moment. (It looked, and smelled, really good,
though.) At $5, I'd say that soup is probably the best deal in town. Cheap and filling and yummy! I will go back and have the chicken another day when I'm hungrier.

The Mackenzie Hotel has two eating places — Tonimoe's Restaurant and Shivers Lounge. I have yet to go to Tominoe's but I've been to Shivers three times now. The first time, I just went for a glass of wine ... now I know what Pine Sol tastes like ...

The second time, I tried a different wine (thumbs-up) and had dinner with another new friend, Marie-Claude. Fries were good but the chicken burger was bland, bland, bland. Third time, I went with three other new friends (I've made more friends in Inuvik in three weeks than I have in Ottawa in 10 months!) — Samantha, the local newspaper editor/reporter; Sheena, the yoga teacher/greenhouse manager; and Amy, a speech therapist at the hospital/yoga classmate. A different wine again (thumbs-up again) and pretty good chicken wings. So overall, atmosphere 8, food 5 at Shivers.

There are still six dining establishments on my list — and four of them scare me. But what I've learned in Inuvik is that you can't judge a diner by its décor ...

Monday, 11 July 2011

TRC Reflections — Part 2

At the end of the final day of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Northern National Event in Inuvik, a teenaged boy took the microphone.

"Commissioners, I'd like to invite you to a birthday party," he said, before taking the hand of Commissioner Wilton Littlechild and leading him - and a procession of residential school survivors - to a full-on cake-and-candles celebration.

Like thousands of other residential school survivors, Chief Littlechild never had a birthday party when he was a boy. Children at residential schools weren't allowed to celebrate their birthdays. To this day, some survivors don't even know when their birthdays are.

So on July 1, as Canada was whooping it up with Will and Kate, the TRC was hosting a "Special Birthday Ceremony" for residential school survivors in Inuvik.

As we entered the party room, each of us got a cupcake with candle and a birthday card. Before long, we all lit our candles, someone dimmed the lights, and the performers onstage led us in singing "Happy Birthday to You" - twice in English, before members of the different nations sang in their own languages: Inuvialuktun, Gwich'in and Slavey.

While some party-goers were clearly excited by the celebrations, others shed tears. This birthday party marked the end of an emotional week, four days of reliving past hurts while renewing long-lost friendships, alternately feeling the
pain of the past and the joys of newfound hope amid cultural celebration. This particular soirée, like the entire TRC event, couldn't help but be bittersweet.

When it came time to blow out the candles, I noticed a number of the now-elder (or at least middle-aged) birthday boys and girls putting a lot of thought into their wishes before they closed their eyes and blew. Then ... lights up, some musical entertainment and dinner.

The main course at the community feast that night was spaghetti and meatballs - the chef told me he figured that's what would be on the menu at a birthday party!

The TRC shindig was the second ceremonial birthday celebration I've attended in Inuvik. The first happened a week earlier at a Gwich'in pre-TRC gathering on the banks of the Mackenzie River. At this party, an elder, a youth and the head of the Gwich'in Tribal Council, together, cut a birthday cake before we all joined in with a sing-along Happy Birthday and yet another feast.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Yoga in the Greenhouse

Nothing grows in Inuvik. For gardeners familiar with the zone system (in which Victoria is Zone 8 and Ottawa is Zone 4, for example), Inuvik is Zone 0. The only things that grow here are stunted willow, birch and spruce trees, a few Arctic grasses and wildflowers ... and, surprisingly, dandelions.

The town is built on permafrost, meaning only the top few centimetres of soil thaw in summer; below that, it's frozen solid year-round. You can't plant flowers, fruit or herbs - and tomatoes are definitely out of the question.

But you can't keep dedicated gardeners from growing so, 12 years ago, a group of green thumbs got together and convinced the town council to recycle an old hockey arena rather than tearing it down. Today that old rink has a plexiglass roof and is a Community Greenhouse, open May to October every year.

It's an amazing place that houses 74 four-by-eight-foot garden plots that residents rent out for about $100 a year. Every gardener commits to volunteering 15 hours each season to keep the greenhouse going - with such duties as filling water barrels, turning the compost, running the gift shop, mixing fertilizer, that sort of thing.

In addition, volunteers tend plots designated for the Food Bank, elders or youth groups.

When I first arrived in Inuvik, three weeks ago, I took a wander through the greenhouse and saw lots of little plants sprouting. I said hello to the lone gardener who was working on her plantings.

Earlier this week, I re-visited the greenhouse. This time, the place was a jungle - and a hub of community activity. Rhubarb, strawberries, lettuce, chives, basil, peas, arugula are now in full production. Tomatoes, zucchini, beans, potatoes, dill, peppers, cucumbers are well on their way.

First visit
Gardeners galore were there sharing seeds, giving each other advice and catching up on gossip while weeding, watering and harvesting. I ran into a few new friends and met a few more.

Three weeks later
And that's how I ended up back at the greenhouse last night for yoga class. The gal who manages the garden side of things (Sheena Greenhouse, as she calls herself) is also a yoga instructor, who was about to hold her first yoga class in the meeting room that overlooks the greenhouse. She invited me to join in.

It was a great class in an unexpected venue. With every deep inhale came a lungful of humid, soil-and-fertilizer-filled air. With every exhale, we breathed out new CO2 to
feed the plants. And the light that floods in, day and night, nurturing the garden beds all summer long also gave a boost of energy to us yogis as we, appropriately, practised our tree poses ...

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

TRC Reflections — Part 1

John Banksland, wife and grandson
As residential school survivor John Banksland was onstage telling his story, a heckler on a bicyle rode up to the outdoor podium. "Take a few more years," he yelled at Mr. Banksland. "You'll get over it."

Mr. Banksland continued talking, drowning out the heckler, until a huge RCMP officer and one of the Canadian Rangers on duty led the unwelcome guest away.

When the applause over the man's removal had died down, Mr. Banksland said: "This guy says, 'give 'em a couple of years.' We've had 130 years of this stuff. It's time to change."

A woman sitting near me started crying quietly, then weeping loudly. "Go away," she cried between sobs. The man on the bike had triggered some memory for her, or maybe it was a reaction to all the people who had told her to "get over it" during her lifetime.

This incident occurred during the opening ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Northern National Event, within the first hour of the four-day gathering.

Rosie Kagak
I was at the event for my own interest, but also to cover it for the Globe & Mail. At this point, I started to wonder if I could do it, if I could cope with this level of emotional intensity for four days and do my job. I was already choking back tears. It was so hard to witness this woman's pain.

Meanwhile, Mr. Banksland continued speaking. He said today was the first time in his life - "and I'm 69" - that he'd had the courage to wear his traditional clothing. He talked about his life at residential school in Aklavik. He spoke of the beatings, the shaming by the nuns, the loss of his language, the loss of his connection to his family, including the brothers and sisters who were at residential school with him. He talked about the change that needs to happen to help residential school survivors heal.

"It's time to start thinking of yourself as a person not as a number. My number was Number 29 in Aklavik, and that was all I was identified as for a while. It's time to realize we are people. We are not a number, we are not a statistic."

Compared to what I was to hear during the next few days, Mr. Banksland's speech was tame.

Judy Anikina-Kaglik and her daughter
At the beginning of Day 2, I spent half an hour with two "green jackets," the Health Canada workers who were onsite to make sure everyone had help coping with their emotions ... including the media. Most of us took advantage of that support, feeling sheepish because we're supposed to be tough, cynical journalists. "You're also human," said one of the green jackets.

I somehow managed to listen and cope and do my job. After I'd handed in my story to the G & M, I attended the rest of the TRC event as "a civilian." I didn't even try to pretend to be tough after that.

A priest listens to Agnes Mills
I have never witnessed so much pain; I have never heard such horror stories about man's inhumanity to man ... make that man's inhumanity to children. It's bad enough to think of someone beating or molesting another adult, or tying someone up, or telling a guy his mother is a "dirty Indian." But these were children, little ones as young as 4, tiny kids who couldn't understand why they were taken away from their families in the first place.

One of the saddest stories I heard was from a woman whose older brother used to sneak her candies when he passed her in the schoolyard. They weren't allowed to speak to each other, but she would whisper, "Where did you get them?" He told her to shush, to keep walking as he slipped the candies into her hand.
Aggie Angulalik

Years later, after her brother had died, she learned the truth. "I never knew how you came to get those candies," she said out loud in the sharing circle to her late brother. "But now I know they lured you with candies and they hurt you ... "