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The Good Life

What is the good life? We all of our own definition to that question. According to Kanye West’s song, the “Good Life“, it means:

Welcome to the good life
[…] And if they hate then let ’em hate
And watch the money pile up, the good life

For 10 days, my dad and I experienced the good life from an Inuk perspective. We were invited to join my host, his daughter and 3 other families on a canoe trip to Kuuttaak, a small camp about 5 to 6 hours ride north of Inukjuak. Our embarkations are modest relative to Poseidon’s power on the Hudson’s Bay. As we are propelled on the deep blue waters, my mind wanders along the waves, emptying itself. Behind me, my father is all smiles.

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We arrive shortly before sunset. The camp is composed of 2 cabins and 3 canvas tents. Located at the junction of the Kuuttaak river and the Hudson’s Bay, the view is breathtaking. A blaze of colours lingering as if frozen. Vivid. Beer in hand, father and son enjoying the view. Behind us, the tundra for miles and miles, immense.

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We hear the story of Kuuttaak. An inuk is being chased by a giant. After one of the giant’s blow, he plays dead. This fools the predator who carries him back to the cave. Once the colossus is deep asleep, the resourceful inuk picks up an axe and chops the giant’s head. This wakes his wife who starts chasing him and quickly gains ground. Bereft of options, the hero slams the ground with the giant’s axe and splits the earth open. Kuuttaak river is born. In a final attempt to catch up with her prey, the giant’s wife gulps up as much water as she can to dry up the stream. Luckily for our inuk, the behemoth explodes and the sky fills up with fog.

Over the next few days, we are treated to sunlight and mosquitoes. Swarms of them like I’ve never seen before. Clouds, quite literally. This does not stop us from spending our days outdoors. We hammer nail after nail to help with the finish of our cabin. During breaks, we go egg hunting on neighbouring islands where eider ducks are plentiful. On another day, we bath in the fresh river, scrubbing off layers of bug spray. We fish for hours. We throw our lines from the shore, patiently repeating the exercise despite our unfruitful attempts. The rocks below our feet display patterns that would make contemporary art collectors jealous. We do eventually catch some fish, which we proudly bring back to camp, cheerful to share it with the group. Raw arctic char, I’ve come to like it. Inuit have a saying that food tastes better when eating in a group.

The beauty of rocks

The beauty of rocks

One day, as I nail my thousandth nail through the wooden surface, Ricky distinguishes a swimming caribou. In less than 5 minutes, we are in the canoe. We drive up to the caribou, who, to my surprise, is an excellent swimmer. Ricky gives the 22 shotgun to my father and instructs him to aim for the neck. The noble beast is knocked out on the 3rd blast. The shades in the sky are simply stunning, offering a spectacle for the caribou’s last breaths. My father still can’t believe it: his first caribou! Killing a caribou is a rite of passage for Inuit hunters, kind of like a Bar Mitzvah haha.

The weather over the second half of the stay is less gentle. Initially, we are thankful for the wind gusts which give us respite from bugs. After 48 hours, the wind remains robust, preventing us from venturing out. Days get longer and nights colder as water filters into the cabin. A perfect time for reflection… if it weren’t for the dozen of kids running and screaming everywhere. At least when it’s sunny, you can throw them outside! Every day, I go out for long walks to take a break from the indoor tornadoes of youngsters. The weather delays our return by 3 days. My dad even misses his return flight to Montréal.

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Our relation to nature is deeply altered out here. You can’t control it. Hence, you simply live and breath in the fresh air. For me, these 10 days gave me a glimpse of a good life, awash from the frills from the city. A life of simplicity, of harmony with nature, and of emotions. And to share that experience with my dad is the most wonderful of gifts

A nation within a nation

Well, well. June 24th. Bonne St-Jean for those of you in the Belle Province. Last night was poker night and let me tell you no one was celebrating the statutory holiday, except for the qalunaat  (translates into “big eyes brows”, refers to the Scots from the early 1900s who worked for the Hudson’s Bay, and now commonly used for White). If Québec ever materialized its hopes to become a nation, I wonder how the Inuit of the province would react.

There’s always a feeling of second or third class citizen.

Inuktitut Syllabics

Inuktitut Syllabics

Clearly, there’s a rift between how Québec attempts to protect la langue de Molière (Bill 101) and the reality in Nunavik. This comes up over and over in my interviews, as concerns regarding language are omnipresent. One participant in particular was very vocal about this:

They know of the language barrier. It’s just Québec being “anal” about keeping the language laws… The oppressed becomes the oppressor.

I found that last segment to be particularly interesting. In my eyes, there would be no one better government than Québec to understand the struggles of keeping your language alive. Instead of providing services in Inuktitut, or at the very least in English, some government representatives apparently refuse to speak anything else than French. Language becomes yet another obstacle for local businesses or non-profit organizations to overcome.

According to another participant:

[…] The assimilation policies are still very strong. The programs are based on that. The education system: from kindergarten to grade 3, you have Inuktitut only. From grade 3 to grade 11 is either English or French. You have, I would say, 80% of the funding for education to fund a foreign language. You see, anybody younger than me, will have 25%-30% less fluency in Inuktitut.

This doesn’t stop Nunavik from being the single one region in Canada where fluency in Inuktitut is the highest. Nevertheless, according to locals, this is slowly fading.

Inuit Language ability in Canada

My own standpoint towards the issue is paradoxical. Despite acknowledging the significance of local dialects, interviews I conducted were all in English, except for one in Inuktitut. This puts me in a relative position of power towards participants less at ease in Shakespeare’s tongue. As reported in Young & Temple’s Qualitative Research and Translation Dilemmas: “The interaction between languages is part of the establishment and maintenance of hierarchical relationships with English often used as the yardstick for meaning.” Language also acts as a non-negligible bias as it often filters out individuals of lower socio-economic status. I’m currently trying to collaborate with locals who would act as interpreters and would lead group discussions with women and elders in Inuktitut.

I would like to close this segment with an inspiring excerpt from an interview I conducted this week:

Many times we want to stay in one identity as Inuit. But we are many. We are living many identities. As long as you have your values as Inuk, you’re safe because you’re always going to change.

In other news, I ate some mattaq (beluga), caught a nice trout, and messed up my haircut so I now look like a skinhead.

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Reflections

The sun is shining this morning on the hamlet of Inukjuak. As rays of warmth touch on my skin, I reflect on my work up to now. My gaze wonders to the melting river where the strong current carries off the last, massive chunks of ice. The view is splendid despite the makeshift environment of my “office”: a small desk tucked between a printer, fridge, and supplies cabinet. As colleagues walk by, fishing and hunting make the bulk of the conversations, alongside the weather.

I’m tempted to think that the weather is a starting point to roughly 1/2 of all conversations in the world…

My desk!

My desk!

This improvised desk is where most of the magic happens. And by magic, I mean interview transcriptions, matrix-building (one cannot escape from Excel so easily…), phone recruitment, following of the Euro, etc. So far, I’ve managed to complete nearly 10 interviews with current, past, and future business owners, in addition to local leaders such as the mayor. The main research questions are as follows:

  1. How is entrepreneurship defined and perceived?
  2. What are the main challenges and opportunities for local economic development in Nunavik?
  3. More specifically, why are there so few visible businesses in town?
Reflections

Reflections

If you’re interested in learning more about the project, I invite you to read the Research Proposal – Local Economic Development in Nunavik. In reality, I’m stunned by the lack of businesses in town. Other than two grocery stores and ski-doo repair shops, there are maybe 3-4 enterprises in town, mostly contracting services to government organizations. Restaurant, bar, coffee shop, accountant? Nope. On the flip side, the social economy is prevalent. From qajaq-training courses to carving workshops, in addition to caribou storage in the community freezer for deprived community members, sharing is a way of life that remains true to this day in modern Inuit society.

Progress or Perish?

Progress or Perish?

 

Does the lack of businesses imply a failure to progress? But, what exactly is progress? Too often, progress is synonymous with GDP per capita or, in essence, the capacity for individuals to generate economic returns. We equate development with material well-being. According to this line of thinking, Nunavik, with 37% of its population living under poverty, is in a very precarious position. However, one who rambles around the village will fail to stumble upon any homeless individuals. Despite the numerous challenges here, sharing is too often unaccounted for.

This is the real sharing economy.

The lack of businesses therefore illustrates a rejection of the foreign concept of capital accumulation. Nevertheless, local economic development can act as a channel to re-ignite a sense of pride. When erected collectively, businesses can empower community members take decisions in a self-determined manner. In turn, the damaging cycle of dependency towards the state can be diminished.

Reflections?

Arctic Adventures

On my first weekend, I had the incredible opportunity to join my host on a trip to his spring cabin. Most families own 2-3 cabins out on the land, usually tailored for different seasons and a variance of wildlife. The cabins or tents are built by hand and all the necessary construction materials are brought by skidoo or 4-wheeler, sometimes over trails 100km long. Moreover, camps usually aggregate a number of families and friends, which makes the experience very social. In the present case, the cabin is located close to a number of lakes, renowned for iqalukpik (arctic char).

Spring Camp

Spring Camp at night (2am)

We leave on Friday evening. Just prior to leaving, Tommy, my local collaborator, offers me one of his ski-doo. I accept despite not (never?) having riden of one these machines. I start hesitantly but the mechanism is quite straight forward: throttle and break… The day is glorious and I feel an urge to scream to the top of my lungs. The fresh breeze and the blazing sun help overcome my initial fears of driving on the slushy river. Unfortunately, about 10min in, my engine shuts off. No problem, my host invites me on the back of his qamutikthe traditional Inuit sled which almost everyone owns. We leave the ski-doo idle on the river. Clearly, a huge downgrade on my part but I try to clear my mind and enjoy the view. On the far horizon, I catch a sight of the open waters of Hudson’s Bay.

Ski-doo left behind

After a wet and bumpy ride of roughly an hour, we arrive to the camp. Some families are already installed and kids are running around. I opt for a short walk to the top of the hill to admire the sunset while also searching for goose eggs. I fail to find any of the prized eggs but the colourful sky more than makes up for it. If it weren’t for a threatening falcon (maybe his nest is near?), I could truly enjoy the view peacefully. Nevertheless, I am left breathless by the setting. All of a sudden, it hits me. Away from the hustle and bustle of town, I realize where I am and what it took to get here. Just over a year ago, I was still working for Bombardier in a downtown office. The contrast could not get any starker. When I get back to the camp, we start a huge fire and a guitar player sings in inuktitut. 

Caribou Stew

Caribou Feast

 In June, Nunavimmiut are still ice fishing.

From noon to 8pm on the following day, we fish, moving from lake to lake. Unfortunately, we fail to catch any fish. The brother of my host tells me that he’s been coming here for over 5 years and never caught anything: “I come here for my wife”, he explains. I laugh while secretly hoping to break the curse (I did catch a fish a few days later!). We meet with a family that caught a number of iqalukpik. One of them is cut in raw pieces on the snow; they invite me to try it. Once back at the camp, without any catch, I’m expecting a meagre dinner. To my surprise, we hold a true feast with delicious caribou, vegetables, and other northern delicacies. We close the day with another cozy fire. We even get a glimpse of aqsarniit (northern lights) dancing over our heads.

According to Elders, aqsarniit represent the spirits of those who passed away. The spirits will chop off your head if you don’t wear a hat. On the other hand, if you whistle, they will get closer and more colourful…

June 3rd: Discovery

Over the past few days, I have been going around town, introducing myself and explaining the reason for my stay. Everyone in the community is very receptive to the project as it relates to local economic initiatives meaning development for and by the community. My inuktitut is improving constantly. Here are some useful words:

  • Thank you – Nakurmiik
  • How are you? – Kanwipiit
  • Delicious – Mammaktu
  • Caribou – Tuktuk

Of course, mammaktu and tuktuk are intrinsically linked. However, I’ve been told that the most delicious food is beluga… It’s hard to come by!

So far, I have met with the town manager, the president of the landholding corporation for the municipality, social workers and craftsmen/women. I even went for a yoga session at the family center! Coming out of there around 9pm, the light is magnificent and I opt for a small bike ride, towards the sun which is attracting me like a magnet.

Monument dedicated to "the Exiles of Inukjuak who were taken away from their homeland"

Monument dedicated to “the Exiles of Inukjuak who were taken away from their homeland”

I discover a small monument to commemorate the relocation of Inuit families from Inukjuak that happened in 1953 and 1955, in an attempt from Canada to assert sovereignty in the Arctic. The impacts of colonization remain palpable. According to teachers and employment coordinators, motivation and confidence are low among the youth. Of course, it does not help when the job prospects are truck driver or store clerk. So far, I’ve seen amazingly talented individuals. Maybe it’s more about harnessing the clear potential available in the community.

Endless Tundra

Endless Tundra

I’ve also had the opportunity to get out of town and explore the small cabins for hunting and fishing outside of the village. The tundra seems infinite. My curiosity to discover what lies on the other side of each hill is excessive. Once at the top, the same landscape of endless tundra offers itself to the viewer.

“Does this view ever get old?”, I ask my host. “Never.”

May 30th: Arrival in Inukjuak

Here I am.

After all the fuss and the preparations, I made it to the hamlet of Inukjuak, on the coast of the Hudson’s Bay. The small Bombardier turbo-prop made a series of stops along the way complemented by stunning views of wandering ice sheets on the deep blue waters.

Nunavik from the sky

Nunavik from the sky

On the first leg, I sit next to a kind and inspiring woman from Pond Inlet (Nunavut). She works in restorative justice and is passionate about community development. She will also serve as guide for the second year on the Crystal, a huge cruise ship which goes through the Northwest passage. She sees the cruise ships as an opportunity for her community to improve well-being, but few agree with her. We share contact information and I promise to keep her informed about my project.

On the following leg, I meet with a young Inuk from Umiujaq. He teaches me basic Inuktitut words and we talk about the local hockey rivalries. After about 6 hours of stop-and-go, passengers make their way to the crowded Inukjuak airport. The airport basically comprises one room for departures and arrivals.

Inukjuak Airport

Inukjuak Airport

I look around for my “lift” but it doesn’t seem to be here. While waiting for my luggage, I start a conversation with another Qalunaat (word for Whites in Inuktitut). She is a doctor in town for a week. Kindly, she offers me a ride. Not knowing the address of the house where I’m staying, I simply give the driver my host’s name. The house seems empty and no one answers my multiple knocks. Five minutes after my arrival, the daughter of my host debarks sharply in front of the house in a four-wheeler. Despite modest outer appearances, the home is furnished with a modern kitchen, a large TV, and Internet.

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I get offered a ride to Coop, the local grocery store. My host laughs as I drive through town on the four-wheeler. The Coop is huge! Prices are high but not as much as I had thought. She then takes me through town. We stop at the hockey rink (it’s a beauty), the recreation center, the community freezer full of caribou meat, the dumping ground, and the school. The freezing wind is gusting and my hands are starting to go numb. The temperature must be around -10 or -15. What a stark contrast from my day at the pool in Montréal just before the departure!

Back home, we talk about the multiple suicides which happen all too often in the community. Unfortunately, there is little sense of purpose as many of the youth are unemployed. Many of the positions in health, education, and social services are held by outsiders. Some use fishing and hunting as a way of reconnecting with their identity. For others, drugs and alcohol are the escape. This doesn’t stop all the Inuit I’ve met so far to have a hilarious sense of humour.

Only in darkness can you see the stars.

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