Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

From the farmland to the Big Land, and why I chose to teach in Natuashish

Rob Tulk grew up in southern Ontario, went to MUN in Corner Brook and has been teaching for two years in Natuashish. This is his story about the experiences he's had in the Innu community.

Rob Tulk has been teaching in Natuashish since 2016. He's sharing his experiences

The foyer of the Mushuau Innu Natuashish School in Natuashish. (Ethan Liangxiao Yue)

Growing up amidst the endless farmland, six lane highways and urban sprawl of southern Ontario, I couldn't help but live with a slight sense of displacement.

My family is from the west coast of Newfoundland, but we moved to Ontario in the mid-'80s, before I was born. I moved to the island to go to university in Corner Brook and to reacquaint myself with the hills, rivers, boreal forest and salt water that is my ancestral home.

I was pursuing an undergrad in English lit with a minor in geography, so I immediately took to the outdoors.

During my time exploring the island's wonderful natural spaces, I had a bit of a personal renaissance, and that ultimately led to my decision to take a position in Natuashish, teaching with the Mamu Tshishkutamashutau Innu Education board.

Rob Tulk and his partner stayed in this canvas tent at Kamistastin Lake for a week in April. (Submitted by Rob Tulk)

I came to Natuashish in August 2016, and it has been very kind to me ever since.

Teaching for me is a vehicle for learning. This career is very special because, when done well, both teacher and student come away having acquired knowledge, perspective, experience and insight. We heal and we grow.

And for me, that experience is intensified tenfold in Natuashish.

When a classroom is more than a room

I teach high school English language arts. My classroom has been a series of desks in a row, occupied by students with pen in hand, and me at a white board.

But it's also been in a canvas tent; hundreds of kilometres into the country on a frozen lake; around an aluminum stove; on spruce boughs; and listening to stories in a language I don't yet understand.

In my first few months of teaching English I struggled to get students to write one- or two-paragraph stories or essays. I pushed sentence and paragraph structure hard and got little response.

Tulk has been teaching English at the high school in Natuashish since 2016. (Jason Tshakapesh/Submitted by Rob Tulk)

But by June I had 2,000-word papers and students were coming in at lunchtime or on spare periods to keep writing. They learned the conventions of language because they were inspired by their own interests.

That's why I am in this profession: to learn how to help and empower young people to pursue their interests and develop as the wonderful, intelligent, powerful, compassionate people they already are.

Storytelling is at the centre of my teaching methods. Sharing stories with others validates our own experiences, empowers us, helps us realize our own voices, helps us hash out uncertain feelings about events in our lives.

Our ability to tell stories is the most powerful tool we have, and it's what makes us human — what makes us individuals.

Sharing stories with developing minds

The most rewarding part of my job has been watching my students develop as individuals. We read articles, novels, poems and exchange stories with each other. Sometimes we realize that maybe we have shared experiences with complete strangers, or learn things about people very close to us that grow our mutual respect.

We develop empathy and broaden our perspectives. We develop a voice, see that our lives are interesting and valuable, and it's beautiful to share that with young minds.

Tulk's student Jason Tshakapesh walks on snowy barrens near Kamisastin Lake. (Submitted by Rob Tulk)

In the classroom, storytelling can be anything from "How big was that fish you got on Saturday?" to a novel study and a typed essay. I try to keep the movement in my classroom organic and natural and for that reason I'm always taking tangential routes into conversations that go way beyond the lesson plan. Those are always the best and most lively conversations.

That's where learning happens. The details, the outcomes and objectives, those just fall into place along the way.

Learning stories of culture

Before coming here, I searched for all kinds of stories that might help me prepare for what I had in store. Fascinating and mysterious stories of legends, stories wrought with hardship, activism, endurance, tragedy, triumph — the canon was rich. I soaked in as much as I could.

There is a vast amount of literature published within this community. So, for an English literature buff like myself, it is a bit of a candy store. These stories help me gain perspective into the lives of my students, friends and peers, helps me develop empathy, enable me to reach the students where they are and understand my context better.

Draper Penunsi, left, and Patrick Penashue wait for geese along Sango Brook. (Submitted by Rob Tulk)

I can connect the cultural context to the geography and social landscape. The more I keep an open mind the more beautiful the mosaic becomes.

I am constantly humbled here.

I've made lasting relationships here. I have spent more time than ever before in my life on the land. I've been taken to places and shown things that have changed me.

I've slept in canvas tents or under the stars in the dead of winter, been nearly carried away by blackflies on the river in late summer. I've been greeted and blessed by bountiful wildlife, berries, herbs, medicines and game. I've been greeted and blessed by people who have taken me to their ancestral lands and shared with me what it means to belong to Labrador and to a degree I now share that feeling.

Why I stay

Space and those who occupy it has always been a fixation for me. In southern Ontario, there was a culture of farming that sculpted the nature of the lives of those who farmed. However, I did not farm, so I felt that I was not as connected to the geography around me.

The tree line in Natuashish at sunset. (Rob Tulk)

My ancestors fished and cut wood for a living, but by the time I came to Newfoundland, I did not do that as a livelihood either. I was a university student; my realm was in books, online articles, essays and wordy classroom discussions.

All the while outside the snowy windows of Grenfell's Ferriss Hodgett Library, something else was pulling at me from far away.

Labrador to me at that time was largely an untold story, and the appeal of language, culture and wild country ultimately convinced me to visit.

The warm welcome I got is what convinced me to stay.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Rob Tulk grew up in southern Ontario. His family is from western Newfoundland. He attended post-secondary for English literature at Memorial University's Grenfell campus in Corner Brook. He's been teaching English at the high school in Natuashish since 2016.