The blowing snow outside the airport terminal in Kuujjuaq wasn’t showing any signs of letting up. Most flights heading north had been cancelled and it was looking like our 4 person team en route to Kangiqsujuaq, would be spending an un-planned night in town. As we began to consider our options, the terminal intercom suddenly broke in announcing the immediate departure of our Air Inuit flight. The route change would take us directly to Kangiqsujuaq by passing other stops deemed too dangerous to land in.
Stepping onto the plane, I’m wasn't sure if I was relieved or panic-stricken to be going. A white knuckle flyer at the best of times, the alerts from Kangiqsujuaq had been popping up on my iPhone all day warning of winds in excess of 90 km. Boarding the plane, I studied the faces of the flight crew for any indications of concern. They exuded a professional calm shared by many who routinely travel to northern communities. It reminded me of past Arctic trips and the requirement to be adaptable when working in this part of the world - something the three university students accompanying me would learn all about in the week that followed.
The journey north had begun a few months ago when university students, Gabrielle Foss, Eva Wu, and Patrick Hickey came up with an idea to organize a photography and mental health workshop for Inuit youth. Inuit suicide rates are among the highest in the world - 11 times higher than the national average. The students believed their program could initiate a dialogue and a sharing of ideas between young people. Mental Health is a serious problem throughout Canada, but the impact on northern communities has been devastating. The isolation and lack of skilled professionals makes the problem more acute. Working under the banner of “Northern Lights”, a project date was set and the initiative became a reality.
“Being able to have the youth say something in their own voices is so important and so strong” says visiting student Eva Wu “ We hope photography will be a vehicle to promote a wider discussion on these important issues.”
After arriving in blizzard conditions the night before, we gathered in the art room at the local school for the first afternoon session. The weather outside was unforgiving. As the 2pm start-time passed, a trickle of students cautiously arrived. Within the hour the classroom seats were mostly filled and the program began. Wisely, Gabrielle, Eva and Patrick had structured the sessions to include games, such as volleyball and basketball, to be played in between photography tutorials and discussions on mental health. It was a mix that quickly broke down any barriers allowing the students to engage as regular teenagers might.
“You really have to work closely with people from the community because you can’t just arrive as a person from the south and expect everything will fall into place” says Gabrielle Foss. “There’s a lot of work to be done before you arrive and throughout the program.”
Marion James, a special-ed teacher and community activist supported the idea from the beginning and worked with other patrons to make it happen. Money to underwrite the weeklong session was gathered from various sources, including a generous grant from the Makivik Corporation. Marion’s daughter, Madaline Yaaka, was a youth participant: “It really is important because they will be teaching me skills I can give back to the community once they are gone, so I will be able to teach more youth about it.”
Over the next few days, the class sizes grew and the students could be seen wandering the hallways with newly purchased digital cameras gathering images to share with other participants. Inside the classroom, Patrick Hickey led discussions on mental health, talking about stigma and the perception that surrounds this complex infirmity. Community elders arrived later in the week to add additional perspective and wise counsel.
“We have scant little in the way of a support system” says resident and program contributor Yaaka M. Yaaka. “ It’s always good to have people from outside to come in and talk about these things also.”
As the week progressed the bond between the young presenters and participants was evident with each passing day. The classroom energy was at a peak with students from two different cultures and communities sharing personal stories and advice.
“Our goodbyes at the end of the week were long hugs, we all grew very close through the program” says Gabrielle Foss. “ We have plans for additional awareness projects and social media campaigns. We wanted to make sure this was more than a one week program.”
Boarding our flight home, our team was tired and quiet. “We came into the community to teach, but I think we ended up learning even more ourselves. It was a great experience” says Patrick Hickey.
Outside the the skies were clear and calm.