A Different Kind of School Field Trip: Voyage Into the Great White Desert

A Different Kind of School Field Trip:

Voyage Into the Great White Desert

By Delphine Caubet       Files Education, Native

native educationThe Inuits: A culture many think they know. Once termed “Eskimos,” a term insulting to this ancient northern people, a lot of southerners see Inuits as Indians who live in the snow.

To counter this sort of ignorance, a group of secondary 4 and 5 students (grades 10 and 11) from Sophie-Barat School recently embarked on a field trip to witness first-hand how the Inuits live. They spent 11 days in Quebec’s far northern Nunavik region – population: 13,000; area: 507,000 square kilometers.

For a full year leading up to their adventure they studied First Nations culture and history. Accompanying them on their trip was Lyne St-Louis, head of Taïga Vision, a native outreach organization.

It would be an odyssey these 18 lucky teens would never forget.

Preparation

Ms. St-Louis is intimately familiar with this small northern community of 800 souls and its rich cultural traditions. Students Élodie and Noé decided to embark on their voyage with the mindset of journalists looking to report back on what they had lived on their trip. Recording equipment in hand, they came ready to probe, to ask questions, to experience the sounds, smells, sights and tastes of the far north.

As with any expedition, participants started off harboring certain fears. Noé, a grade 10 student, had one overriding concern: Are Inuits still angry about centuries of mistreatment at the hands of Europeans?

During their long preparation students saw films such as We Were Children and Echo of the Last Howl. They learned of the abuse suffered by students at government-run residential schools. They found out about the long-term, traumatic effects on Inuit communities arising from the government-ordered mass slaughter of sled dogs.

Surprises

The region is accessible only by air. So they flew. Soon after their plane touched down, Noé realized he had no need to fear. His first contact was Charlie – an Inuit who struck Noé, and Noé’s teacher, as a serene, intelligent presence.

“The three bywords of this people are: strength, beauty, and resilience,” Éodie reports. These teens observed how the Inuits work hard to keep the flame of their culture burning.

Noé cites community feasts as an example. Several times a year, all the villagers get together at a joint banquet. They eat both traditional and contemporary foods. The Sophie-Barat students got to participate in one of these village feasts, in honor of girls passing into adulthood. There were performances put on during the evening. Students got to sit down and talk with some of the elders.

Our budding cub reporters were deeply moved by their experience that night, even though they were somewhat embarrassed at questioning elders on some of the abuses they had suffered at residential schools.

Inuit strength and resilience were on display during “Cultural Classes.” These consisted of participating in local activities with the Inuits. Boys were sent off to learn the mysteries of snowmobile repair and hunting; girls were taught sewing techniques, among other things. For the Inuit, keeping their culture alive is hands-on work.

The students spent 3 days at Kuurujuaq National Park, during which time they learned to fish using traditional methods; how to put up a tent; and how to hunt in the wild.

Open Mind

After they fished, they ate. The menu consisted of raw fish. And, the students report, it was delicious! Except for the raw fish hearts, which earned mixed reviews among these young apprentice fisherpersons.

“Like our teacher Éric said, it’s important to keep an open mind,” one student said later.

The Nunavik diet consists mainly of meat and raw fish supplemented by some ‘western’ foods.

“It’s all very expensive” Élodie says. Noé estimates that a grocery bill in Nunavik costs triple what it would down south. A pack of potato chips can go for $9.95!

Students also engaged in volunteer work. They rolled up their sleeves and worked in kitchens, to help teach villagers how to improve their diet; and they spent time at the local school helping students improve their French.

Young Inuits find themselves caught between two worlds. They live amongst stunning natural beauty in an isolated place. There is one road to the airport. This remoteness helps them protect their local culture. But kids here are influenced by mass youth culture just like anywhere else. Says Élodie, “they all have iPods, and they listen to Justin Bieber.”

Tough Choices

Like many teens in isolated places, these Inuit students have some very tough choices to make in terms of their schooling.

In the village of Kangiqsualujjuaq, they can live with their families until they finish high school. But if they want to continue their education they have to move away. And to succeed in college they’ll have to take an extra year of post-secondary classes to catch up.

Up to grade 9 (secondary 3), they study in their own language, Inuktitut. It’s a way of preserving their unique and fragile culture. But for their last two years of high school, they study in French.

 “They have to learn course material and master a new language all at once,” Lyne explains. “So they’re going to lag behind.” And the Inuit way of learning isn’t the southern way: “They follow the standard Quebec educational curriculum, but it’s not adapted to their needs. It’s tough enough for southern students… Inuits absorb information through the ‘watch and learn’ method. Our courses are too abstract for them.”

Most of those who make the long trek south to study at colleges are women. They are almost all older than the average student in the classes in which they enroll. But despite the odds there are success stories.

Back home after their adventure is where the really tough work began for our intrepid teen cub reporters from Sophie-Barat. They shared their experiences with classmates, and with anyone interested in what they had to say. “You can never do too much to raise awareness,” Ms. St-Louis says.

Élodie and Noé have visited several schools. Their primary aim: to undo negative stereotypes. “All Inuits are not alcoholics,” Élodie says. “To find out who they are today, we have to study their history and how they got to this point.”

Strong Bonds

The villagers formed a strong bond with these students during their time together. The Inuits keep in touch, asking for news of their former guests.

For many of the Sophie-Barat students, their time in Kangiqsualujjuaq made a deep impression: Élodie plans to one day return north to work as a nurse or an ambulance driver.

Of the 18 students making the trip, 5 remain dedicated to raising awareness of Inuit issues. Lyne says that fully half these students were deeply moved by their northern experience, but that any long-term impact is impossible to evaluate: “They’re a good group of kids.”

But one teacher is sure the odyssey has had a lasting impact on the whole bunch. Gym teacher Éric Laforest notes that these students are less noisy than they were before. “We’re always being told to speak less loud,” Élodie jokes. And they do nowadays. Éric believes the noise reduction can be attributed to the realization among his students that they are in fact privileged.

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