Journey to Nunavut: Experience, Inspiration, and Impact

A beautiful post written by our very own Madeleine Kettner

In summer 2013 I was fortunate to participate in a unique and meaningful journey to Nunavut.  Though a year and a rockhalf has passed, the experience remains strong within me.  It has contributed a great deal to my thinking and practice both as a classroom teacher and outdoor educator.  I intended to blog about the experience when I first returned and even wrote a draft to be published for Manitoba Nature Summit.  But, technology and time limitations foiled me and I didn’t get around to publishing this piece until now.  house

The details of this experience illustrate the impact that experiential learning can have for educators and their students. I hope you will enjoy re-experiencing the journey and some subsequent applications with me at this late date! rocks


 In summer 2013 I was fortunate to be selected as one of ten educators from across Canada to participate in the Canadian Wildlife Federation`s Summer Institute for Educators in conjunction with Parks Canada.  The aim of this trip was to expose teachers to Nunavut, a part of Canada many of us might otherwise never travel to.tent  During our ten days there we stayed in two communities (Iqaluit and Kimmirut), spent time on the land, met with politicians, scientists, artists, and educators, and spent three days learning from an Inuit elder—Jeannie Padluq.  We also created short documentaries with the guidance of a professional film-maker.  My film can be viewed on YouTube under the title ‘Mussel Picking Journey’

babyboots  woman

     I knew that Nunavut would feel different than Winnipeg, but nothing could have prepared me for the shock of arriving in Iqaluit, a Canadian capital city, and discovering that it is truly a whole other world.  This is neither the ‘Canada’ that I or my family have experienced, nor is it the Canada of ignorant stereotypes (Eskimos living in igloos).  This land is a land of beauty and it is a land rich in contradictions—

Hope and Pain

Tradition and Innovationchild

Starkness and Complexity

Laughter and Silence

Emptiness and Community

Diversity and Simplicity

Patience and Opportunity

Artistry and Industry

Humanity and Nature

The sense of optimism in this burgeoning territory is palpable.  This is an inconceivably stophuge territory, by far the largest in Canada, and it is in its infancy.  The realities of bringing the dreams of this young territory to fruition bear an almost crippling weight, but my favourite part of being in Iqaluit and Kimmirut was feeling the sense of hope there.  The harsh realities of social challenges such as inadequate education, poor living conditions, substance abuse, and the ramifications of a colonial past (and present) are evident even to an outsider like me.  But the warmth and humour, skill, strength, and vibrancy of the people and their culture is overwhelming.  This is a resilient territory.  This is a place where change is possible and traditions are being kept alive within the nation of Canada.

 As Wade Davis writes in his book The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, “In many ways Canada is leading the way [in the way that the world views and values culture]…I am reminded of this every time I travel in the Arctic, especially to Nunavut, the new territory, a homeland roughly the size of western Europe now under the administrative control of 26,000 Inuit people…Nunavut’s very existence is a powerful statement to the world that Canada recognizes that unique ethnicities, indigenous peoples, First Nations, do not stand in the way of a country’s destiny; rather they contribute to it, if given a chance” (204).bears

Jeannie explained to us (via a translator) her frustration with the way polar bear and seal hunting are “villainized” in popular Canadian culture.  In Nunavut, hunting is strictly regulated via a tag lottery system, and Jeannie is quick to emphasize that no Inuk would have a desire to hunt polar bears in an unsustainable manner.  But the “We’re OK!” campaign (at right) drives home the message that polar bears are not endangered in Nunavut.  The population is, in fact, thriving in comparison to populations further south (such as near Churchill).  Another community member wears a t-shirt with the logo “Seal is the New Black”, driving home a similar point about seals.  He speaks with pride about the recent success of a traditional Bowhead Whale hunt—the first of its kind to occur this generation.

In traditional Inuit culture, there is no concept of “mine” and “yours”.  Even today, when a hunter or fisher returns, he often shares his catch with all of his neighbors.  This brings up controversy around hunters who are electing to sell “country food” (traditional foods).  For many, this undermines the essential notion of communal sharing.  Nunavut is still largely trade-based on a person-to-person level and even when monetary transactions take place they are almost entirely cash based.  Carrying a credit/debit card in Nunavut is a strange and foreign concept. jeannie

And yet almost everyone has a satellite phone!

Jeannie still sews traditional outfits for her husband out of sealskin.  But she has also moved into the 21st century by opening her home for “eco-tourism” and welcoming foreigners who wish to learn about the traditions of Inuit culture.  You can book nights at her home via a website on the internet in English, even though she only speaks Inuktitut.

Here she is, at the left, sewing an Ukpigjuuaq (baby owl) doll in her living room.  Her friend Lisi Papitsi, sits beside her.  Lisi is a cultural guide for Parks Canada based out of Iqaluit.  You can also see strips of Arctic Char hung to dry from the ceiling by the window.

seal   muscles

Hand sewn seal skin pants (above left) and freshly prepared seal and mussels (above right).

One of the highlights of my experience was connecting with Haley Anawak, an Inuk intern haleywith Parks Canada.  In his late twenties, Haley spent several years in Ottawa and returned to Nunavut with a palpable passion for re-connecting with his culture and spreading hope and positivity to a new generation.

Meeting with members of Nunavut’s Ministry for Education and being encouraged to consider teaching in Nunavut was an eye-opening encounter.  In early August, forty-seven teaching positions still remained unfilled for the start of school, just three weeks away, on Baffin Island alone.  Iqaluit now offers teacher certification on site, but the demand for teachers still far exceeds those qualified to teach.  The aim is to have Inuktitut immersion classrooms throughout the primary years all across Nunavut in order to keep language and cultural skills intact.  The reality looks somewhat different at the present, but more and more Inuk teachers are graduating and momentum is picking up as a Nunavut-based curriculum continues to be developed (currently Nunavut uses Alberta’s curriculum).   Below is Kimmirut’s K-12 school (a fly-in community with a population of less than 500 people).


I have always loved teaching about Canada’s North, but this year in my Grade 4/5 classroom it was even more meaningful.  Having spent time with Jeannie, I felt strongly that I had been given her blessing and her support to share her culture.  Any inhibitions I had had were completely removed.  I also knew that I had been on the right track in the past and that I could contact Lisi or Haley with any questions I encountered along the way.  In fact, my class was able to have a Skype session with Haley in Iqaluit and it was a huge highlight for them to meet him!  He spoke of his love for fresh caribou and told his favourite legend about the Northern Lights.  He also talked about his day-to-day life and interests, which didn’t sound so different from the interests of many of my students.  The students really connected with him and still mention him frequently in conversation.

They by no means think of Inuit as “those people who live in igloos”.  They think of the Inuit first and foremost as Canadians, but most of them have also gained a passionate interest in Inuit culture.  Many of them hope to visit Nunavut one day.  In the past, my teaching about the North often focused on traditional Inuit culture, with little real knowledge of what modern Nunavut is really like.  I am so grateful to have been able to spend time up north and I hope to return.  My own experiences have brought understanding, curiosity, and respect to my students in a much more holistic way than in previous years.  The journey to Nunavut was a powerful reminder about the passion and meaning that experiential education can bring to students and educators alike.

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