Being Inuit living in Ontario can make you feel disconnected from your heritage.
That's why seven Inuit high school students from Ottawa went to experience life in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, in May as part of a program run by the Inuuqatigiit Centre for Inuit Children. It's a learning support group for Inuit youth aged six to 18 in Ottawa who are doing school online.
It started with students attending three "educational hubs" of about 10 students each for elementary, middle school and high school during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. The students could go there to be supported in virtual learning by an educator, an educational assistant, and a cultural educator. As well, each day they'd spend 30 minutes on Inuktitut lessons and 30 minutes of cultural programming.
Daniel Fyfe, the manager of the Inuuqatigiit Centre, said they decided to continue the program when they noticed the success they had, particularly in making a culturally safe space for students. Student attendance was going up in the program, even before the pandemic, he said.
"We were starting to see attendance going from maybe 50 – less than 50 – per cent to over 90 [per cent]," he said.
One of the educators in the program worked in Pangnirtung for four years, Fyfe said, and was able to connect the high school group with a class in the small Nunavut hamlet.
The students from Ottawa and Nunavut became like pen pals, Fyfe said, sending pictures of each others' communities, and finally, organizing a trip for the Ottawa students to visit them. He said federal grants helped fund the trip.
A return home
"It was just an unbelievable experience for not only the youth, but the staff too," he said of their May trip. "The kids took everything in."
He said the trip was originally planned to happen earlier, but was delayed by COVID-19.
"For all seven of them, they haven't been back home in many, many years or back in the North," Fyfe said.
He said there were two youth who were from Pangnirtung who hadn't been back for three or four years – since either one of them was six years old, Fyfe said.
"It was nice for them to see family, connect with family and share that experience with them."
They had planned a full week of activities, he said.
The first three days, after their flight to Pangnirtung from Iqaluit was cancelled, meant they got to explore Nunavut's capital. Fyfe said they stayed in a cabin in Iqaluit, took a tour of Arctic College, and were even invited to the home of Iqaluit business executive and former bureaucrat, Victor Tootoo, for dinner.
When they got to Pangnirtung, the group took skidoos through the mountains.
"The kids were just wide-eyed. It was a wonderful experience," Fyfe said. "On the way back, it was a little cold, but awesome."
The group attended a class at the local school along with a school dance, so that the two groups could interact and build relationships with the local students. They also hunted, hiked, took part in an art workshop and went to a community potluck and bonfire.
"Being connected to the land, and having that opportunity was truly remarkable."
Fyfe said they hope to have youth from Pangnirtung down to Ottawa for a visit and to take more students in the coming years to Nunavut. The educational hubs are set to run for another two years, with hopes that will extend too.