Closing Time

It’s been a while since I’ve visited my blog, but there is a reason.

In a couple of days, we’ll be pointing our Toyota straight north for a 15 hour drive to  Waskaganish (a.k.a. Fort Rupert), a Cree community at the tip of James Bay, where Andy has a contract to teach Northern Building Maintenance.

In the flurry of planning, supply shopping, packing, wrapping and winterizing our home, memories and images hovered ever so momentarily, and then dissipated as I reached for another mug to wrap, but a new one would appear as I reached for the next item. I found the box of Christmas cookie ornaments decorated at one of our get-togethers in our last community. Bits and bytes of memory-bank movies also played while driving into town for that one more item we missed on our list.  “Remember that time when …”

We enjoyed the intense, and often unlikely friendships, that only happen in isolated communities, the invitations to hunts, feasts and lunches at camp in the only place in Canada where Cree and Inuit coexist, cooking bannock on a fire at the edge of the Hudson Bay, visiting the magical mystical Manitok islands.

We loved the land, the barrenness, the openness, the frigid westerly winds, even the precarious whiteouts. Just out of town, we could stand on windswept knoll to see nothing but monochrome rock, sea and sky and turning around and around until they all become one.

Also the astonishing richness the land brings: frost-kissed cranberries falling into our open hands, dark blueberries, steaming, smoky tea made from Labrador tea leaves.

Now the evenings are cooler and I have taken to watching the Canada geese fly in from the fields to the nearby river to shelter for the night.  I’d wrap a blanket around myself and watch as they form letters in the sky, and can almost hear them splash-crashing into the water. It is the sound of the north I hear.

Some nights when it is cool and the sky is clear, I look up at the stars piercing absolute blackness and look for the wavering ribbons of the northern lights, but we are too far south.

Again tonight, I stand outside listening to the geese come in. The patio door slides open.

“What are you doing?” my husband asks.

It’s getting colder and I hug my blanket tighter.

“Nothing,” I say.  The door is still open.  Andy is waiting for me to come in.

“What are you thinking about, out there?” he asks.

“Just everything, and absolutely nothing,” I shrug and smile, turning around to fold my blanket on our last evening here.

But absolutely everything,” I say to myself.


Raw Caribou and Seal for Christmas

“Merry Christmas!  Merry Christmas!” We sat on folding chairs arranged on the periphery of the triple gym. People passed by us and offered their hands and greetings. It is Christmas day and we were at the community feast on the Inuit side.

The gym was garlanded with lights and streamers. A stage was set up, filled with prizes. “There will be a draw,” a woman at the door said as she handed Andy a ticket for a ‘man prize’ and one to me, for a ‘woman prize’. I noted a yellow ski-doo in the gym. What a prize for the lucky winner!

Little girls twirled on the gym floor in lacy dresses and shiny shoes. Little boys in vests and shirts chased each other. Older kids in jeans, stood in clusters talking and laughing. Mothers with babies tucked into their amautis chatted with elders.

“I’ve never heard a baby cry here,” I mused to Andy as I watched the young mother beside me arrange her baby in a square cloth on her back. This is the way babies are carried inside. Outside, they are tucked into the hood of a traditional parka. There is always a woman nearby to help.

At the centre of the gym, black plastic garbage bags were taped to the floor. Large chunks of raw deep burgundy caribou, seal meat, and white feathered ptarmigans lay in huge piles. A couple of large coolers held shrimp. At an announcement, people stood up and headed to the centre to pick up a section of meat. Some ate right there, sitting on the floor; others brought meat back to their families sitting at the edge of the gym. The mother beside me chewed the meat for her baby, as a young man cut raw slivers for her with a large knife.

At the other side of the gym, tables were laden with at least 12 oversized turkeys, pots of caribou stew, and a couple of cardboard boxes, lined with plastic, filled with macaroni salad. There were no utensils, just a box of surgical gloves. You just put one on and dig in! It was wonderful to be with children and families on this Christmas day, and to feel welcome.

Merry Christmas, Happy Belated Hanukah, Blessings at Solstice, Joyeux Noel and Frohliches Weihnachtesfest to all those so far away.

Fluffy White Feathers

We found a sturdy black spruce that would become our Christmas tree.

Most trees by the bay cluster in tight stands for protection against the winds, but this one stood alone. We brushed off the hard crusted snow.

As we loaded it into the back of the truck, we heard three gunshots. I stiffened. But then I saw a flock of ptarmigan lift, scatter and dissolve into the low hanging grey clouds.

Moments later, we passed a man standing by his skidoo, his gun resting against his leg, turned towards the ground. A woman stood by him plucking at a white bird.

It was just 2:00 in the afternoon, and the sun was already sinking into the horizon.

“Look it’s started to snow!” I said. Large fluffy flakes bounced off the windshield.

It me took a moment to realize what I thought was snow, were tiny soft white ptarmigan feathers.

White-outs and Goggles

The brown sand dunes have given way to white dunes of snow.

I thought of Canadian author, W.O. Mitchell’s, stories of prairie sandstorms, where homesteaders became disoriented on their way the barn and succumbed. Now I understand!

The winds have been fierce. During a white-out, walking to school is a challenge. There is no definition to the paths, roads, ATV trails and my trusted shortcuts. Everything is uniform white.

My shortcuts no longer exist. I tried one and ended up thigh high in snow. Try moving in jello … or imagine being an ascent of Everest, with each step requiring hundreds of calories and gallons of oxygen.

Today, school was canceled in the afternoon for students because of the weather. The teachers were picked up by school bus for the afternoon and offered rides home at the end of the day. It was deemed unsafe to walk.

I decided to bundle up and walk anyways. The only orientation I had were lights of familiar buildings. At one point I wondered what would happen if there was a power outage. Would anyone ever find me in my white parka in the drifts?

I found myself wandering off road many times. What is safer? The roads are sheer white ice. The snow grips on my boots are a godsend.

I noticed teachers and students snapping on goggles before they head outdoors. Old-fashioned ski-goggles with yellow or orange lenses, with frost-free lenses.

I’m gonna get me some before I lose myself. Oh, yes, and a flashlight too!






The Inuit have their own Big Foot, I found out just before we left for camp.

“He stays near the shore and walks on the beach and eats animals,” one of the administrators at school told me. “You can tell his footprints, because he has six toes.”

He sounds a lot like the Qallupilluq from Robert Munsch’s book “A Promise is a Promise.” In the book a little girl tricks a monstrous being that lives under the sea ice from not eating her.

I think this is a myth to keep children from wandering onto sea ice.


Music, Books, and Tea

Warm sunlight streamed through the library’s window, offering a panoramic view of the Great Whale River. Loreena McKennitt’s mystical music poured out of my playbook, as I sipped peppermint tea from my thermos.

Can life get any better?

Most of the staff left for a teachers’ conference in a more northerly community for the week. I was originally scheduled to go, but it was decided in the last minute that special education technicians need not attend. I was looking forward to the experience, but happy to not to fly and live in uncertain residences.

So ….

I offered to overhaul the school library.

And life even gets better.

I am surrounded by classic tales from my childhood, books I read to my kids when they were little; Dr. Seuss (Green Eggs and Ham), Mercer Mayer (There’s Something in the Attic). Also the series of the Little Critters, Berenstain Bears, The Babysitters’ Club, and Kenneth Oppel’s batwing series … and of course Harry Potter, piles of picture books, books with fabulous nature photographs, atlases …

Yes, life is good!

Making Sense of Syllabics

InuUp here, the sole language of instruction in school is in Inuktitut until grade three, when students are introduced to English. The written language of Inuktitut was developed by missionaries in the late 1800s with syllabics to interpret the language. Before, the Inuit had a rich oral tradition, passed on from elders to their children, perfected over the generations of families living together.

I can see the frustration the children are faced with. The syllabic for what looks like the Latin “b” is sounded as “ku”; “d” as “ka”, “L” is “ma”, and “C” is sounded as “ta.”

In grade three, the students need to relearn the accustomed sounds from syllabics to Latin script.

I have noticed that several Northern publications offer readers a choice of reading articles in English, Inuktitut (syllabic), or Inuktitut (Latin). Greenland, for instance, has done away with syllabics, has officially adopted the Latin script. I think it would be easier for students to make the transition, already being accustomed to the sounds of vowels and consonants. It is enriching to learn of your culture and speak the language of the elders, and as many more languages as you are willing to learn.

However, Syllabics are not part of the Inuit culture. The language was developed by Europeans. Would it make sense to do away with syllabics and use Latin lettering? I believe the students would be less frustrated and would have greater success at school, instead of struggling with ABC’s in grade three.

The following is only for those interested in education:  I am continually amazed at the cleverness of my students. I have never worked in the educational field, and am amazed everyday at the improvisation of the grade three/four students in learning their ABC’s, reading, and multiplications.

One of the students I occasionally work is in grade three, but has never been to school, ever. Another student has only been to school sporadically. The first boy is still learning his alphabet with flash cards. He has a lot of problems recognizing the letters and simple sight words. But he does know his “ABC’s” by rote – possible courtesy of Sesame Street. When I gave him a letter to identify, he would walk to the blackboard where a banner of letters of the alphabet has been tacked up. He would identify the shape of the letter and count it out. For instance, if presented with the letter “C”, he would go to the banner and find the letter and then count A … B … C and triumphantly call out “C”

The other boy cannot yet count to 20. He’s never learned, but can do simple multiplication by drawing circles and making marks in each circle. But he is still stuck with counting. How he always came up with the right answer was a mystery, until I saw him counting on a ruler taped to his desk with numbering. He would count with his finger on the ruler, and one finger one on his paper until he reached the right number, for instance 2 x 3 = 6.  He could do multiplications that went up to 20 (as per ruler) but did not know the names of the numbers. This would have normally been learned in grades one and two, but here kids can disappear for months to go to camp or stay with relatives in other fly-in communities, or just stay at home.

I am learning so much by watching the inventiveness of the kids.