INUIT IN CANADA: Celebrating By Supporting a Thriving Culture

Plate of appetizers in front of tea lights

After Hours at the Canadian Museum of Nature for Edible Arctic

Saturday night I attended the Canadian Museum of Nature’s After Hours Event. Part of the Edible Arctic Festival there was lots of yummy food using ingredients from the North. I had the best chowder I have ever tasted courtesy the Embassy of Norway. There was fresh-fried bannock with cloudberry jam, smoked salmon and arctic char. Inuk photographer Barry Pottle’s project Foodland Security occupied the 2nd floor of the rotunda and below his work was information about Inuit organizations like Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK). You could also take part in making an igloo out of foam blocks while behind you the National Film Board’s “How to Build an Igloo” was being screened. I discovered that an igloo can be constructed in 40 minutes. It takes me longer to pitch a tent!

How to Build an Igloo by Douglas Wilkinson, National Film Board of Canada

Inuit females demonstrating throat singingThe Wings of Johnny May director Marc Fafard with Johnny May.

“The Wings of Johnny May” by the National Film Board

There was also a screening of the NFB’s documentary “The Wings of Johnny May” which included a Q & A attended by the director Marc Fafard as well as the charming and witty Mr. May. Johnny was the first Inuk bush pilot and after decades of flying and tens of thousands of hours in the air he now fully embodies the knowledge of the Arctic land. He has also seen his world dramatically change more than once. As a small child his family only traveled by dog sled, a mode of transportation that he says was “slower but more pleasant.”

The beautiful 3-D documentary begins with the love story of Johnny May’s parents. Johnny’s father ended up in the Arctic when he went to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He was a young guy from the Prairies but he longed for the North. Soon after he arrived he met Johnny’s mother. He knew she was the love of his life so he stayed and learned Inuktitut and along with the love for a woman he developed a love for the land and its people. She gave birth to Johnny than more little ones arrived. The Inuit community adopted him as one of their own probably sensing that his soul had brought him there to stay. Johnny’s father was white but as the men at the Hudson Bay Co. said “he was more Inuit than the Inuit.”

Sounds like a typical Canadian story of intercultural love. Today these kinds of relationships are common. Most people don’t blink an eye when an interracial couple make a decision to build a life together. For Johnny’s father though it cost him his job. HBC made it clear they didn’t support his parents’ union and told his father he would have to pick between love or money. That was the world back then.

It was this same world and its xenophobia that allowed for a moment in Canadian history that was, as the director Marc Fafard says, this country’s Shoah – one of the multitude of moments that was about creating a nation that serviced a European legacy with a commercial agenda. Johnny was down South for flight school. When he arrived back his entire dog team had been shot. In the 50s and 60s, across the North, orders were often given by those ‘in charge’ to shoot all dogs.

Johnny’s wife was in the audience and she closed the Q & A with her own memories of that time. She was far away at a residential school, missing her loved ones in a world foreign to her. She relates that in each family every child had their own dog – that child’s little friend. Louisa would think often of her dog and in the letters she wrote home she would ask how her pet was. Eventually the letters no longer contained messages about her dog. As a child, she could not fully understand the omission and realizes now that adults didn’t share that kind of tragic information with a child. There was no way for her to know that her dog had been killed until she arrived back in the North to a home changed forever – a mode of travel, a way of living, a cultural landscape – wiped out.

It has taken too much time for some sort of justice to happen. Johnny lost 9 dogs. A few years ago the government paid him $6,000 for that loss decades earlier when he was just a teenage boy trying to sort out how to be a man in a world changing at an unnatural pace.

“This was literally a domination gesture” says the director going on to relate how these actions cut the Inuit off from their source of food by putting an end to their travel and ability to be self-sufficient.

So many painful memories recalled by people like Johnny and Louisa but despite defining moments meant to cripple them they are still here – warm and open – allowing us to become joined to those memories as witnesses. Hopefully we become accountable ones.

Over the last few days at Edible Arctic and ITK’s A Taste of the Arctic that warmth and openness was encountered each time I met someone from the North. It’s incredible to see that the human spirit is able to find a way to move forward with hope. Cultures and communities that have been devastated are beyond surviving – they are thriving.

Close up of plate of food full of smoked fish and musselsPeople serving and preparing foodTop, demonstrating throat singing at the Edible Arctic Festival. Middle and bottom, Food at A Taste of the Arctic. 

A Taste of the Arctic Gala at the National Arts Centre.

At A Taste of the Arctic on Monday night the youth from the Nunavut Sivuniksavut program came out to do a fashion show modelling what I call #Inuit #Glam. Wonderful ambassadors of Inuit culture, these young women and men are always rocking some serious style when I see them out and about in the city of Ottawa where they live for the duration of their course.

Young Inuit men and women modelling sealskin jackets

“Nunavut Sivuniksavut is a unique eight-month college program based in Ottawa. Founded in 1985, it is for Inuit youth from Nunavut who want to get ready for the educational, training, and career opportunities that are being created by the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA) and the new Government of Nunavut…Students in the NS Program learn about Inuit history, organizations, land claims and other issues relevant to their future careers in Nunavut.” Read more…

Young Inuit woman dressed up with great style and sealskin
Female Inuk Elder praying at Podium and Inuk man speakingTop 4 images, the Nunavut Sivuniksavut Students. Bottom left, Inuk Elder giving a blessing at A Taste of the Arctic. Bottom right, National Inuit Leader Terry Audla. 

After a prayer from an Inuk elder the musical entertainment was provided by The Sundogs, Leanne Goose, The Jerry Cans and Beatrice Deer. Every band had the crowd jigging to melodies that included many different cultural expressions, incorporating both traditional and contemporary elements.

Young Inuk woman playing accordian

This may seem normal in the 21st century where mashup culture is the standard but hearing songs sung in Inuktitut with the inclusion of throat singing – all being performed in Canada’s Capital – this is a profound statement! Many generations of children were beaten in the residential schools when they spoke their mother tongue and throat singing, like so many cultural expressions, was banned as it was seen as sinful with no relevance in modern times. When language is embodied through the vehicle of culture, as the voices rise, the spirit is given the chance to be nourished.

Two young Inuit women singingLeft, Nancy Mike of The Jerry Cans. Right, Beatrice Deer. 

If you missed this year’s Edible Arctic at The Canadian Museum of Nature below are some of the highlights of the people, the food and most importantly the culture!

Young Inuk woman sitting on chair wearing mukluksYoung Inuk woman sitting on chair wearing mukluksTop row, making maples syrup taffy and drinking Arctic berry tea. Bottom row, Annie Aningmiuq beading her seal skin clutches.

Inuk artist Jolly Attagoyuk showing his beautiful prints and drawings. 

Young Inuk woman sitting on chair wearing mukluks
The Nunavut Sivuniksavut Students face painting traditional Inuit tattoo styles.

Odawa artist Barry Ace with a new Jolly Attagoyuk for his collection. Carleton Art students @Indigilinks & @all_gussiedup with sealskin gloves by Aaju Peter.  

Young Inuk woman sitting on chair wearing mukluksLeeanne Hainnu, one of the Nunavut Sivuniksavut students.  

All above images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.