Nunavik outdoor education program empowers Inuit youth

Created by a French teacher who wanted to give her students in Kuujjuaq more time out on the land, Nurrait Jeunes Karibus now organizes activities in all 14 Nunavik communities and started offering a new social intervention program last year.

Jeunes Karibus non-profit has continued to grow despite pandemic challenges

Nurrait | Jeunes Karibus is a non-profit organization that partners with teachers, elders and Inuit knowledge keepers to organize activities for young people in the 14 Nunavik communities in northern Quebec. The group's goal is to get youth out on the land more often and last year it also started offering an intensive social intervention program. (Nurrait | Jeunes Karibus)

Nurrait is Inuktitut for baby caribou — or jeune caribou in French — and the Nurrait | Jeunes Karibus organization is all about helping young Inuit grow.

"For 2020, 2021 we had around 300 participants in our program, despite the pandemic," said general manager Hugo Dufresne. "Last year we were able to be present in all of the 14 [Nunavik] communities."

At a time when many youth are feeling the isolation brought on by the pandemic, Nurrait has managed to keep its programs going, with some modifications, and is seeing some of its first participants start to take on leadership roles of their own.

Created as an outdoor adventure program for students, Jeunes Karibus has expanded over the years to offer professional development, leadership training and opportunities to connect with Inuit elders and culture. 

"Not all the youth have the same access to being out on the land and doing traditional activities," said Dufresne.

"We never go out on the land for camping or for expeditions without hiring community members to guide us and share knowledge with the youth."

Last summer, the organization hired a social worker and launched a new intensive program for young people who are struggling to stay in school, coping with grief or facing other personal challenges.

"Today it's our eighth edition of the Nurrait program, but now we have three more programs also for the youth of Nunavik," said Dufresne, who's been with the group for three years and recently took over from founder Valérie Raymond.

"It's grown from practising a healthy really bringing in some intervention tools: communication skills, how to express your emotions, how to understand them."

Co-ordinators and participants in the Nurrait | Jeunes Karibus' Ikaartuit program built a cabin south of Kuujjuaq, Que. last summer. The non-profit organization offered its first intensive social intervention courses in 2021, teaching team work and carpentry skills and encouraging personal and social development. (Nurrait | Jeunes Karibus)

Out on the land

Raymond started Nurrait as a pilot project to to show her students the benefits of an active, healthy lifestyle.

The young people who signed up went cross-country skiing every week after class and were given tips to work on their mental health. They trained with Raymond throughout the school year, preparing an expedition. That summer, the group skied 90 kilometres from Kuujjuaq to the neighbouring community of Tasiujaq, camping along the way.

The program was so popular Raymond launched Nurrait | Jeunes Karibus as a non-profit in 2015. As the organization grew, it branched out to the other Nunavik communities and eventually the Tuttuit (full-grown caribou) program was a natural next step.

"Students were going through the Nurrait program, getting older, some of them still wanted to be part of the organization," said Dufresne.

"It's basically a professional internship program, they get to lead the team of students and we give them job opportunities for their first job out of high school."

Growing up

For people like Joshua Nathan Kettler, an Inuk from Umiujaq who joined Jeunes Karibu's board of directors last month, the program has been life-changing.

"It really helped me grow up," he said, adding that before he joined Nurrait as a teenager, he would spend much of his time after school online rather than outside. "The program is a lot better than that," he said, "you're going out on the land, finding your own culture."

"I started just as Nurrait and I moved my way up and became Tuttuit after doing three expeditions."

Kettler says working through the two programs boosted his self-esteem — and his resumé — landing him a job with Nunavik Parks after he finished high school. He left that job last year — the 20-year-old has his hands full with two young girls at home — but he says he's looking forward to sharing the Jeunes Karibus experience with other young people in his community.

"That's the biggest goal for me, is to have as many youth as possible involved," he said. "Now I'm on the other side of the program."

Nurrait | Jeunes Karibus organizes weekly outings, overnight camping trips and annual expeditions for Inuit youth across Nunavik. Since the non-profit was founded in 2015, it's grown from an outdoor adventure program in Kuujjuaq to offering social intervention and activities in all 14 communities. (Nurrait | Jeunes Karibus)

Ikaartuit: a herd of caribou crossing a river

The third and newest addition to Jeunes Karibus is the Ikaartuit program, supported by psychosocial worker Jessica Guimond-Villeneuve who was brought onto the team last year. 

Dufresne says Ikaartuit is targeted at youth who aren't attending school any more or have been referred by social services. It involves intensive projects or excursions usually held in the summer.

"It aims for specific development," he said. "Let's say we have a group facing grief, like the loss of a friend, we'll go for an outdoor experience addressing grief ... Youth not able to have a job and to keep it, we'll have a cabin construction project to help them get into adult life."

"We aim for specific needs for the youth, create a group around these needs and go out on the land to try to address these issues they are facing."

Dufresne says Jeunes Karibus has seven people working full-time but the program couldn't happen without its 30-plus volunteers — mainly teachers at the Katavik school board — who organize community outings every week.

In a normal year, there would also be two overnight camping trips and a final cross-country skiing expedition where several communities come together. But things have had to be scaled back, held in smaller bubbles or moved online for the past couple of years due to public health restrictions.

Dufresne says going forward, he wants to strengthen the traditional and cultural elements of the programs and include more Inuit knowledge and experience.

"It's really important to us but it's also a big challenge to find those people in all the communities," he said, referring to the Inuit elders and traditional knowledge-keepers who help out with camping trips and expeditions.

"For the first time this year we have two Inuit on our board. We're trying to give more space in decision-making to Inuit and to have more Inuit involved in the organization," he said.

"It's the direction we want take for the upcoming years. It was always present but we want to go even faster in that direction."