What I Learned in Nunavut

I just had the tremendous privilege and opportunity to send a few days in Iqaluit, Nunavut during the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend. I received an invite from a friend to join him to contribute and speak at a conference named "Next Generation". We didn't really know what to anticipate until the event actually began. It was clear then that this was not a 'youth conference' but rather a conference of certain community leaders who are concerned about the next generation and want desperately to know how to draw their youth into a place of inheriting and leading a better future for the communities of the Inuit people.

I went to teach, yes, but from the beginning I knew I wanted to go to learn and serve even more. With open ears and an open heart, I learned a great deal from my new Inuit friends.

- Nunavut was officially formed in 1999 as a sort of 'homeland' for the Inuit people. The majority of Inuit live in Nunavut with some in Northwest Territories and Northern Quebec.

- The territorial legislature for Nunavut represents the Inuit people. They pay federal and territorial taxes and have no tribes, separate councils or reserves.

- They have a NO PARTY SYSTEM. No liberals, no conservatives, no NDP, no Green Party. They do not raise their voices in the legislature and try to operate by CONSENSUS... AMAZING!!

- I got to see the Northern Lights; amazing and beautiful. The terrain was breathtaking as well. Flying in over rocky terrain stretching out below us, dappled with lakes and rivers. One of the more gorgeous sites I've ever seen.

- Inuit is a collective noun. It is used to talk about more than one "Inuk" which is the singular form. One Inuit person is an Inuk.

- When we arrived we didn't know the schedule. The leaders were waiting for all the leadership to arrive from different areas of Nunavut so they could put together a schedule together. With more people still arriving the next morning none of us 'guests from the South' shared until Saturday afternoon, so no one would miss out. There is such a beautiful collective identity in that.

- "Empire" says my culture is better than yours, my strength is greater than yours and our leaders are superior to yours. If you submit to us, take on our culture, work for us and keep our laws, we will bring you peace and blessing." (Thanks Roger) This is the spirit in which the white man, his government and his church came to the North (and so many other places).

- Some empires (like Spain/Portugal) came to assimilate. They said, "You are one of us", which is why many people from places colonized by Spain call themselves "Spanish" to this day rather than their national identity like "Chilean" or "Peruvian". England, on the other hand, was always clear, "You are not one of us, you are inferior to us, we will teach you our language, ways and religion, but you will never be one of us!" Both are abusive and hurtful, but strip the dignity away from people's indigenous identity, but there is something particularly damaging about this English form of colonization. It sowed the seed of 'self-hatred' among indigenous people wherever it went.

- Residential Schools were in effect for the Inuit until around 1980. Inuit people were to speak and learn to read and write English. They were not permitted to speak or learn their own language.  There is a long record of all of the abuses that took place in the residential school system, one of the worst being the 'Empire' teaching that your culture and language are inferior, bad, stupid or dirty.

- The Inuit have four official languages; English, French, Inuktitut and another dialect of Inuktitut. The conference was all in Inuktitut except when those of us from the South were speaking. In those moments we had a translator up front with us, Qalingo. Qalingo was the real teacher of the weekend, he took the concepts of what we were saying and translated them into Inuktitut because in many cases there was no accurate word-for-word translation.

- The Inuit have the highest youth suicide rate out of all the people groups on planet Earth.

- Government of Canada strategies to prevent suicide among the Inuit include many root cause statistics, all of which come from studies among the Cree Nation. While I am sure there is a lot of crossover, one might think that if these youth, OF ALL YOUTH IN THE WORLD, are the most at-risk of suicide, we might be particularly interested in doing our research specifically with Inuit youth.

- The Gov. of Canada document did have this remarkable quote; "The historical oppression, disruption and disempowerment of First Nations through colonization have been internalized." This is remarkable because this is a qualitative comment, not quantitative, not scientifically verifiable, but so true. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the same type of thing among his Black brothers and sisters of the south during the Civil Right Movement. Generations of oppression, slavery and domination can get on the inside of an entire people, a whole community. "You can take the slave off the plantation, but you can't get the plantation out of the slave." King called it a 'mental slavery'. I was shocked to find this quote. Our government realizes that the history of oppression has gotten on the inside of the Inuit people. But how can you fix that? Much of the language of the government documents for suicide prevention among the Inuit suggest that they don't really know.

- There is power in confession and forgiveness. I knew this already but experienced it in a new way during this powerful weekend. In South Africa, after the dismantling of apartheid and election of Nelson Mandela, white South Africans were able to come and confess their crimes and in an unprecedented move, they were forgiven. This was done so the nation could heal and move forward together in a new way. This is called reconciliation. In Nunavut I stood with my friend from England who confessed to the abuse of the churches that came from Europe in the name of God but with the mentality of "Empire". I stood in the place of English-speaking Canada and a young man we had just met stood in the place of French-speaking Canada to also confess our part in the historical and ongoing persecution and oppression of our Inuit family in the North. The response was something I was unprepared for. One by one people lined up and told story after story of how colonization and the abuses of the white church, government and people had deeply hurt their families; from rape to turning brother against brother and more. While I was standing in the place of the people who had caused such pain, I couldn't help but realize that what I was participating in was a great honour; person after person being so vulnerable and exposed about the pain and hurt that has haunted families and communities for generations. However, it is the strength of those who came forward that will stick with me for the rest of my life. Each one, after they shared their tragic and gut-wrenching tales, chose to forgive and came and embraced each one of us who was standing in the place of their abusers. AMAZING! This was what Martin Luther King Jr. talked about as the goal of non-violent action, "[The] creation of beloved community... a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor."

- I learned that I really believe that LOVE and FORGIVENESS hold a key to healing the crimes and abuses of the past that no amount of well-intended social work could ever do.

- I have talked before about 'blaming the cup'; pointing the finger at our youth as the 'problem' when we have not filled them with good, clean water. It struck me that among the Inuit, the abuses of colonization that have been 'internalized' means that there is a hole in the cup. One Inuit leader, through tears as we were in our time of confession and forgiveness, cried out that for so long they have thought it was all their fault. They were trying to help their youth but they must not be doing enough. However, in a case where such abuse has impacted the collective identity of a people, specifically as being 'less than' or 'dirty' or 'not as good' etc... it is like there is a hole in the cup and sometimes, no matter how much good stuff you try to put in, the youth can't hold it, because the cup is broken. Forgiveness can start the work of fixing the cup so that the youth have the chance and capacity to hold onto the good stuff that is being poured into their lives.

- The biggest obstacle to forgiveness bringing healing is the ongoing way in which the Inuit have to submit to the white empire. The police in the North are federal RCMP officers. Recently a plan was revealed to put an additional RCMP officer in every community. Whatever good intentions or strategy might be behind it what my Inuit friends heard was, "Because you are so bad we need more police." They were not asked or consulted, they are still subject to outside law enforcement that is unconnected to their communities and families and people.

- RCMP officers usually only stay for 3-6 months and are only permitted to be in a community for a maximum of 2 years. This flies in the face of what ANYBODY who knows ANYTHING about policing knows to be best practices in the prevention of crime. Police need to be in long-term relationships in a community to be best positioned to prevent crime. They need to know the children and youth and be a friend to them. These policies will only ensure that law enforcement always feels like an outside reminder of domination from the 'South'.

- Social services in the North are similar most of the time. When it is deemed necessary to remove a child from a home they are taken out of the community entirely in many cases and do not return until they are 18. How is this okay in light of our recent abuses of residential schools? We are still taking their children away!

- I am convinced that for true justice and true healing to take place in the North they will need to be stewarded in their communities by their communities and not from the outside. Outside of relationship the South will never be able to serve the North, but perhaps we can if we submit to their leadership and direction for the healing of their own people.  A Cree grandmother was speaking to a man in the 'justice' field. She was commenting on abusive men in her community who were being taken to prison, "To do things your way," she said, "You would have to keep these men forever." She was commenting on the fact that abusive men who spend some time in prison do not return to the community 'rehabilitated'. Of course not, that is not what prison is for, it is for punishment. "People who learn to be abusive in relationships," said this Cree grandmother, "have learned that relationships are based on values like anger, power, fear, jealousy and so on." She turned to the man in the justice department and said, "What are relationships based on in prison?" The point is, take the criminal out of community and put them in prison and they will only return worse, not better. There is a legacy among many of our indigenous peoples of restorative justice and working with offenders to teach them how to live in loving community with one another. This is what we should be investing in, under the leadership of the Inuit people, in the North. They will steward true justice and healing in their land, not us.

- I was talking to one Inuit youth about addiction, abuse and pain in the communities in the North compared to in the South (she is working on her GED in Ottawa). She commented that in the North it is just 'more exposed'. Communities are much smaller so it is harder to hide and conceal the pain happening in the home.

- I think youth in the North are the same as you wonderful youth here in the South of Canada. You know where the pain, hurt and brokenness is. It is not just that it is exposed in the North, but youth have the ability to see it where sometimes we adults miss it entirely. There is no way to build a better future 'for' youth unless it is built 'with' youth. Youth can show us where the pain is, will have strategies and ideas for how we, together, can move beyond the pain that has found its way inside. You wonderful youth have the ability to teach us how to LOVE in new ways. The kind of love that leads to healing and being able to move forward.

- Finally, in Nunavut I experienced generosity upon generosity from the Inuit people. So much grace, so much love, so much kindness, care and honesty.

I hope I have another opportunity to be with my new friends; it was an honour to have been included. I hope I was somehow useful during my time there, but I know for certain that I was changed for the better through the things I learned and experienced in Nunavut.

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