I am working on a piece for Counterpunch on Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” that was made in 1921 and generally considered the first documentary ever. I saw it for the first time at the Smithsonian American Indian Museum downtown a couple of weeks ago, with musical accompaniment by Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit throat singer from Nunavut, the newest Canadian province and home to both Nanook (not his real name) and Tagaq.
While getting up to speed on the background to this movie, I remembered that we had a Marxmail subscriber early on who was working on a computer science curriculum for Nunavut’s first university. I was pleased to discover that his messages to the list from 13 years ago were archived. Here’s one of some import:
Nunavut: A permanent land for nomadic people
Nunavut Arctic College is not a single campus. It is a series of Learning Centres in 20+ communities serving a population of about 29,000 in the new territory. There has been tremendous growth here since the Territory became independent on April 1, 1999. The influx of people represent government people, diamond and gold mine managers and workers, and criminals from the Vancouver area who want to establish a claim to organising an exchange of diamonds for drugs with those who will be hired to work in the new mines.
I’ve been in Kugluktuk aka Coppermine since August last year. The community is situated on the edge of Coronation Bay that flows into the Arctic Ocean some distance north. There are islands in sight, and people drive out on their snow machines to hunt caribou or check their fishing nets for Arctic Char or other fish. For reasons that I don’t understand I learned that the Char in this area are the ‘biggest’ in the north. I’m not certain if that is a northern ‘fishing yarn, or if there is any truth to the story.
Becoming the stewards of a huge chunk of ice and tundra means that culturally there will be the political assertions of being able to ‘go back to the old ways’ but what does that mean? Arctic communities are not so different from other communities overseas that have been ‘left behind’ as the rest of the country moved on and so we might begin with the question, “What language should we use”?
In Nunavut there are two ‘principle’ languages Innuktituk and Innuinaqtun. The minister for education visited my class and began speaking in dialect and nobody in the class understood a word he said and asked him to use English. In the government offices the principle language is English but the country is bilingual and so business also has to be done in French, which only a relatively few people speak. The outcome for the new territory is that all official documents have to be prepared in English, French, and the Inuit dialect of choice.
The Territory is divided into three regions: Baffin Region in the East, Kitikmeot (meaning Central), and Keewatin, which is to the south of us. Kugluktuk is in the Kitikmeot Region and we are the most western point on the Nunavut map, next door, so to speak, to Northwest Territories (NWT) and for administrative purposes the government is already going through a ’decentralisation process’
Just to complete the identification of the land to the west, on the other side of NWT is Yukon Territory, while beyond that again is Alaska. In the northern strip of Canada to the east Nunavut has territory close to Quebec but no territory was ceded to Nunavut from that province.
As you know the land mass of the north is massive and sparsely populated. For example, we in Canada are just about 10% of the US population at approximately 30-35 million people. Indigenous groups exist in all parts of Canada except Newfoundland where they were exterminated some years ago. Except for Quebec which has its own northern and aboriginal programme other native groups are ’looked after’ by the federal government Department of Indian and Northern Development. When I worked in the northern part of Quebec 30+ years ago the government person was called an Indian Agent. Names change but the history of the years of exploitation remains.
There is a lot going on socially, politically, and economically but the ordinary Inuit sees very little of the benefits. I’ve mentioned other aboriginal groups deliberately because the lives of all of them are intertwined, if by nothing else then by the forms of exploitation and history of oppression. Among these number members of the invading, trading and praying brigade who moved like locusts across the land sucking the living spirit out of those it exploited and leaving the debris of abused people in their wake.
The Hudson Bay Company from the UK was concerned with furs and instant wealth. The original banalities of the original investors (aristocracy) couldn’t see the usefulness of Canada as a land, what they wanted was trading posts to supply the wealth from the north. The different clergy came along too, hanging on the coat-tails of mighty in order to establish their own bridghead. There have been many stories told of sexual abuse of aboriginal kids who were forced away to residential schools by the clergy. They were forbidden to use their own languages and mistreated in different ways. Much the same as ‘disowned’ children from England who were cleared out of the orphanages and shipped overseas to ’colonise’ different countries at the age of five years and up. The Christian Brothers in Australia were the same Catholic group who did a great deal of damage to the kids here in Canada. Quebecers suffered until the late 1960′s with the domination of the church because the church dictated all aspect of life in the province.
The Inuit here were nomads and they still went out ‘On the Land’ until about fifty years ago when the federal government ordered them to be in one place. For the people here Kugluktuk used to be a summer meeting place for a few weeks of the year. Scattered communities, family groups lived along the coast for many miles but the Inuit had no sense of everybody living together. They had hunting and survival skills a-plenty but they had no written language. Although they stopped moving around, and I don’t yet know how the government compelled them to stop their migratory traditions, people still go away for extended periods of time. As a result of the continued extended trips on the land I’ve had men and women in my courses that have only been to school for a few weeks when they were very young. One 24-year-old man, a hunter, could read but he could not write and like two or three others in the class he had no idea how to approach math. Putting numbers down in order to perform addition of tens, or hundreds proved to be a complex operation.
Although I was here in the north 27 years ago I was moving around more working with people who wanted to establish retail co-operative stores. This time, being in the classroom I have learned a little more about the impact of education on particular individuals. The white mans education doesn’t serve too many white people very well and yet governments impose a lousy system on people of totally different cultures. Certainly Inuit people within their own community boundaries have not fared too well. I am informed that the successful people who are currently in government, or who are in business were sent ‘out’ for their education. That does not necessarily mean to the Residential schools, but to say, Yellowknife, NWT to stay in a hostel for a number of years before returning home or going on to university. For the people I’ve had in my class there is the difficulty of ‘thinking things through’. I’m a supporter of the concept of critical theory and I like to bring to different learning groups a critical approach to whatever we are doing. For my students here thinking in the abstract was foreign. The stock answer to me requesting ‘some idea’ of the problem was universally ‘I dunno…’ This was not an adult student recalling the practice of avoidance of his or her school days. This was an honest answer; there was no sense of connecting two separate things to create a third. Let me give a very simple every day example. I didn’t know where we could begin because I have learned that when a person tells me they have completed grade nine I wait to make my own assessment because they do not have the associated thinking or problem solving skills that should accompany that level of accomplishment.
I soon learned that three or four people had difficulty with their multiplication tables. I had prepared a block chart, do you remember the kind of thing, from 1 to 12 along the top and from 1 to 12 down the side and in each square intersecting two numbers (top and bottom) the appropriate result of multiplying both those numbers. Yes, they said they understood. We were talking later about a math problem that required multiplication. Instead of using their new chart, they were trying to determine the answer by scratching in their notebook the ‘many different’ possibilities to find the correct answer. Not a single person had thought to use the multiplication chart and did not understand me when I told them that it was a tool to assist in solving other problems. The difficulties are many. And there is the need for employment.
I’ll write again. Peter