Nova Scotia

Winner of $1M teaching prize using money to fund Inuit kayaking program

A woman who won a $1 million global teaching prize for her work in an Inuit community in Northern Quebec is back home in Nova Scotia, developing a program aimed at re-introducing kayaking into Inuit culture.

Maggie MacDonnell says program would provide health and cultural benefits to Inuit

Maggie MacDonnell is funding a kayaking program for the Inuit of Salluit, Que. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

A woman who won a $1 million global teaching prize for her work in an Inuit community in Northern Quebec is back home Nova Scotia, developing a program aimed at re-introducing kayaking into Inuit culture.

Maggie MacDonnell, originally from Afton, has lived and worked in eight countries and has seen kayaks in every one of them. She said when she moved to Northern Quebec, an area where kayaks were first developed by the Inuit, there were very few.

"It makes a lot of sense when you think of the history of colonization how so many parts of [Inuit] culture has been undermined and diminished," she said.

Besides the thrill of gently gliding across the water, MacDonnell said kayaking has many health benefits.

Maggie MacDonnell (third from left) is in Cape Breton with five others this week to get certification so they can teach kayaking. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

"We often call it physical activity, but when we look at the mental health benefits to being active and moving, we can almost call it mental activity," she said.

MacDonnell said the program could help prevent suicides.

Pride in the culture

"When we look at suicide prevention, especially in an Indigenous context, a lot of research suggests the more people are connected they are to their culture and feel pride in that, the more resilient they are," she said.

The program will also serve as a way of allowing Indigenous youth to reconnect with nature and motivate them to preserve it through environmental education and advocacy.

MacDonnell, her husband, and four Inuk men and women are in North River — about an hour away from Sydney in Cape Breton — this week to get certification for kayaking instruction. She said this is the first step to launching a non-profit organization aimed at strengthening Inuit communities.

Maggie MacDonnell and her Inuk friends learn to kayak from Nova Scotia kayaking instructors. (Nic Meloney/CBC )

She also wanted to show her Inuit friends where she came from and a side of Canada they'd never seen. MacDonnell said many Inuit people only ever get the chance to see Canada's largest cities and regularly encounter racism and discrimination.

MacDonnell said she knew the Inuit would be happily received by the "charming and friendly people back home."

Josie Kakayuk, one of the Inuk men travelling with MacDonnell, is an educator at a young men's rehabilitation facility in northern Quebec. He said he's proud to be part of this initiative.

'It's our heritage'

"We want to pass on what we learn from here. It's a new thing again, but it's our heritage and we want to pass it on to our young people," said Kakayuk.

MacDonnell said the kayak program, which has yet to be named, will focus on four areas of personal development and will be set up in Salluit, Que.

Her next step is to officially register her non-profit organization. From there, she'll focus on challenging governments and other NGOs to match her investment in the future of Canada's Indigenous communities.

"I'm willing to put my money into this issue. I really hope that I can inspire or create a way for other Canadians, corporations or the governments to get involved," said MacDonnell.

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