University of Inuit

A unique school in Ottawa prepares Inuit students for university and the wider world

APART FROM WHERE HE GREW UP, Randy Kataluk is a typical 22-year-old. He plays the electric guitar and pretty much any sport. He loves Metallica and the Leafs. He is also from Coral Harbour, Nunavut, a community of 800 people on Southampton Island at the top of Hudson Bay. Like most Arctic settlements, Coral Harbour is only accessible by plane, prone to blizzards and offers basic services — a health centre, a grocery store, a two-person RCMP detachment, a couple of churches. Jobs here are scarce. In 2006 Kataluk graduated from Coral Harbour’s only school and aimlessly moved from odd job to job for a few years before applying to Nunavut Sivuniksavut, an eight-month academic transition program that readies Inuit youth for college or the workforce. It is the only program of its kind, catering specifically to Inuit with a relevant mix of cultural and academic study, as well as urban-life experience — all of it in Ottawa, thousands of kilometres from home.

Kataluk describes the program as “pretty life changing,” in that invigorating way that comes with conquering something that nearly breaks you. “I got so tired of it,” he recalls. “I just wanted to quit; it felt so impossible.” He was sick of being broke, sick of being homesick. The schoolwork was hard and problems brewed back home. But, with prodding and tough love from his teachers, who become like family, Kataluk not only managed, he thrived. He took to his studies with zeal, volunteered for everything, and got high praise from instructors for his character, leadership and smarts, skills that he intends to take back home after completing the recreation program at Algonquin College. “If I didn’t do NS,” he says, “I’m very sure I would not have gotten into college.”

Most Nunavut teens don’t finish high school, let alone attend college. The territory has the lowest high-school graduation rate in the country; it’s estimated only three out of 10 students finish. This is the dismal situation for Inuit across the country, only four percent of which have a university degree, according to the last census. The reasons are varied and complex, having roots in the bumps of rapid cultural change, the damage of residential schools and simple logistics. (Staffing qualified teachers is a constant challenge in many communities.) Nunavut schools generally follow southern-designed curricula, which don’t yet teach Inuit history, even the very recent story of how the country’s newest territory was created 11 years ago. “More people might care about high school if we learned relevant stuff like about John Amagoalik [the grandfather of Nunavut] instead of Winston Churchill and World War II,” says Alannah Johnston, an astute 19-year-old NS grad from Igloolik, who’s bound for Carleton University in the fall.

Students at NS have graduated high school (it’s a pre-requisite), but in terms of life experience, many had never left Nunavut before coming to Ottawa. Some had never been on a plane or city bus, never seen a mall or a McDonald’s. But more importantly, most lacked cultural pride and the confidence to navigate the wider world. It is a reflection of the grand conundrum facing today’s young Inuit, at once pulled by both worlds, traditional and modern, barely fluent in either.

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NUNAVUT SIVUNIKSAVUT runs out of a two-storey office building on Rideau St. Students are here five days a week from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, learning a diverse curriculum that aims to give young Inuit a leg up in the modern world, while grounding them in their culture.

When NS launched in 1985, it had the narrow aim to teach a few Ottawa-based Inuit about the land claims process, which had just been initiated and would result in the creation of Nunavut in 1999. There were only two students (one later dropped out) and one instructor, a self-described “policy wonk” named Murray Angus, who was working for the Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut — the organization representing Inuit in the negotiations and which spearheaded the idea of an Inuit training program. Angus had zero teaching experience and had never been to the Arctic. But it was an exciting time for Inuit and Angus wanted to be part of it. With each year came more funding, eventually a board of directors, and a broader mandate by TFN to create a comprehensive program that would educate young Inuit in a way that couldn’t be done at home, so they could participate in its making.

Four years in, Angus hired Morley Hanson, a wiry, warm teacher from Quebec with experience in alternative and adult education. The two quickly became sidekicks, matched in energy and drive. Through trial and error and buoyed by small triumphs, they crafted and honed the curriculum as it is today, and in 2003 introduced a “second-year” program focused on post-secondary school preparation. Over its 25 year history, NS has graduated more than 330 students.

In addition to taking core subjects like essay writing and basic computers, NS students get to learn primarily about themselves. In history class they’re taught about when, barely a century ago, Inuit were land-dependent nomads moving with the seasons, and the relatively recent period following white contact via whalers, missionaries and, later, the federal government with its imposed settlements and administration. There is a course dedicated solely to the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, a 20-year effort by an army of federal bureaucrats and small pool of early Inuit leaders, who were feeling their way through the groundbreaking negotiations for self-determination. “It’s one of the most remarkable stories in Canada’s history,” says Angus. “It is empowering for students to know what their leaders accomplished.”

As they learn about where they came from, students also look ahead, delving into contemporary issues facing Inuit, such as the looming effects of climate change and the international stigma around seal hunting. A few years ago, when European countries were plotting a ban of sealskin imports — a decision that would likely hurt Nunavut’s hunting economy — NS students gathered their drums and donned their parkas and protested on Parliament Hill. This kind of out-of-classroom real-world learning is also a key part of the curriculum. Students are taught how to drum dance and throat sing, and throughout the year are expected to perform at various venues as part of cultural outreach. The climax of the school year is a trip abroad, ideally somewhere they can engage with local indigenous people. Past years have gone to Mongolia and New Zealand, and this year’s class endured the sweltering jungles of Nicaragua, again with the aim of building broader perspective about the world and their place within it, especially for the students who’d never travelled.

But even just moving to a city like Ottawa is a life-changer for many of the students. This is not to say Inuit are archaic or utterly disconnected, but if you have only ever lived in a community of 800 people, in one house with most of your extended family, where life runs at a pace dictated by weather and isolation, the most basic workings of a modern city would elude you, things like how public transportation works, paying bills, managing a bank account (most Nunavut communities don’t have a bank).

Murray Angus describes some of the students’ first urban experience as going from a one-room house with one radio playing one station to entering a Future Shop showroom with its wall of blaring TVs, all on different channels. “Down here, one of the first skills we learn is how to filter out 95 percent of the stimulus around us,” he says. “And when students land in Ottawa, they don’t have those filters; they’re taking it all in, and it’s bloody exhausting.”

Photo by John Burridge

The idea that NS students go south — to the country’s bureaucratic hub, no less — for their Inuit education rankled some Northerners early on. There was the odd regional politician or parent who voiced concern periodically. But this was in the early years, before NS had proven it was more than just a passing experiment, which would churn out a yearly crop of confident, well-rounded young people who would then go home and help run their communities.

“So much of what happens here is counter-intuitive,” acknowledges Angus. “The idea of Inuit coming down to Ottawa to learn their culture and history? But the location is a huge part of its success. And, it’s not because we thought it through in advance. We learned from the students.”

The southern exposure, the independent living, the cultural and personal realizations, it all worked together in a way that Angus and Hanson couldn’t have predicted. “The students are at a time of life when they’re trying to figure out who they are as an individual and their place in the world. At the same time, they’re learning about their peoples’ history and place in the world,” says Hanson. “No one could have set out to design this program with that goal in mind. That’s the beauty of it.”

Perhaps for this reason, retention rates at NS are high. And a recent alumni survey shows roughly 80 percent of grads get jobs in Nunavut, many of those in their home communities. “They’re much sought after when they go home,” says Hanson. “They stand out in some way. It’s their confidence, enthusiasm to get involved; it’s a new drive and commitment.”

The majority of grads take jobs with the territorial government, which is forever working to beef up its Inuit workforce. Others have gone on to be teachers, heads of Inuit organizations and business owners — modest professions, but important in terms of building the collective confidence of a people to run their own affairs. “Given the population of Nunavut [27,000],” says Angus. “It’s possible that the relatively small number of people that come out of NS can have a disproportionate impact.”

Twenty-nine-year-old Neevee Wilkins is a testament to this. The bubbly Iqaluit school teacher attended NS in 1999, when Nunavut officially became a territory. “I wasn’t too sure what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. Her year at NS, particularly witnessing the impression the instructors made on the students, got her thinking about her own ability to inspire young minds. “NS really made me realize that if all this can happen to me in one year — learning about myself and my culture — imagine what a teacher could do in a lifetime.” After graduating from NS, Wilkins returned home to Iqaluit and took the teacher education program at Nunavut Arctic College. She’s been teaching at Iqaluit’s elementary school since, with a brief stint as vice principal. She was elected vice president of Nunavut’s Status of Women’s Council, where she’s still a board member. In 2008, she took a sabbatical and returned to NS to be an intern instructor. “It was like going full-circle,” she says. “If hadn’t done NS, I wouldn’t be a teacher. I wouldn’t have had that kind of belief in myself. And I wouldn’t be striving to do better and be better. Because now I challenge myself, I push my limits.”

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THIS YEAR’S CONVOCATION is held on a cool, cloudy May afternoon in the old City Hall building on Sussex Dr. The room is sky-lit and carpeted, lively with expectant family members and a few Northern dignitaries and politicians who’ve flown in from Nunavut. The grads clump together in their fineries, giddy with nerves. Like the program itself, the ceremony is intimate and unconventional. There are no caps and gowns or valedictorians; all 22 students are called to the stage to say a few words.

Charmaine Okatsiak takes the podium wearing kamiks, traditional Inuit sealskin boots, and a blue parka-style pullover. She is stern-faced at the microphone, trying unsuccessfully to tamp her welling emotion. She cries softly for a few moments and manages to stammer something in Inuktitut, the Inuit language, then continues her speech in English: “This is the day we prove we have completed this program. This is the day we can say we know more about Nunavut, about our culture — about ourselves.”

This unabashed outpouring of emotion is common; very nearly all the grads can’t get through their speech without choking up — some fully weeping — amid their thank-yous and recollections of the challenging past year. “The changes I see with students — it’s miles,” says Hanson. “It’s rare that someone doesn’t get up at the ceremony and say, ‘I’m no longer ashamed to be an Inuk.’”

For the original article, see the January 2011 issue of Reader’s Digest Canada.

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