Ottawa-area Inuit elders gather online to beat pandemic blues

·3 min read
Ottawa-area Inuit elders gather online to beat pandemic blues
Elders wave hello during one of their regular Zoom gatherings. Ina Zakal said she hopes the virtual meetings can go on even after the pandemic is over.
Elders wave hello during one of their regular Zoom gatherings. Ina Zakal said she hopes the virtual meetings can go on even after the pandemic is over.

(Submitted by Janice Messam)

When communities in Nunavut were hit with COVID-19 outbreaks for the first time late last year, a small group of Inuit elders thousands of kilometres away gathered to pray for their families — on Zoom.

"We all came together and supported one another and prayed," said Deborah Tagornak, elders consultant with Inuuqatigiit Centre for Children, Youth and Families.

The centre handed out laptops and taught elders in the Ottawa area how to use the video chatting platform. They started their virtual gatherings in November.

"[It was] to remind ourselves and our families that we care for them, and we think about our relatives that are in the North," Tagornak said.

It's helping us in our soul. - Ina Zakal, Inuk elder

Praying is just one of the activities the elders now do together virtually. They also sing hymns, share stories, show off their latest beading projects and check up on one another, all in Inuktitut.

Community gatherings are an important part of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or traditional knowledge, said Tagornak, so the pandemic's restrictions meant they had to find a new way to get together.

"Previously, elders used to meet during lunch hour together [in person]," said Tagornak, who runs the Zoom meetings every two weeks.

The gathering started off with about 20 participants, but now includes 30 elders from Ottawa and nearby communities including Plantagenet and Oxford Mills townships.

'Helping us in our soul'

"[When] Deborah called me about the Zoom meeting … the first thing I asked was, 'What is a Zoom meeting?'" said Ina Zakal, who's originally from Pangnirtung, Nunavut. "I was like a little kid learning.... I said to her, 'What are we gonna do? We're just gonna look at the box?'"

Eventually, Zakal said she learned to love the new way of gathering.

"Today, I cannot wait to see you guys," said Zakal, addressing her fellow elders. "I can be excited now about the box."

Zakal said her favourite memory so far has been sharing her childhood memories of Christmas.

"To go back to childhood for a bit, that's beautiful," she said. "It's helping us in our soul."

Aigah Attagutsiak from Arctic Bay, Nunavut, said she's still struggling to learn English, so these gatherings mean a lot to her.

"Living in Ottawa, like, I working with not-Inuit people all the time now," explained Attagutsiak. "When I meet with my people and could use my own language, it's bonus for me. I am so happy."

Submitted by Janice Messam
Submitted by Janice Messam

The Inuuqatiigit Centre further helps the elders by providing them with sewing materials and traditional tool-making kits, country food and phone top-ups to help them connect with family in the North.

Janice Messam, the centre's manager of family well-being, said the whole community suffers if its elders aren't doing well.

"They're always seen as the givers, but they're now being ... supported," explained Messam, adding that the centre is able to run these programs thanks to funding from the federal government and United Way.

Zakal said she hopes the virtual meetings can go on even after the pandemic is over.

"I live outside of Ottawa, but I feel like I live with these lovely people every week because of Zoom meeting," she said. "I would love to see this [keep] going because it helps each one of us."