Largest class ever begins a year of study at Nunavut Sivuniksavut
“There’s a different kind of silence down here”
OTTAWA — It’s a Friday afternoon at the Nunavut Sivuniksavut downtown Ottawa campus. The students, looking like any other young college types with their piercings and gelled hair, are reading history to understand the present.
The 39 first-year students have been split into two classes under instructors Daniel Guay and NS alumnus Melissa Irwin and are reading aloud the transcript of a landmark meeting of Arctic Inuit in what was then Coppermine in July 1970.
It may seem odd to read history for a modern issues class — but when it comes to Inuit written history, it’s all modern.
“You have just read the complete meeting minutes from history,” said Irwin after the students had applauded themselves. “Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, which means ‘Inuit Working Toward Unity in Canada,’ came out of that meeting. They later became ITK, ‘Inuit Are United in Canada.’”
The minutes are written like a play. Students each pick a character from their home region and read their part. Well-known elders such as Piita Irniq, who is still alive today, actually attended that meeting, making it a part of living history.
“It’s a great departure point for our classes when we start learning about land claims,” said Guay.
This is Nunavut Sivuniksavut’s biggest intake of first-year students ever and, unlike recent years which were dominated by women, the roster includes 15 men.
The majority of students range in age from 18 to 20, they come from 13 different communities, and they will spend the next eight months taking courses in history, culture, language, computers, contemporary issues, land claims and government relations.
They have all left home to learn more about home. They will also learn how to live without family support, how to budget money, how to resist alcohol and focus on school work, how to function in a city full of noise and distraction, and how to be leaders and cultural performers.
Curtis Taqqaugaq of Igloolik and Ipellie Ootoova of Pond Inlet, both 21, are two of those students. They couldn’t be more different. Taqqaugaq is emotionally raw and unsure of himself. He did a lot of hunting growing up and is making the transition now to modern education. He misses his family terribly.
“There are moments I feel so homesick, I wonder if I’ll be able to make it,” he says, eyes welling with tears. “The city scares me sometimes. I miss the sounds of all my nephews. I don’t have a parent to take care of me — that’s another struggle. There’s a different kind of silence down here.”
Ootoova, whose parents died when he was young, was raised mostly by his older brother David but nonetheless has become an independent, self-assured adult.
An actor, Ootoova has starred in several movies including the Quebec production Maïna, and John Houston’s The White Archer. He has also appeared in commercials and a short film for the Embrace Life Council.
“I wanted to learn about Inuit history,” he said about his decision to apply for the NS program. “I need to know the history of Inuit if I want to play characters in movies.”
Having lived away from home as a teenager attending Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit, Ootoova says he doesn’t really get homesick and credits sports for giving him confidence and self-esteem.
He has taken Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, or ASIST, and says he enjoys helping people talk through periods of distress. Sitting across from him, Taqqaugaq said Ootoova has already counselled him during his first week away from Igloolik.
Taqqaugaq performed with the rest of his classmates at Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami’s suicide awareness and prevention event on Parliament Hill Sept. 10. It’s a subject painfully close to him.
“I don’t consider myself different from the other youth in Nunavut,” he said when asked about the challenge of coping with life in the North. “I went through many different things. I contemplated suicide. You just have to know that people go through similar situations.”
Classroom work at NS always begins on the second week of the program, after a week-long retreat at a Quebec farm, several hours north of Ottawa.
Murray Angus, NS acting co-ordinator this year while Morley Hanson is on leave, said the retreat helps the students ease into the program and get to know each other.
They usually go back there for a week in November, he said, when the honeymoon has faded and students are homesick and stressed out.
Shauna Seeteenak, 21 of Baker Lake, is like Ootoova — she’s too excited to feel homesick yet. “I’m still trying to let it sink in that I’m living in Ottawa,” she said. “I know it’s going to be hard but I know I can do it.”
Seeteenak said she is keen to learn about her history and culture but, as a singer-songwriter, she also looks forward to performing, something the NS students do nearly every month, mostly at public events and schools.
She also feels she will become a better songwriter if she understands her own history better.
When asked who their mentors were, growing up, all three named parents, grandparents and teachers who were instrumental in helping guide them through life.
For Taqqaugaq, it was his mother Therese Ipkangnak. “She had a mouth on her that went on and on,” he said, laughing. “She said whatever she wanted. I guess I get that from her.”