What comes to mind when you hear the words “northern Canada”? Probably the clichés — relentless blizzards in -60oC weather, vast stretches of tundra, polar bears, and the northern lights. However, I see the North as a place of invaluable friendship and unforgettable memories.
I spent the week of April 13-19 in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, a predominantly Inuit community of about 3000 inhabitants situated at 62 degrees latitude. It is isolated, as there are no direct flights from Toronto to Rankin, and the hefty $2000 price tag for a flight hinders tourist activity. I visited Rankin on an exchange between Toronto youth and Inuit youth from Rankin that was organized and (almost completely) sponsored by Canadian Roots Exchange (CRE), a non-profit organization seeking to promote reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups within Canada. I embarked on this journey because I was attracted to CRE’s mission and have always dreamed of discovering more about my country through cultural immersion.
During the week, the eleven other Torontonians and I bonded with our seventeen Rankin hosts through sledding, ice fishing, workshops on Canada’s controversial colonial history, and Inuit activities such as throat singing. I had so much fun embarrassing myself when trying to emulate our throat singing instructor. I also fondly remember the day when an elder came in to teach us the traditional way of heating igloos, which used seal fat to light a fire. It reassured me to see that despite centuries of repression, the Inuit remained fiercely proud of their own identity.
Apart from participating in cultural activities, we spent a lot of time outdoors. I took every opportunity to explore Rankin, whose tiny buildings, unpaved streets, and northern lights were the polar opposite of Toronto’s skyscrapers and light pollution. Every time I took the snowmobile or sled, I couldn’t help but smile as I felt the wind hit my face. I continued smiling carefreely on the fishing trip, where I sat by a hole in the frozen lake, cane in hand, sipping on lake water, and nibbling raw caribou meat. And again when I saw one of my teammates catch two large fish. These experiences have forged a deep relationship between me and the land, and they have reaffirmed my desire to preserve the ephemeral beauty of our planet.
But how this exchange differed from my other travels were the ties I established. I stayed with Bernie and Sam, a hospitable and educated older couple. We had numerous discussions regarding the disproportionately high drug abuse, suicide, and school dropout rates among Inuit. I was deeply inspired by the story of Sam, a former drug addict who recovered with his family’s support, and that of their three children, all of whom have graduated from high school (in northern communities, this is a rare occurrence). Bernie and Sam taught their children the value of hard work from an early age, and believed that this, along with culturally appropriate assistance, will help the Inuit overcome their hardships. In addition to Sam and Bernie, all the other people I met were exceptionally welcoming. The evening of Easter, I dined with Bernie’s extended family. When playing with the 20-or-so kids at the dinner, I enjoyed answering their numerous questions about Toronto. Moreover, when I got frostbite on my hands while fishing, one of the Rankin girls offered me her sealskin mitts and treated my hands. I found the generosity of Rankin locals truly moving, and I can only hope that everyone, everywhere can be just as generous.
Needless to say, I had a hard time bidding goodbye to my friends in Rankin when it came time to part. I will forever cherish the memories I shared with my team, and I am infinitely grateful to have been able to travel to a corner of the globe so often dreamed of but little understood. Not only do I wholeheartedly recommend a trip to the Arctic to learn its stories, I encourage you to seize every opportunity to broaden your horizons. A holistic understanding of the world is an integral step in promoting the peace our world needs today.
For more information about Canadian Roots Exchange and the youth exchanges they organize, visit: http://canadianroots.ca/
Written by: Cindy Chen