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”

 

 

Advertisements

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

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

After I’d spent three years poking around the North, people in Nunavik started to get feedback from the stories I’d written and from my radio documentaries that aired across Canada, mainly in the South, in English or French.

“At the municipal council, we have been receiving a number of calls from people outside the community, checking to see if it was still safe to come to Puvirnituq after all the news broadcasts earlier this year … I now believe that news, especially bad news, should never be transmitted without the consent of the municipal council.”

The mayor of Puvirnituq (then still known as Povungnituk) said this edict was needed because of articles I wrote about his community in 1993 and 1994.

An excerpt from a news story in the Nunatsiaq News from November 2003, one of several which angered municipal officials.

An excerpt from a news story in the Nunatsiaq News from November 1993, one of several that angered municipal officials.

This is how things went: A female teacher from the South was brutally assaulted by a local man and left the community.

Although the new $7-million school had opened 29 days late, the school principal and the school facility director decided to close the school for yet another day.

“It’s nothing to do with white or Inuit,” Claude Vallières, the facility director, said in a story I wrote for the Nunatsiaq News.

“It’s about violence and I can’t let it go on for the sake of the children.”

This incident was soon followed by violence that affected all southern teachers who returned to Puvirnituq from Christmas holidays in early 1994. They found their homes had been trashed: ketchup spread on the walls, doors torn off, televisions smashed. The teachers refused to return to work unless the damage was repaired, appealing through the media — me — to call attention to their plight.

The outraged mayor then told the teachers in an official letter to stop all communication with members of the media.

Of course, it’s exactly this kind of violence and reaction which are considered as “news” by southern-style media and are always reported on. But the role of a free press and this new way of circulating news was still foreign in the 1990s — before the 1970s, any journalistic coverage  of anything was completely unknown in the eastern Arctic.

“Is the media in the North making it worse by exploiting the lives of abusers?” wrote a woman to the Nunatsiaq News. “When you give a name right on the front page or on the radio and what the person did, you are also affecting the child, wife, husband, grandparent and relatives.”

I subscribed to this Iqaluit-based weekly newspaper after picking it up a few times on trips in northern Quebec. In fact, I made my first telephone call to Iqaluit, to the newspaper’s office, to do this.

Before I called, I had to look on a map to see where Iqaluit is. For months afterwards, I read the newspaper every week when it arrived, trying to figure out where all the communities mentioned were located and to understand the issues.

In 1992, I submitted my first story to the Nunatsiaq News — on a topic that wouldn’t interest any media in the South, about a business dispute brewing in northern Quebec over fuel distribution rights.

I didn’t actually meet anyone on the staff of the newspaper until several months later, when I finally did make it to Iqaluit. Although I’d been reading the newspaper, the news didn’t prepare me for the first breath of minus 45 C air that hit me as I stepped off the plane in Iqaluit in March, 1993.

Even worse, the morning of my arrival, in Montreal, I had racked my glasses in half, and spent the first couple of days in Iqaluit almost blind, trying to find my way around in sub-zero temperatures until someone at the Nunavut Arctic College fine arts studio joined the two pieces together with a screw.

I found the office of the Nunatsiaq News in a renovated building called T-1, originally used by the United States Air Force, at an intersection in Iqaluit now known as the Four Corners.

Too small for the staff, the trailer’s walls looked as if they were held up by mounds of leftover newspapers. The air in the office was smoke-filled and stale. Old brown paper bags from take-out orders were stuck in between the stacks of newspapers.

Every table and desk held a computer or some other piece of equipment, but the paper was fed  to Ottawa for translation, layout and printing. The newspaper arrived  every Friday afternoon on the daily jet from Ottawa and was sent to communities all over the eastern Arctic. Printed in Inuktitut and English, it was then often the only current information available.

Whenever I returned to Iqaluit, even when I was working for CBC or other media, I stopped by the Nunatsiaq News office. I occasionally interviewed the staff for various reports I was doing. For a long time, I contributed only sporadically to the newspaper.

The Nunavik community of Salluit on Hudson Strait, April 1994. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

The Nunavik community of Salluit on Hudson Strait, April 1994. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

But there I was in 1994, sitting in the broom closet at Ikusik School in Salluit, mulling over what I’d write for the newspaper. I’d retreated to this bleak space after being kicked out of the meeting I was covering in this Hudson Strait community. I was armed with a set of earphones for interpretation. So, I sat with the mops and bails, listening in to “closed-door” discussions.

Although I’d been to Salluit before, its airport still seemed like the terminal at the end of the universe to me: huge, eroded mountains of rock, partially snow-covered and icy. You saw nothing of the community below.

But the who’s-who of 8,000 Inuit from communities in northern Quebec had come there to attend Makivik Corp.’s annual get-together — its annual general meeting.

Makivik administers land claims settlement funds for Inuit in northern Quebec. But in 1994 only a little over $120 million of the nearly $130 million  the organization had received after 1975 in compensation remained, a fact leaders had a hard time explaining — and they certainly didn’t want to talk at all about the state of their finances with any members of the media present.makivik_story_one

So journalists were told straight off that they were not welcome to sit in the meeting room, and would not receive a copy of audited financial statements, as in previous years’ annual general meetings.

But a careless delegate left a copy of the financial statements in the bathroom, where I picked it up.

I decide to duck into a broom closet next door to the bathroom. There, surrounded by mops and pails, in a small space I could visualize more than 20 years later, I continued to listen to the closed discussions on my headset.

It was clear that some people were upset that their capital had dropped $6 million in two years. They complained that too much of their money was spent in the South.

“If we spend a lot in the South, it’s the people there who are getting rich,” said one speaker. “And the situation here isn’t getting any better.”

“They’re getting rich, while people here are living like dogs,” another speaker said.

The stickler? Makivik had purchased a home for its incumbent president, Senator Charlie Watt, on the West Island area of Montreal. In the wake of a story about Watt, his property and business affairs by investigative  journalist Stevie Cameron for Macleans, which appeared just before the meeting and was distributed via fax throughout Nunavik, Watt lost his re-election vote. Scan 46

My own coverage before the meeting and about what took place there helped to spur more debate in Nunavik.

But not long after that meeting in Salluit, I began to experience harassment. These took the form of a hostile call to me at my office from a Makivik staffer, as well as letters and calls to my various employers.

Some publicly-elected officials in Nunavik also started to hang up on me, and I was told that all employees of a major organization in northern Quebec had been advised not to speak to me.

As well, a major story I was working on for a newspaper in the South was dropped: I couldn’t get both official sides of the story, I was told, because the some spokespeople from Makivik wouldn’t speak to me anymore.

The editor at this southern newspaper decided to listen more to my critics than to me — after all, I was just a freelancer.

The Nunatsiaq News stood by me, although I was only a very minor contributor. The staff members there had many similar stories of their own about harassment. I realized that I had a lot in common with everyone at the newspaper.

The next instalment of “Like an Iceberg” goes live April 15.

You can read the first blog entry of “Like an iceberg” from April 2 here.

You can 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”