The importance of 'taking the tuktu by the antlers'
The first thing the Checkup team learned about the challenge for anyone living in this remote part of the country was simply the difficulties of getting in and out. Iqaluit is at the mercy of the fiercest Arctic conditions of any capital city in the world. Several of our on-air guests warned that they were booked on flights which could be delayed or cancelled because of the weather, which made scheduling a live show very difficult. And during our short production time in Iqaluit we experienced no less than two blizzards, with winds from a steady 93 km per hour gusting to 111 km per hour. This meant that two of our own Checkup team were stranded when all flights were stopped in and out of the capital and people were warned to stay indoors or risk police fines of up to $300 for driving in zero visibility conditions.
Okalik movingly addressed the challenges young people living across the North face, especially in remote communities. Secondary school dropout rates in Nunavut are the highest in the country and Okalik believes it is vital for educators to work together with native elders to come up with a program of education from kindergarten to high school and beyond, that is unique to the experiences and needs of Inuit children.
Terry Audla, president of the Nunavut Housing Corporation and former president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami which represents over 50,000 Inuit living in Canada's North, described the high school dropout rates as "dismal."
He told our producer, "There's such a frustration with young people coming from the south and taking jobs here.. jobs which our own young people can't take because they are not even graduating from high school."
Audla and Okalik both emphasized the importance of post secondary opportunities for Nunavut, a territory with a median age of 23. Programs such as the two-year Ottawa-based Nunavut Sivuniksavut are vital, Okalik says, to equip young Inuit people with leadership skills, an understanding of their own culture and history, as well as to build self-esteem.
Okalik spent her early years in Panniqtuuq (then part of the Northwest Territories, now part of Nunavut) but says that she was raised mostly in the nation's capital with many educational options close to home.
"I grew up in Ottawa with two great universities in my backyard and it was natural for me to do the best I could and go to university. For a lot of Inuit who live in remote communities, where air service is not considered an essential service.. it feels so very far away."
For years, students, like Okalik, say they have dreamed of a university in Nunavut, where students could study, if not within their community at least within their own territory. "Canada is the only circumpolar jurisdiction that doesn't have a university in its backyard, so I can understand why Inuit youth may be limited in being able to live an Inuit life within their homeland and pursue secondary education," Okalik said.
Such an institution has the potential to be a centre that would attract Arctic researchers from around the world as well as a place for young people to study for undergraduate and graduate degrees.
Another youth leader, Jesse UnaapikMike, was invaluable in helping us prepare for the program. She wanted to emphasise the importance for Inuit children of learning more than "other people's histories and cultures."
"At the end of the day, when you go to school and what you're learning has nothing to do with you or your ancestors it makes you feel like you are not that important."
There's often a disconnect between what is taught in school and the skills that are valued by parents and elders in the community. "The schools are very foreign to what is happening in our communities," said Mike during the live two-hour broadcast.
Mike has also worked in the field of suicide prevention and underlined the importance of developing a holistic approach to the problem.
"There is no one solution, there are many," she told our producer. "There have been so many changes that have taken place in the last sixty years and it's been very hard on people to try to adapt to those changes. And that's really been destructive to people's self-esteem. The current education system isn't working. It's a white style of education from the south that doesn't meet the needs of Inuit people. It doesn't integrate ideas about living with the land," she said. "It's not fair to focus on drop out rates because students are dropping out of a program that isn't working for them. Instead it's a program that has been imposed on them."
Mike said that she had also appreciated attending the Nunavut Sivuniksavut (NS) Training Program with its integrated approach to education. Sport and learning how to live a healthy life are also important, she says. "We need to be healthy people. Sport really helps and I work with kids in hockey and try to teach healthy living wherever I can. With that comes self esteem."
Talia Maksagak, a 22-year-old from Cambridge Bay had travelled 1,700 km to Iqaluit to serve as a youth ambassador for this week's Arctic Winter Games. "Everyone is looking at the big picture. But little things matter," she said.
"We need to teach [young people] routine. Without routine what are you going to do? If you wait for other people to do things you could be doing for yourself, those things may not get done, whether it's filling a water jug or picking up a piece of garbage." She wiped tears from her face as she continued to talk about what she had learned from an elder in her community, who had grown up on the land and then was taken away (to residential school.)
"Encouragement is the littlest and the greatest thing you can do," she said to a burst of spontaneous applause from the audience.
Jennifer Williams, 13, an Aqsarniit Ilinniarvik middle school student from Iqaluit, told the crowd that sometimes people have other challenges at home that interfere with their education plans. "Not everybody wakes up to a supportive family. They don't feel confident," she said. "A lot of people don't go home to a cooked meal. And they don't get asked how their day was. They might not feel that [supported]."
Deputy Premier of Nunavut Monica Ell-Kanayuk pointed to the importance of mentoring, especially given the speed of change people living in the territory have seen since her own grandparents time. "We should not be regarded as a third world country within Canada," she told our producer as we prepared for the live broadcast. And addressing the audience at the parish hall in Iqaluit the deputy Premier said, "I truly believe more children today in our schools need more mentoring...We were formerly a nomadic people and it takes time for us to realize our potential. We need to see more role models."
Although Nunavut school dropout rates are the highest in the country, Ell-Kanayuk, who is now also Minister of Health as well as Economic Development and Transportation, Mines and the Status of Women, pointed to what she says is an upwards trajectory.
"Our graduation rates have been going up...[ever] since I was in high school. My grandparents were not in the education system, and my parents saw us in the education system. It requires time for us to be able to be part of mentoring our own children." (Around two hundred students graduate from Nunavut every year and only 35 per cent of adults hold a high school diploma).
She also underlined what we'd heard from the young students themselves, the importance of family support. "As parents too we need to be more involved in the education system. I really believe that it takes time for parents coming out of a nomadic history to be a part of the current day to day educational system where they are more involved."
Several people spoke interchangeably in both English and Inuktitut during the two hour town hall-style discussion, offering listeners across the country a rare chance to hear the tone and musicality of a language not often heard in the south.
Aimo Muckpaloo, a unilingual elder originally from Arctic Bay, communicated through CBC Igalaaq host Madeleine Allakariallak. To great applause from the audience he said that he wants people who live and work here in the Arctic to learn Inuktitut. He also believed that it was important for young people to learn to speak and write both English and Inuktitut as well as continuing to learn traditional skills such as igloolik (snowhouses) and for young women to be able to sew.
Towards the end of the programme David Joanasie, the youngest MLA in the Nunavut Legislature took the floor, also beginning his extended greetings in his mother tongue. "I'm standing up as an example of the youth of Nunavut, that they can attain any of the dreams they set for themselves," he told host Duncan McCue. "I've battled so many obstacles and challenges but I'm here today. My heart is pumping. I'm excited that you've brought this discussion here."
Joanasie, 32, who represents South Baffin, said that he had got where he was today by "taking the tuktu (caribou) by the antlers" and grabbing every opportunity for education and travel that he could. "I'm here to show young people that whatever you want to do, imagine what you can do, and set yourself forwards," he said. "Young people have a future. It's a matter of realizing it."
The discussion taking place on Cross Country Checkup is so important and exciting, he said, and he hoped it will continue. "The dream of Nunavut is not realized yet. We are working towards that." Joanasie then led the audience in several rounds of a chant he first learned as a young athlete at the Arctic Winter Games: "Nunavut! Yeah!" "We have a bright future. Let it shine."