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A slice of life from Nunavut

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One Southerner's Impressions of the Social and Political Conditions


By Andrew Gibson

The most recent world-class film to come out of Nunavut is a beautiful, distressing tragedy. In the closing scene of the The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, Avva, the last of the great Inuit shamans, has to cut his ties with his lifelong “helping spirits”. The three figures that represent the spiritual helpers also represent the old belief system, which comes under threat with the march of the 20th century and the arrival of Christianity. The new religion is attractive to some Inuit men and women, with its ten, straightforward commandments. A rival Inuk leader, who, in the story told in the film, has embraced Christianity and its songs, also has control of the scarce food that remains. By only sharing those morsels that are taboo to practicing shamans, the new priest forces Avva to abandon his helping spirits. They must go off, saddened and confused, against the setting of the arctic sun.

Despite the tragedy it paints, the film suggests the possibility of a better world than the one in which the Inuit now partake. Like any powerful work of art, it holds out a promise. In the case of The Journals, this may simply be the promise that the old beliefs will be spoken of once again. During my short stay up north, I was able to have a few conversations on the subject. A fellow from Igloolik, to whom I was introduced over coffee one evening, told me that until he had seen the film, the elders' talk of shamanism never quite seemed believable to him. After the many decades of Christianization, he had trouble grasping the fact that this ancient set of beliefs had defined and motivated his people—indeed, that it was at the heart of an entirely original form of existence.

Time will tell whether these beliefs will resurface and start to take hold of the human imagination again. Certainly, some of the philosophies that were dreamt up on the arctic ices would be a welcome challenge to the moral and political “imperatives” driving the world today. In one of the more uplifting parts of the film, which starts with Rasmussen conversing with Avva over the pale fire of a seal oil lamp, the shaman explains that all Inuit codes and customs “come from life and turn towards life”. He goes on the say that his people's greatest fear is that “the animals we kill for food and clothes have souls like ours”. The avowal begs the question of what the world would look like if southerners such as myself were at all sympathetic to such a notion.

Politically speaking, my trip led me to believe that the Inuit are steadily moving ahead in taking charge of the vast new territory of Nunavut. My time up there was all spent in the political capital of Iqaluit. An Inuk woman from a Hudson's Bay settlement further west told me that I should be careful not to mistake Iqaluit for the whole of Nunavut. She has a point, of course. Many of the other communities, I was told, would require greater immersion into the Inuktitut language, and would also reward the visitor with a more striking feeling of being “on the land”. Still, as far as Iqaluit goes, I'm happy to have stayed long enough to get a flavour for the place.

As surprising as it may sound, Iqaluit shares a key commonality with my own town of Montreal. The common feature is that each place provides the setting for the peaceful meeting of two distinct linguistic communities. I'm not going to claim that either place is free of tensions. But both succeed, it seems to me, in achieving the noble end of fruitful cooperation across cultural divides. One might argue that you can find this in different settlements across Nunavut. It's true that in reading the newspapers that stitch the larger political community together, or in listening to CBC North, you're going to be reading about and hearing tales of everyday life in both English and Inuktitut. I know that in Iqaluit, you've also got a good chance of attending social events and dinner parties where both communities mingle together quite freely.

For an urban southerner going to Iqaluit for a couple of weeks at solstice, the experience was also one of small town life. Although my stay was a brief one, I came quickly to image the possibilities for “civic association” in this sort of setting. The lofty ideal of local democracy, for one, struck me as having great potential in such a place. With a dose of idealism and a knack for community organizing, one could easily manage to have one's say in the design of large-scale institutions, bold and progressive economic projects, as well as land stewardship initiatives. In banding together with fellow Nunavummiut with the hope of building democratic majorities around key issues, one could, with any luck, become a great figure of local lore.

Granted, it's a bit rich for a passing Qallunaat to be speculating in this way. After all, one of Nunavut's most strident objectives today is to get as many young Inuit as possible into local leadership roles. The problem is that it's no longer masters of the land that must fill these shoes, at least not solely. In addition to stellar hunters, gatherers, storytellers and artists, there is currently a pressing need for planners, teachers, technicians and local entrepreneurs. While I saw a lot of promise among the young people that I met up there, and came to admire some of the men and women I spent more time with, I was repeatedly told that the road ahead for the Inuit is riddled with obstacles.

The main challenge would seem to be equipping the young with the skills they need to function in a large-scale economy. From the quaint perspective of a well-off southerner, one could hope that Nunavut takes a different track than their neighbours to the south in building their economy. Southern mentality is all about quantitative, exponential growth, measured against a “consumer standard of happiness”. But why should social and political life be centered on numeric increase of the GDP, and not on dreaming up richer common projects, within which people can find better jobs and more interesting things to do with themselves? Many southern Canadians will agree that their common life isn't quite what it should be, and there's an argument to be made for this being at the source of a creeping civilizational malaise.

As a visitor to the north, my first concern should probably not be with passing judgment on how to run the economy. Arguably, I have something of a responsibility in directing my concern towards policies that southerners implemented there in the 1950s. Canadians are increasingly familiar with the “national crime” of the residential schooling system, which has been the bane of Aboriginal peoples across the country. In the north, there are other grievances that still need to be brought to light. Many hold that a complete history of relocation policies is needed, and that the RCMP killing of Inuit sled dogs is a story that still needs to be told in full.

These are charged and complex historical matters, with the regular spectrum of competing interpretations. Some will prefer that the pot not be stirred. Certainly, there are respectful procedures that any inquiry into these matters will need to follow. For lack of initiative on the part of the Harper government, this is the mandate that the Qikiqtani Truth Commission has set for itself. Again, some may feel that the Inuit should bury the hatchet on this, and avoid stirring up unneeded resentment in places like Iqaluit. But what if precisely this kind of thing was important in order that the Inuit rekindle a sense of themselves, as historical agents, and perhaps even a part of their old beliefs? A proud Inuk woman told me that one of the best things to come out of Attanarjuat, the film that preceded The Journals, was that it helped to dispel the brutal stereotype of the passive Inuit, devoid of emotional needs and anxieties. Clearing the grounds of such obstacles—historical, spiritual and whatever else—surely forms a crucial part of the road ahead.


Andrew Gibson is a PhD candidate in Communication Studies at McGill University.