Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “Working together”

Like an iceberg, 1996 cont.: “Working together”

In May 1996 I was once more in Salluit, a community on Nunavik’s Hudson Strait, this time working with Inuit broadcasters at the Taqramiut Nipingat Inc. network. This radio and television network brings news to Inuit in Nunavik, in Inuktitut, and I was helping them develop a series of television specials to celebrate their 20th anniversary.

By this time of the year, the days were getting warmer as the sun shone from early in the morning until late at night. Even on cloudy days, the sun sent out swaths of sunlight that lit up the mountains at the far side of the fiord facing the community.

Children screamed happily as they slid down the slippery hills around Salluit and there was a soft milling sound in the background as snowmobiles headed off on the land. Each breath was full of that heady springtime combination of exhaust and melting snow.

Boats are frozen in the ice, awaiting warmer days, in the spring of 1996. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Boats are frozen in the ice, awaiting warmer days, in the spring of 1996. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

I stood in front of the TNI studio with Joanasie Koperqualuk, taking in this spring scene, when he suddenly asked me, “What do you suppose today’s date is in Roman numerals?”

I told him I have no idea, but this question made me laugh.

Koperqualuk was always surprising me. He was the secretary at TNI, but we discussed the story lines and planned interviews together for TNI and for reports I was also working on for CBC radio at the same time.

He became much more than an interpreter when we talked to people together: Koperqualuk was able to translate simultaneously for me, but at the same time he was also planning the next question that I should ask before I could even think about it.

The small TNI studio was almost entirely run by Inuit — the only other non-Inuk around maintained the equipment. Daily radio broadcasts and weekly television programs were all prepared by Inuit: there were no non-Inuit here behind the scenes thinking they make things work.

One of the employees never showed up the whole time I was there, but Koperqualuk and the other employees looked down on him. Koperqualuk arrived at the office every morning at 8:30 a.m., and often stayed until late in the evening, to finish an important document or plan for the next day.

A view into the Nunavik community of Salluit in 1995. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

A view into the Nunavik community of Salluit in 1995. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Elder broadcaster, the late Elashuk Pauyungie, then 55, was in charge of radio programming, and she took her work seriously, too. I learned that Pauyungie, who spoke only Inuktitut, had lived in an igloo until she was 17.

She never went to school. When she was young, communication was limited to letters between camps, often delivered by dog-team. The community of Salluit didn’t exist.

And, when I’m there, Salluit was on the brink of more big changes. The giant nickel mining company Falconbridge Ltd. was starting to build the Raglan nickel mine, located not far from the community. People in Salluit were hoping for jobs at the mine: With unemployment officially at 30 per cent, any new job possibilities were welcome.

Down at the former restaurant, a group of students had started a two-year professional cooking course. When I visit, two of them were cutting up onions and potatoes for a salad, while another mashed eggs for sandwich filling. Another added whipped cream to a pie for dessert.

A big pile of snow beside the co-op store in Salluit is a draw to kids in the spring of 1996. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

A big pile of snow beside the co-op store in Salluit is a big draw for kids in the spring of 1996. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

As part of this course, the class had also been learning about making balanced meal menus and reading recipes. When participants mastered all aspects of cooking, they hoped jobs would be waiting for them at Raglan mine site.

The Quebec government gave Falconbridge the go-ahead to develop the Raglan nickel mine site in May 1995. Only a year later, serious construction work was beginning at Raglan, and jobs for qualified Inuit employees had already opened up.

Salluit and Kangiqsujuaq, the other community near the mine site, were also looking to link up with southern-based companies to make money.

About $75 million in compensation (and that turned out to be a low estimate) was already guaranteed over 20 years as part of the Raglan Agreement that Inuit signed with Falconbridge in 1995 —  money that could be used by the communities to invest in joint ventures.

But critics said this economic progress would come with a cost, environmental and social. Contaminants and pollutants might be stirred up by the mine’s construction as well as by the production and transport of nickel.

And nearby Deception Bay, a favourite hunting spot, where huge tankers would someday fetch nickel concentrate and deliver fuel, could be at risk from spills, airborne particles and run-off from the nickel extraction process that can produce substances like arsenic, chromium, cobalt and lead. Wildlife that provide country foods to Inuit in the region could also be affected by these contaminants.

Concern for the fragile environment around a future provincial park not far from the mine was also surfacing. The park would surround a huge naturally-formed crater called Pingualuit. Formed by the explosive impact of a meteorite 1.4 million years ago, this crater lake’s water is exceptionally pure, so clear and soft that researchers used it to study the atmospheric fall-out of trace elements.

Of course, the official word was then always that everyone supported the Raglan mine, but I didn’t have to look very hard to find dissenters.

A truck rolls along a road outside the Raglan mine in Nunavik in the mid-1990s. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

A truck rolls along a road outside the Raglan mine in the mid-1990s. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Putulik M. Okituk had nothing to fear from being outspoken. Twenty years earlier he had fallen off the top of the large gas reservoirs in Salluit while sniffing gas. He broke his back and had been in a wheelchair ever since. That fall changed his life, he told me.

In 1996, Okituk spent his time reading, listening to radio, playing crossword puzzles and thinking.

When I went over to his house, we chatted over tea. On this visit to Salluit, I learned that since I last saw him, Okituk had become also a municipal councillor.

Putilik Okituk is not afraid to say what he thinks about the Raglan mine. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Putilik Okituk is not afraid to say what he thinks about the Raglan mine. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

But he still believed that the compensation payment Inuit would receive for the Raglan mine development could not make up for “the impending carnage of their land.”

He was upset that more local people didn’t show up here at a meeting held in early 1995 to discuss the project with representatives of Falconbridge. Okituk said those who did were handicapped by their poor grasp of English.

“The people who could understand the proceedings were not fluent enough to voice their concerns or to oppose the meagre offerings put before them,” he said.

“In the long run, people who did not attend the meeting will regret not having gone to the meeting of their lifetime. There will be a greater regret once they see the mistake they made when they start to see what is happening to the land which they so lovingly refer to as ‘our land.’”

I also went with Koperqualuk to visit Jimmy Kakayuk, one of Salluit’s elders, to talk to him about the mine development. Kakayuk said he wasn’t impressed by a $350 cheque he had received as part of the compensation money from the Raglan Agreement. To Kakayuk, the cheque seemed a bit like a pay-off.

“What did I do to deserve this?” asked Kakayuk, a hunter and carver who not is used to getting something for doing nothing.

Despite promises of money and proper environmental management, in 1996, there was huge uncertainty over just what changes the communities would face during the estimated 20-year lifespan of the mine — which is still in operating in 2015.

Although mine workers from the South were not supposed to visit the neighbouring communities, contact would be inevitable leading perhaps to more drugs, more teenage pregnancies and perhaps even violence, I heard (Some of those fears were realized later when huge resource-sharing cheques saw people in town walking off from the job and spending the extra money on drugs and alcohol.)

In 1996 people said they are also worried about environmental damage and how this would be monitored.

“The only time Inuit go out extensively on the land is in winter and we’re in snowmobiles. What covers debris and garbage better than snow?” a critic of the mine said.

One afternoon I went out snowmobiling with L., a broadcaster at TNI. We headed out from Salluit down the bay. On both sides we were flanked by cliffs. Everything was white.

She dodged giant hummocks of ice. Finally, we stopped by an open spot of water where locals came to harvest mussels. L. smoked a cigarette, while I looked around. It was May 4, and I was standing in an icy landscape, while I knew that in the South the first spring flowers were already in bloom.

From the top of the hill near Salluit, the community below, 1996. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Salluit, from the top of a nearby hill, 1996. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

On the way back, we decided to head up one of the steep hills around Salluit. On top, the wind was blowing so hard it almost knocked us over, but you could see for kilometres, right over to Hudson Strait. The community spread out below us.

In the 1960s,  only a few dwellings hugged the shoreline of the bay. In 1996, new houses entirely filled the space between this hill and the next. A suburb had even sprung up since my last visit, a cluster of houses about 15 minutes from the centre of town, on the way up to the airport.

We raced down the hill back into town. While we were out on the land, I felt free: the streets of the community seemed to clash with the ice and snow we just navigated through.

I relished being in Salluit. I went to the Anglican church on Sunday, where I was invited home by fellow worshippers for Arctic char. I shopped at the co-op store and ran into people I knew.

I went visiting at night. I spent my evenings drinking tea and eating pilot biscuits. I visited with Elisapie Isaac, then a high school student and young broadcaster at TNI, who later would become a singer known throughout the North, in Quebec, and beyond.

When I leave Salluit, I was brought to the airport by Salluit resident Bill Smith. He always wore a tasseled crocheted hat, a nassak, with the word “Salluit” woven in the design.

As he dropped me off at the airport terminal, I suddenly remembered this hat from that first trip I took to Puvirnituq in 1991, but five years later, I, like everyone else that day, five years earlier, knew who the man wearing this hat is. This time he also knew me.

Like an iceberg continues April 29.

You can read previous instalments here:

Like an iceberg: on being a journalist in the Arctic

Like an iceberg, 1991…cont.

Like an iceberg, 1991…more

Like an iceberg, 1992, “Shots in the dark” 

Like an iceberg, 1992, “Sad stories”

Like an iceberg, 1993, “Learning the language of the snows”

Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Spring”

Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Chesterfield Inlet”

Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., more “Chesterfield Inlet”

Like an iceberg, 1994: “Seals and more”

Like an iceberg, 1994, cont., “No news is good news”

Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., more “No news is good news”

Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., “A place with four names”

Like an iceberg, 1995, “More sad stories”

Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “No place like Nome”

Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “Greenland”

Like an iceberg, 1995, cont. “Secrets”

Like an iceberg, 1996, “Hard Lessons”

 

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Like an iceberg, 1996, “Hard Lessons”

Like an iceberg, 1996: “Hard Lessons”

In 1996, the two-storey Jaanimmarik School building still dominated Kuujjuaq, which with a population of about 2,000 was Nunavik’s largest community, a little more than two hours north of Montreal by jet.

Jaanimmarik School in Kuujjuaq. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Jaanimmarik School in Kuujjuaq. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

I was told that the recently-opened school, with its $7-million price tag, offered state-of-the-art facilities to 430 students, but I was also told about a growing distemper inside the school, seeping in from the community, where tough family situations tormented students even at school.

One afternoon, when I was at the school, a young boy was dragged by two teachers into the counselor’s office. He was kicking and screaming: This kind of spontaneous, violent reaction is common, I learned.

“I can’t be as optimistic as I used to be about the future,” said a teacher who had taught in Kuujjuaq for 17 years.

When he arrived there in 1978, Kuujjuaq was still known as Fort Chimo, a trading post settlement whose residents lived mainly off the land. Few people worked at salaried jobs, while households were often ruled with an iron will by elders.

Many Inuit spoke no English, but believed that a good education was important. There was no television.

But change was not far off. The signing of the $90-million land claims deal that Inuit signed in 1975, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, unleashed a frenzy of construction and enormous sums of money for development.

This teacher said he was now teaching the children of his first students. Kuujjuaq’s population had doubled since he arrived, and the community had become a centre for all regional government and social services.

A growing number of Inuit had started to work in non-traditional jobs, and most extended families had broken up to live into separate dwellings with all services. In 1996, you could watch 28 channels on cable television.

A view of Kuujjuaq down to the Koksoak River. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

A view of Kuujjuaq down to the Koksoak River. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Many children often found no one at home to make sure they did their homework or went to bed at a reasonable hour. The children would arrive at school, only to fall asleep at their desks.

“You can do a lot with a child that is rested and fed, but sometimes I can’t do anything,” said another teacher. “But I want them to be in school. It’s a warm, safe place.”

That’s because, alcohol abuse had developed into a big problem: once, beer was sold by the local co-operative store only on Fridays, so people partied on the weekends.

In 1996, a bar was open during the weekdays, while beer was sold on Wednesday nights, too.

“Thursday is a bad day at school,” the longtime teacher said. “You’ll look at the class, see what they’re up to doing, and work accordingly.”

The construction of a $14-million sports arena also contributed to many late nights. Youngsters were supposed to leave what people dubbed “the Forum” by 9 p.m., but this curfew was not generally enforced. At midnight, the under-10 set was still milling around the bleachers, cheering on the home team.

“People aren’t are ready as they used to be to say “no” to their children,” said the centre director of Jaanimmarik School — the school’s chief administrator along with its principal — and one of that longtime teacher’s former students. “They take the easy way out. Old values are changing.”

The teachers I spoke with said everyone at Jaanimmarik School just tried to focus on the good, on those students with perfect attendance and on the success of graduates who have gone to college and even to university in the South, rather than on the reality that improved services and new opportunities may not improve their students’ quality of life.

But here was my problem: The story I wrote about this school enraged the school commissioners, who imagined government officials looking at my figures and cutting their subsidies as a result.

In the printed article, I mentioned all the names, all the sources. The teacher I quoted called me in desperation. He was worried about his job. I felt terrible about the difficult position I’d put him in.

“No one says that what you’re saying isn’t true,” a sympathetic school board official said. “But they don’t want to have it in the Ottawa Citizen.”

I stare at this large mural as I am getting denounced during the Makivik AGM in Inukjuak in 1996. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

I stare at this large mural as I am getting denounced during the Makivik AGM in Inukjuak in 1996. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

I thought again about those words as I sat at the annual general meeting of Makivik Corp. in Inukjuak, which took place the same week that the school story got published and circulated by fax around Nunavik.

“Journalists lie,” I heard the familiar droning voice of the interpreter say through my ear phones. “And these journalists sit here and pretend to listen.”

It was J. talking at the mike, and he was talking about me. I’m taking down his words, but they begin to look like ants crawling over my paper.

I stayed with J. and his family in their Nunavik home the previous year for 10 days. J. played video games almost constantly on a Game-Boy. He also butchered a caribou leg into filets with delicate dexterity.

When I asked him about a charismatic display at the end of a local Anglican church service, with crying, gestures, member of the congregation speaking in tongues, “it’s our culture,” he said.

Two days before this meeting where J. stands now to denounce me, I had run into him as he was riding around on a snowmobile here in town. It was like seeing an old friend. But there he was,  speaking against me in front of 150 people in this cavernous gym.

My ears were ringing. I concentrated on staring at the back of the mayor of Kuujjuaq — usually my friend.

But everyone seemed angry at me. No one was looking at me while the accusations went on and on. I felt waves of shame rolling over me.

It was all due to that story, which talked about the failures of education in Kuujjuaq, of the legions of tired, neglected children with alcoholic parents, millions of government money spent in vain, the frustration of waste. No one wanted anyone to hear about this, especially from me.

The shame that I was feeling felt real enough. What was I thinking? I was in this isolated community and all these people were now against me… My editors in Ottawa and Iqaluit were sitting in their offices. I felt defenceless. I felt small, meaningless, scared, devalued.

I am photographing this fashion show of traditional closing when I am dragged out and threatened by a Makivik lawyer at the 1996 Makivik AGM in Inukjuak. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

I am photographing this fashion show of traditional closing when I am dragged out and threatened by a Makivik lawyer at the 1996 Makivik AGM in Inukjuak. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

The night before, I was dragged out of a traditional fashion show that I was photographing and threatened by a non-Inuk lawyer who works with Makivik. He accused me of pilfering papers left for AGM delegates (likely in reaction to my reports from the broom closet at the 1994 AGM)

“People don’t like the articles you write,” said the lawyer, wagging his finger in my face. “We could put you in jail. We could put you in jail right now.”

“No, you can’t,” I said. “I haven’t done anything and it’s against the law to stick someone in jail when you have no proof of a crime.”

I walked back into the fashion show — but, even later, I would remember his stupid threats and avoid him in every way I can.

There in the meeting, the next day, I tried to think above the buzz of the Inuktitut and its English interpretation, about a friend who was dying of AIDS, my kids back home, but I felt stuck on the total, utter dead-end of my emotional and professional life.

I felt as if I was becoming part of the social problems, the destruction of life and resources which I’d been uncovering and covering now for five years.

Right then, it felt like a big circle. The apple that vanished under the Twin Otter in 1991, on my first visit to Nunavik, made a circle: It gravitated around the northern universe back and hit me square in the head.

A trilingual stop sign in InukJuak, spring of 1996. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

A trilingual stop sign in InukJuak, spring of 1996. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

And it hurt, although that hurt would eventually fade and harden into a scar that would no feeling at all.

Five years previously I knew almost nothing of the North and no one here knew me. Now they knew me, and felt that I knew much too much.

In 1996, before flying out of Inukjuak, I did manage to cover the meeting where the Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin and Makivik’s president Zebedee Nungak signed a $10 million “reconcilation” agreement between Canada and the High Arctic exiles.

However, Irwin said he did not want to apologize for the actions of civil servants who organized the relocation of families from Inukjuak and Pond Inlet to Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord in the 1950s. Such an apology from Ottawa would not occur until 2010.

How did this incident affect my future work? Well, I learned how to widen my circle of reliable sources and how to protect them, without jeopardizing my stories, and watch out for myself.

The next instalment of “Like an iceberg” goes live April 28.

You can read previous instalments here:

Like an iceberg: on being a journalist in the Arctic

Like an iceberg, 1991…cont.

Like an iceberg, 1991…more

Like an iceberg, 1992, “Shots in the dark” 

Like an iceberg, 1992, “Sad stories”

Like an iceberg, 1993, “Learning the language of the snows”

Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Spring”

Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Chesterfield Inlet”

Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., more “Chesterfield Inlet”

Like an iceberg, 1994: “Seals and more”

Like an iceberg, 1994, cont., “No news is good news”

Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., more “No news is good news”

Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., “A place with four names”

Like an iceberg, 1995, “More sad stories”

Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “No place like Nome”

Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “Greenland”

Like an iceberg, 1995, cont. “Secrets”