While I was 10,000 feet in the air flying well above the frozen barrens that were Northern Quebec (Nunavik) below me, I had my doubts. Here I was, a mental health advocate from the south about to spend a week in the northern community Wakeham Bay (Kangiqsujuaq), Nunavik to talk about mental health. In an area of the world where average suicide rates are record breaking, how could I know that I would be able to really achieve anything? My doubts were quickly left behind.
After spending the week in Nunavik, I was exposed to the raw reality of the Canadian North. I saw its beauty, its harshness, its hurt, and its hope. Kangiqsujuaq is an Inuit community on Ungava Bay, with a population well below 1000 citizens. I arrived in the community greeted with 90 kilometer an hour winds, and temperatures flirting with negative 40 degrees centigrade. The high winds and cold temperatures were no match for the grounded warmth of the people I was to meet during my stay there.
It took time. There was no spontaneous connection between the community and I, which is to be expected when going to a new place. However, by the third day or so, I was being called by name. It may not seem like a big deal, but when you hear someone addressing you by your first name, when you’ve never formally introduced yourself to them… it’s a sign. The tolerance has progressed. You’ve been accepted. And when a youth looks at you, and simply says “Matthew.”, the introduction is complete and you know that you’ve made a connection.
That is how I would summarize my week in Kangiqsujuaq. A week of connection; to history, to time, to culture, to others, to myself, to the cold, and to many other things which will slowly reveal themselves in good time. The knowledge that was exchanged during our time in the North was invaluable. Not only what I was able to share regarding mental health, but the scope and the magnitude of what I was able to learn during my brief stint in Wakeham Bay was priceless.
There is no denying the epidemic that is mental illness and suicide in the North. It was intertwined throughout the community we visited this past February, and it seemed as if no one could escape its reach. For every connection made, another story was told of a personal connection to mental illness, or to suicide. And really, no one can escape its reach. Intrinsically, we all have a state of mental health, and more instrumental to the matter, mental illness does not discriminate. It can directly affect each and every one of us.
The incredible thing about my time in the North was that even though I am already beginning to see the sheer amount of what I have learned in Kangiqsujuaq, I am also beginning to appreciate the fact that my experience will only continue to yield dividends as time progresses. I am still learning from my experience, and I am now sharing my experience with others. Moreover, as we stay in touch with members of the community, we are informed of follow up projects that are beginning to unfold across Nunavik- a promising, but not surprising update.
I am rather indebted to the people of Wakeham Bay for my time in the North, and I am eager to pay it forward by sharing the knowledge and connection that the North had to offer me with others. We all have so much to learn.