North of the 55th Parallel: A Warm People in a Desert of Snow

By Raymond Viger

For five years, I traveled in Quebec’s Far North, to Nunavik, at the turn of the millennium, from 1995 to 2000. An intense cold creates dry air that cuts through your body up there. The winds blow the snow to and fro in this icy desert. It snows horizontally. White on a white background: even if things are close by, you can still get lost trying to get from one house to the other. With temperatures dipping to 40 degrees below zero, it marks a contrast with the joyous, warm people who live in this frosty desert.

I went for two reasons: to try to reduce the number of suicides in these communities, and to train community workers to become teachers. The Inuit learn by example and observation. My intervention method would become a living laboratory for people who wish to end their own lives…

My working conditions were very unusual. My work team was comprised of four Inuits. They included: a young woman with no experience, but who wanted to lend a hand; a mother in mourning because her daughter had recently committed suicide; a woman social worker who had attempted suicide just a couple of months before; and finally, the most experienced social worker, a lady known throughout the community who was besieged by requests for her services. When someone didn’t feel well they could knock on her door anytime, day or night, to find comfort. It’s tough to set boundaries in a tiny community where everyone knows everyone else.

Nowhere in the South of Québec would we allow such persons to intervene with the suicidal in such conditions. But in the Far North, we do what we can with the resources available. We roll up our sleeves and press ahead. And despite it all, when the team takes a break, everyone is laughing and joyous.

I don’t speak Inuktitut. I had to help out people in distress who spoke neither English nor French. These interventions had to be carried out with an interpreter present. Forget keeping any information you’re given confidential. Through an intermediary, the rhythm and the quality of your relationship with the sufferer is diminished. The translator isn’t trained in social work, and isn’t used to hearing about human misery on this scale. I’ve sometimes had to work with three separate people during an hour-long intervention. And that’s because each translator, carried away by their own emotions, hasn’t been able to carry on translating.

Working to stop a suicide epidemic means as a suicide prevention counselor means coming to grips with the causes. And like all crisis situations, no one reason explains what’s going on. There is always a stew of unresolved issues that have built up over time. We could write an encyclopedia on all the awful things we Southerners have made the Inuit live through.

Southerners journeyed to the Far North and wanted to impose their way of doing things. Our way quickly became a virus for a people who wanted to do nothing more than smile at life. A plague for which there is no real vaccine or antidote. And these sufferings are still present today.  

I was always shocked to see the community social workers on my team, their eyes sparkling, laugh between crisis interventions. I hadn’t had to live through all the injustices that they had experienced. Still, it turned my stomach. I was ashamed of being one of the “aggressor” race who had abused the Inuit nation and tried to wipe it off the face of the Earth. I often wanted to “spring a gasket” and rebel against the authorities, to change everything. Does the resilience of this nation come from their mastery of the Serenity Prayer?    

The Serenity Prayer reads:

God, grant me the serenity

To accept things I cannot change,

Courage to change things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference

Written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s, the Serenity Prayer has been used by Alcoholics Anonymous as well as by other mutual aid societies, therapy centres and personal growth organizations.  Today it makes me think of those Inuit communities above the 55th parallel who yet survive despite it all.

First seen on the Reflet de Société website October 4, 2021

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