Warm. That is not the first word that would normally come to mind when one thinks about the Arctic. However, that is exactly the feeling that washed over me immediately after touching down in Kuujjuaq, QC, en route to Kangiqsujuaq to complete our Northern Lights Project. Within minutes of my first time setting foot in Nunavik, a local counselor named Mary Kaye greeted us with such friendliness that was hard not to feel right at home. This impression of being totally accepted and welcome in the North would not leave until the moment we touched down again in Montreal at the end of a fantastic week.
From our first night when the students showed their willingness to put up with our lack of volleyball prowess, to the last days when people took the time to take us dogsledding or give us a tour of the Pingualuit National Park interpretation center…to say that we were treated well during our short time in Kangiqsujuaq would be quite the understatement.
It is often said that food brings people together. This became evident during our first dinner of homemade sushi (featuring fresh Arctic char) with Marion, Madeline and Jamie Yaaka. This theme continued throughout the week as we shared one hundred Timbits with the students who love donuts just as much as we do, engaged in a bannock-making lesson by Sarah, and consumed copious amounts of chocolate-hazelnut heaven with Madeline and Jamie.
Powerful. That’s another word that came to mind during the week. Our remarkable landing in Kangiqsujuaq featured 90km per hour winds, giving us a small taste of the immense natural forces ready to be unleashed at any moment in the Arctic. And when we saw the sun illuminate the mountains across Wakeham Bay, or witnessed the Northern Lights dancing in the sky, the natural beauty was striking.
On the flip side of this intense environment are the people of Nunavik, who live and thrive on these lands. Resilient seems to be the best descriptor. This culture of physical and mental toughness became evident when our dogsledding guide was concerned about us being too cold while he himself had no gloves on in -43 degree temperatures. Strength was shown as well by the students, who were engaged and active participants in our workshop that started mere days after a tragic death in the community. Jessica, James and Yaaka displayed resilience as they spoke about historical trauma and its impact on Inuit people.
1 in 5 people have a mental illness, but 5 in 5 have mental health. This is a statistic that has always intrigued me, but became even more relevant during the Northern Lights Project. When Patrick asked the students, “do you know someone with a mental illness”, almost everyone said yes. This small survey proved how important it is to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness in this community, so anyone struggling with their mental health will be able to get the help they need.
Next he asked, “do you have mental health”, and almost no one said yes. I think this is because the students thought we were asking, “do you have a mental illness”, not realizing that everyone has mental health – like physical health – that has to be taken care of. I was very happy to see the students grasp that idea that it is possible to have poor mental health without having a diagnosed illness, or good mental health while living with an illness.
One last thing that I realized was the importance of hands-on learning in the students’ lives. During the photography activities, I was amazed at how quickly they grasped concepts of aperture, shutter speed, white balance, and lighting. And how eager they were to put their new skills to the test! The pictures they created seriously impressed me.
Another form of hands-on learning happened every night in the gymnasium. I had no idea that sport was such a large part of these students’ lives, but as soon as we started playing volleyball with them, it was clear they had quite a bit of experience under their belts. During a discussion on self-care, they said that sports are beneficial to mental health because team activities allow them to support each other.
And it was through these games that Eva, Patrick and I were able to connect with the students. We all learned to trust each other, without even speaking a word, whether in English or our amusing attempts at Inuktitut. Nakurmiik for reading and stay tuned for more updates from the Northern Lights Project team!
Some of my pictures from the week can be found here: www.flickr.com/photos/gabriellefoss/