Killaq-Shayna Enuaraq-Strauss was one of the twelve youth chosen to represent Canada in an international cultural exchange program called Ship for World Youth Leaders, hosted by the Government of Japan. This is a reflection piece of what being Canadian means to her.
Canadangujunga means “I am Canada” in Inuktitut. Inuit are one of the three Indigenous Peoples native to our country, and one of very few peoples who have survived in the cold, dark Arctic for over ten thousand years. Now, adjectives like cold and dark may sound bleak but in actuality there is an innate beauty in the long winters with no sun. There’s a sense of connection when you stand under the northern lights and just breathe.
Often times, those of us who grew up in the arctic laugh at tourists and newcomers when they’re so in awe of the land we know so well. But, that same feeling of awe hits me so hard whenever it’s just me, the land, and my ancestors watching. And I don’t mean that I think there are ghosts following my every move. It’s just an ever-present sense of home that I can’t describe any other way. I belong between these vast mountains and under a sky that hits the horizon but goes on forever.
There’s a feeling of complete vulnerability that comes along with recognizing just how old the world is, and just how young Nunavut is; Canada is.
Because my ancestors, they’re the ones who survived; resilience and intelligence guiding them through conditions that most would starve, freeze, or get eaten in. They were here long before the British, or the French, or even the Vikings. And one of the things that separate Inuit from other Indigenous communities is just how minimal our contact has been with the rest of Canada, and just how recent our colonization has been.
There has been a Canadian presence in the North for quite a while, but in the form of a few missionaries and the ever-colonial Hudson’s Bay company. While there was contact, the Inuit were still living traditional, nomadic lives.
My grandparents were both born on the Tundra, with only family to help. My mother and her siblings were born in their family home in a little town called Clyde River.
It’s this knowledge, this breathtaking truth, that makes me feel so proud to be Inuk. But it also hurts me. It makes me feel ashamed that I will never know the land, the stories, and the language that I’m so proud of. Not like my cousins or their families. I used to blame it on the fact that my father is white – I’m white. I still have trouble sometimes admitting to myself and to others that I’m white. But, it isn’t my whiteness that kept me from my culture, at least not directly. Some of it is based on the fact that, as a child, other Inuit saw only my whiteness. It wasn’t even that though. It was the privilege that comes with being white. I hate it because I grew up with so many opportunities that my neighbours, classmates, and friends did not get because they didn’t have an entire pale family waiting for them each summer in southern Canada. And the division was obvious. My family is not well-off. I grew up knowing this. I always noticed the difference between my home and the homes of my white friends. If we had grown up anywhere else in Canada, I know that we’d be considered poor; there were times when my father had no work and my mother was a student who constantly had to travel and I never had the piles upon piles of Christmas gifts under the new, fresh trees that were always so much bigger and brighter than our own. But in Nunavut? Well, I’m one of the luckiest Inuit around. I have a home that isn’t filled with my entire extended family. I have food on the table, expensive and old, but food. That’s a lot more than can be said for other Nunavummiut. Canada has the highest rates of poverty in any developed country. How many southern Canadians know this? Not many. In fact, there’s an entire history that I’m constantly finding myself explaining, every time I meet new people, Canadian, American, or International.
I guess that’s one of the reasons I find myself both so excited, but also so very terrified, about representing Canada internationally. Because to me, Canada is something which has hurt my family so much. As a student studying in America, I find myself distancing myself from our great country so much. Everyone always says to me, “wow Canada seems so cool, everyone is so nice, your Prime Minister is so gorgeous” and I get so angry, so frustrated because to the entire world, this seems true. But it isn’t, at least, not always. So, I want to break down a quick bit of truth when it comes to what Canada is to me.
Canada is a mother who, along with countless cousins and friends, suffers from PTSD, depression, anxiety, and alcoholism because of residential schools and no mental health resources. Canada is cousins who have never seen trees because travel prices are so expensive that they will never leave Nunavut. Canada is volunteering at the soup kitchen and seeing familiar faces, thin and cold.
Canada is hunting – caribou, seal, ptarmigan. Canada is being called savage for relying on these traditional ways of life to sustain ourselves. Canada is one of the places where Inuit have thrived for years, inventing igloos, kayaks, and many other creative ways to survive. Canada is suicide rates that impact every single one of my friends. Canada is where, every winter, there are community games in the nearest hall big enough to host, bringing together generations of people for nights of fun. Canada is the murder of my cousin and her young daughters because our women’s shelter was too full to take them in when she tried to leave her abusive partner.
Nunavut doesn’t have the resources needed to take care of a population that has been largely hurt by our government, church, and society. Every single person in Nunavut, every Inuk, has faced racism, has faced abusive behaviour, has faced internal struggles because we were given our land (sort of) and not much else.
Where is the medical support? There are elders who have died because of strokes, of cancer that southern nurses deemed as alcoholism, never mind the fact that these elders did not drink.
There are babies who died because they were turned away from the health centre when the nurses didn’t feel like dealing with them, forget proper protocol.
There are kids my age, younger, older, who will never see tomorrow because they didn’t see a future for themselves in this cycle of hurt and anger and isolation.
This is why, when someone calls me Canadian, I get so angry. “I’m from Nunavut.” I distance myself from the country stolen from my ancestors.
So, maybe chosen to represent Canada seems weird. But, who better to represent a country than someone who has lived through the goods as well as the bads?
Because, there are goods too. I promise. I may be bitter but I can acknowledge the amazing opportunities I have been given as a Canadian. I have been able to travel the world because my small town, a close community, bands together to raise money so high school kids get a chance to travel. Europe, Asia, Egypt, The Pacific – these are some of the places my high school has travelled.
I have been able to look up to some amazing Indigenous leaders, ranging from Marius Tungilik, my cousin, who was a leader in creating a home for Inuit, who spoke out about his mental illness and his scars from abuse in residential school, to Carey Price, the Goalie for the Montreal Canadiens who came from a small rez in British Columbia and makes sure to give back to his home, bringing young kids to play hockey with him.
I have been able to grow up in one of the most gorgeous, unique landscapes that the world has left mostly untouched.
I know the stories, the legends of the land that keep us safe from harm, the creativity and humour of Inuit culture. The sense of total connection, responsibility of family. So many people take family for granted, or don’t see their family often enough. I’m lucky because I get to be a part, a huge part, of my younger cousins’ lives. I can feel at home in whatever Nunavut community I go to because I do have a home, as long as there is family or friends, I will always be welcome.
I get to call Iqaluit home – a place that needs a lot of help, but also brings a lot forward. Feasts of freshly caught meat for the entire community. Amazing festivals in the spring and summer to celebrate the different voices, artwork, of other Nunavummiut. Music and art that have been passed down through generations of oral history. The knowledge of how to sew, how to make sure that the furs we use to keep warm are treated properly and made with love but also dedication to keep everyone safe in the harsh climate.
So, to me, Canada is… Canada is learning how to love with every part of my being, learning to accept all sides, and to learn from all perspectives.
Killaq Shayna Enuaraq-Strauss