Iglu school: Nunavut elder brings teachings to Nunatsiavut Inuit
“I enjoyed it, cutting out the blocks and putting them in place"
Ron Lyall is a 76-year-old Inuk who lived his whole life without ever building an iglu.
That was until a few weeks ago, in early March, when Piita Irniq, a former Nunavut commissioner and territorial politician, took Allen and a few other Nunatsiavut elders onto Lake Melville near Happy Valley-Goose Bay to build a snow house.
“I was always told you can’t build a snow house in Goose Bay because the snow’s not right,” Lyall said, his voice tinged with that tell-tale Labrador accent. “But it is right, if you look for it. It’s all part of survival, right?”
The Inuit of Nunatsiavut have done many things to survive — get educated, learn English, get jobs, raise families — and in so doing, many have lost their language and culture.
In an effort to help Labrador Inuit regain some of those lost traditions, the Nunatsiavut Government, which represents some 4,500 Inuit beneficiaries of the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement, brings in elders from other regions to run workshops and teach Inuktitut.
Piita Irniq is one such teacher.
An elder from Repulse Bay who travels around the country — and around the world — teaching people about Inuit culture, Irniq has been invited to Nunatsiavut several times and he says he always gets a warm welcome
“The last three years have been fantastic because a lot of people have had an opportunity to learn, and re-learn, about their culture,” Irniq says.
The iglu building with the elders was one of the highlights of his most recent visit in late February and early March 2014.
“They were fascinated by it,” he said.
Allen, a life-long tradesman who spent most of his time as a construction worker, contractor and handyman, said he never knew how to find the right kind of snow and was unaware that the blocks need to be spooled out, like one long twisting ribbon.
“I enjoyed it, cutting out the blocks and putting them in place. I just thought you’d lay the blocks down on top of each other, like concrete blocks for a basement,” he said.
Allen said he’s going to try to build his own iglu one day and he’s keen to teach others what he’s learned.
Which is exactly what Irniq, and the NG, are hoping will happen.
Irniq’s visits are part of a “Culture as Healing” program that the NG runs through their health and social services department.
Allen, speaking from his home in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, said the need for culture as healing is great in Nunatsiavut.
Although he did not attend residential school in Newfoundland and Labrador, he knows many who did and they continue to suffer from mental health problems and addictions.
It’s doubly difficult for Nunatsiavummiut because they were left out of the federal residential school compensation program. That’s because the boarding schools were built before Newfoundland-Labrador entered Confederation in 1949.
When Stephen Harper delivered his historic apology to Canada’s aboriginal peoples in the House of Commons June 11, 2008, Nunatsiavut Inuit and Labrador Innu were excluded.
“People there feel sad and upset by it,” said Irniq, who is currently in Iqaluit guest hosting Tausunni on CBC radio.
“I am upset that the prime minister never apologized to the Inuit and the Innu. They have lost a lot of their culture and language to the point where many can no longer speak Inuktitut.”
Lyall has made a couple of string games and says he knows a few Inuktitut words, but that’s about it. He says children have to learn Inuktitut and speak it at home for it to flourish again.
That was one of the priorities after self-government was established in 2005, Lyall said, “but it’s not happening as fast as I wish it would.”
Irniq visited Rigolet as well as Happy Valley-Goose Bay where he delivered talks on Inuit history and customs and held carving workshops as well.
In September 2013, during another visit to Rigolet, Irniq gathered some people together to build an inuksuk. They shared stories about their residential school experiences and how to cope with painful memories of abuse and neglect.
He told them to save the tissues containing their tears. When they returned to the inuksuk in February, they built a fire and had a tear-burning ceremony where they dropped their tissues into the flames.
“These are tears of joy,” Irniq told them. “Last September you had tears of sadness, but the smoke went up to the heavens, telling you your pain is healing.”
His voices wavers over the phone. “I’ve been at this for 23 years. I still get emotional. It makes you go back and visit that place.”
But Nunatsiavummiut are not angry, he says.
“We are all saddened by this situation, but we are Inuit. We are resilient. We bounce back and we live life.”