Although we often think of this vast part of the country as an endless stretch of snow and ice, the diversity of its landscapes is staggering: fjords, canyons, islands on a frozen ocean covered in translucent ice revealing waters of infinite shades of blue akin to the seas of the South, immaculate and untouched ice fields.
The Arctic Archipelago is astonishing, and those who have made it their home welcome visitors with open arms, eager to offer the best of themselves. When the time comes to share a meal, it should come as no surprise that they offer you the heart, just as they did at the community feast in Rankin Inlet, which has caused such an uproar. The dishes, featuring the bounty of the sea and the land, caught and hunted by the people themselves, are presented with care, not on tables but on the ground: caribou, Arctic char, muskox, beluga and, of course, seal. The oldest women, the community’s female elders, were delighted to be able to teach me the art of using the ulu, a traditional knife that they have been using since time began to cut meat and prepare skins and furs. Two seals that had been hunted that day and had already been eviscerated were the prime offerings to be shared among the entire community. That meat, which is incredibly fresh, is prized for its delicate flavour and as a high source of protein and vitamins, so essential to ensure survival in such a harsh environment with so little vegetation.
I will never forget the enthusiasm of those women, their pride, their laughter, the spirit of celebration. Cathy Towtongie guided my hand and told me about the hunt, about life, sharing, her ancestral culture, respect for the ancestors, which includes offering the animal’s heart, that most delectable part most often reserved for women. As we spoke, I also ate part of the heart, and in that simple gesture, there was recognition, dialogue, solidarity and connection.
In each of the communities that we visited, from Nunavut to Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, my husband, our daughter, our team and I found women, men and youth who, with endless imagination and determination, are helping to build strong and lasting social bonds. Many challenges lay ahead, and each one of these communities is trying to rise to meet those challenges by putting forward their own solutions and with the support of professionals from across Canada who have chosen the North and have integrated seamlessly into the northern way of life.
This is something that we don’t talk about nearly enough, that ability of Inuit communities to welcome diversity and differences. These once nomadic peoples seem to pay little heed to borders or barriers. You can see it in the way they relate to others, in their patience, their desire to communicate and to offer everything they have, their ability to establish an instant bond with others, to say nothing of the abundance of smiles!
I wanted this to be a tour of hope. I wanted to talk about development that respects human beings. Above all, I wanted to listen to the dreams of those who inhabit this part of the country, where young people under 20 often make up more than 60% of the population. Those youth for whom post-secondary education likely means leaving their parents, families and friends to head south, where the points of reference are no longer the same. So few of them have taken that path and found success, so inaccessible does that option seem to them. But they dream no less of becoming doctors, biologists, environmentalists, historians, filmmakers, architects, natural resource specialists—those professions that are so essential to northern development, to the vitality of the accomplishments and projects of the Government of Nunavut, created 10 years ago.
Everywhere I went, people told me of a dream to one day see a university in the North to complement the three colleges in Nunavut, Yukon and the Northwest Territories. A university that would be a major tool for development, a bridge between the North and the South, just like in Finland, Norway, Greenland, Sweden, Alaska, and Iceland. Canada is the only northern State that does not have a university campus offering a full range of programs in the Far North.