Authors: Deborah Ellis
Four percent of Canada's Indigenous people identify themselves as Inuit, a word that means People. Inuit have lived in the high Arctic for more than four thousand years, creating their lives in harsh climates
hunting, fishing and building homes from materials they had on hand.
Nunavut makes up one-fifth of the nation of Canada. It is home to 80 percent of Inuit. Many live in overcrowded, substandard conditions, with global warming and mineral exploration making their traditional hunting and fishing nearly impossible.
There are also communities in the southern part of Canada, primarily in Winnipeg and Ottawa.
I met with Abigail and her friends at the Ottawa Inuit Children's Centre.
My mother was born on the land in Pangnirtung, Nunavut. It's on Baffin Island, north of Iqaluit. It's almost 100 percent Inuit. Very few white people there. Inuit have lived there for more than a thousand years.
My father was born in Orillia. His background is Scottish and Irish. I've always lived in Ottawa.
My niece Thai comes to this center too. She's my niece even though she's only one year younger. Her father was born in China.
Thai and two of her brothers live with me and my family now. She was put into a foster home when she was young, then went back to her parents, but it wasn't safe for her there, so my parents took the three of them in. One of her other brothers and one of her sisters were adopted into Inuit families. Two of her sisters still live with her mom and stepfather in Pangnirtung.
It sounds really confusing, but the bottom line is that Thai and her brothers live with me and my family. It's by the grace of God, really. They could have been split up and sent to foster homes all around Canada.
I visited Pangnirtung a few summers ago and had a bit of culture shock. I'm used to living in the big city with many things going on. Pangnirtung is very small â maybe 1,500 people â and at first I felt kind of stranded. Behind the town is the mountains and in front of the town is the bay that leads to the ocean. And that's it. Once you're there, you're there. In Ottawa, if I feel like leaving the city, I know I can hop on a train or a bus and go to Kingston or Montreal or Toronto. But in Pangnirtung there are no roads out of town. You're just there.
But once I got over that feeling, I really loved it. You can't believe how beautiful it is. The mountains are amazing. Beluga whales come into the bay to have their babies. You can spot seals and sometimes walruses.
As for the town, well, there's a community center with a museum and a library and a place for elders to go. There's a church, a Northern store that sells groceries and things, arts and crafts shops, a co-op, a hotel and that's about it.
I was there during the summer. There was 24-hour sunlight. I had to put garbage bags over the windows to be able to get to sleep. There were all these kids playing outside at one in the morning, having a great time.
I loved walking in the mountains with my sister and mom. It's the freshest air up there! And you can see for such a long way. You can see the whole community. There's water trickling down the mountains into pools. It's cold, fresh and clean. Everyone loves you up there. You're family.
I loved playing with the kids in the community. We played Inuit baseball. That's baseball without any rules! We went clam digging at low tide out in the ocean. If you find one it splashes water on your face. It was so exciting to find a jellyfish. My brother Mark caught an Arctic char. We went to the gym and played volleyball. Lots of great things.
But there were some not great things too.
My Uncle Michael was drunk a lot. It's like he has to have alcohol. It's very sad and it's hard to be around. I felt like I was walking on eggshells around him. You never know what's going on in the head of someone who's drinking. I know I was safe because I was with Mom and Gran, but I still didn't like it.
We went to church up there on Sunday mornings. The first one we went to was in the old Anglican style, reading from a book. The second one we went to was more alive â kids playing guitar, rejoicing. It was a really happy service and I loved being there.
I'd like to live up there for a while. I'd also like to be able to speak fluent Inuktitut. The language is disappearing fast. Some parents and elders and teachers are trying to keep it alive. It must be difficult for the Inuit who've always lived up there in all the quiet and beauty when they come to Ottawa where it's noisy and busy.
All my friends in Ottawa think it's really cool that I'm Inuit. My ancestors were the first people here and that gives me a huge sense of honor. Other Inuit kids I know have had people make fun of them. Some people mistake us for Mexican or Filipino or Chinese. And when I say I'm Inuit, they say, “What's that?” It's kind of funny. I feel sorry for them because they know so little.
The Inuit center is terrific because they have so much going on â daycare, language classes, camps. You can do art, fitness, hip-hop. Later today we're going on a field trip to visit other Inuit groups here in Ottawa. I think that will be good. Canadian stuff is all around here â the parliament buildings, the war museum, the prime minister's house â and that's great and easy for us to see. It will be good to meet the other Inuit groups because they're harder to find than the parliament buildings, and we might want to join them when we're older. And we'll talk about the center to them so we'll get experience in talking out in front of strangers.
I don't know yet what I want to be when I get older. I love art, singing and basketball. I also love little kids. And I feel called in my life to do something for the church, doing some reaching out to other people around the world, maybe volunteering in overseas missions, or helping people with addictions and mental illness.
I've had a really good upbringing. I've been very lucky.
The Ottawa Inuit Children's Centre (www.ottawainuitchildrens.com) works with parents and the community to foster strong and proud Inuit children, youth and families.
Off the northern British Columbia coast sit the islands of Haida Gwaii. The Haida people have occupied them for more than eight thousand years, eating off the land and the ocean, using cedars for homes and canoes and creating incredible works of art. Because the islands are so remote, the Europeans were slow to arrive. Still, from a society of more than 120 villages, by 1911 there were only 589 Haida left, clinging together in two villages.
Under Haida tradition, a person held in high esteem is not someone who has the most but someone who gives away the most. One of the big ceremonies for doing this is the potlatch
a feast at which the host gives things away.
Missionaries of the day were part of the driving force behind the 1884 amendment to the Indian Act (as well as a similar act in the United States) that made the potlatch illegal, calling for the imprisonment of anyone who organized or encouraged participation in the potlatch. That law was not repealed until 1951.
I met Cohen and his friends in a community center in Haida Gwaii.
Haida Gwaii is a real peaceful place. There's forest, clean water, ocean. If storms happen and the ferry doesn't come, we still have plenty of food. We just go outside and harvest it ourselves. My favorite food is k'aaw, which is herring eggs on kelp. There's steelhead in the rivers. They're a very fast fish. There are clams to dig. There's even octopus.
Octopus hunting is fun. You look for a rock that has a lot of crab shells around it. That tells you the octopus has been eating there. You use a trap that looks like a tube, then you use a hose to blow air under the rock to get the octopus out of its hiding place.
Octopus is called naaw in Haida. It tastes creamy on the inside. It tastes a little like clams, actually. It's rubbery on the outside.
There's crabs to eat, sea cucumbers, sea urchins. With sea urchins you peel away the red spiny parts and eat the inside. It's really salty.
We gather chanterelle mushrooms. You have to know what you're doing because if you pick the wrong kind of mushrooms you have to dump them out and all your work will be wasted. You fry the mushrooms, but you dry them first.
Our whole class goes out to the beach to gather seaweed. It has to be black with just a hint of deep green, and you pick it off a rock.
The food here is clean. We can just go outside, find it and eat it. It's not damaged by pollution. There was this great blackberry bush with huge blackberries on it, but someone accidentally dumped some oil on it, and it got contaminated. But other than that it's all clean.
On the island here it's not so much about money, because nobody really has any. It's about family and community. You know everyone on the rock. Our parents know everything that goes on with us. We don't have a problem with secrets. People here look after each other. There's always an open door. If you really don't want to be at home, someone will take you in.
You can't steal a car here because you know everyone's car, and so does everyone else, and everyone knows you. Drugs and alcohol are here, sure, but they're everywhere. I think it isn't such a problem among the Haida because we're able to keep so close to our traditions, and to practice the traditions you have to be drug and alcohol free.
My chanii [grandfather] and my nana and others ran away from the residential school they were put into. Some of the older generation like my great-grandparents looked at the residential school as a good thing, but the schools weren't as bad for them. For my nana and chanii, it was a whole lot of abuse. They were treated really badly.
My Haida teacher said we Haida are lucky. Our island is so remote that we didn't have to deal with white invaders for as long as other First Nations did. When the whites came, though, they were mean. The teacher told us about what went on at those schools, and about the Truth and Reconcilation Commission. How do people ever heal from that experience?
My mother works with residential school survivors. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has apologized, and I guess we have to accept it. I don't know. If we had done the same to whites, would the whites forgive us if we said I'm sorry?
My mother says there is no way to make up for the crimes of the past. There's only forward.
The residential schools are only part of it. The Canadian government in the past made a lot of our ceremonies and sacred things illegal. Like the potlatch. Our way of conducting business is to give gifts. When you accept the gift or eat the food provided at a feast, you are honoring the person who gives them. The acceptance is part of it. It's not I'm giving you gifts to prove I'm richer and more powerful than you. It's more I honor you by giving and you honor me by receiving.
Some potlatches can have hundreds of people. You can imagine the work. It brings the community together. All the food has to be caught and prepared. Usually there's a seafood soup or a venison stew and buns, then k'aaw or crab, and berries. The food is served on long tables decorated with cedar boughs.
At a potlatch there's always a witnessing. A blanket is sewn to honor someone and the community witnesses the honor. Then the honored person has to validate the blanket by dancing in it.
People give gifts to mark the death of a family member too. A year after you die you have a headstone raising. There has to be a ceremony at the cemetery where you clean the stone and then there's a feast, and the family gives gifts to everyone there.
At the feast and headstone raising of a chief, his family gave away cloth bags with his name on it. Inside was a chocolate bar in the shape of the chief's headgear. They'd had it made at a factory in Vancouver. Another elder who passed loved the color purple, and his family gave away gifts with a purple theme.
A few years ago some logging companies tried to come onto our land on Lyell Island. They got permits to cut down the trees, but they didn't get permission from us, and we didn't want them there. There were lots of protests and lots of people were arrested.
My dad was part of the stand-off. A lot of our parents were. My mom, my uncles. Everyone was. There were a lot of elders getting arrested and some of them went to trial. It was before my time. The Haida won, and Gwaii Haanas National Park was created.
This is very old land. In Gwaii Haanas, the south island, people are still finding totem poles and canoes that were carved hundreds and hundreds of years ago, covered up by moss and forest that's grown over them.
A lot of us go hunting, especially for deer. There's lots of deer. They're a good food source. You can really tell the difference in taste between a deer you shoot and meat you buy in a store. We all grew up skinning and gutting deer and other animals. It's not gross to us. It's a skill. It's food.
It wouldn't be that hard for me â or any of us â to live now as we lived four hundred years ago. We're already used to living off the land. We know â or, our elders know â how to use plants and animals to keep warm and dry. I know we could totally do it.