For elders who can’t speak English, Cambridge Bay’s a lonely place
The older people gather to seek the comforts of a common language
CAMBRIDGE BAY — There’s electricity, warmth, good internet and lots of television in today’s Cambridge Bay.
But for a group of older women, just talking to each other in Inuinnaqtun about a future without their Inuit language brings tears to their eyes.
These elders, who originally came to Cambridge Bay from the nearby settlements of Bathurst Inlet, Bay Chimo, Parry Island and Wellington Bay, say they long for the snow houses and dog teams of their childhood, and the warmth of the qulliit.
Most of all, they miss the comforting sounds of their own language.
Today’s Cambridge Bay is a town of 1,500. The streets are filled with the noise of pick-up trucks, racing four-wheelers and municipal utility trucks.
Inside homes, the television is always on and English is the predominate language.
Most of those homes are overcrowded — up to 13 people or more, from several generations, sharing the same space.
That’s what life today is like for Mary Kilaodluk, Eva Otokiak, Lena Kamoayok, Mary Avalak, Anna Nahogaloak, Mabel Etegik, Annie Atighioyak and Mary Kaniak, whose ages range from about 60 to more than 80 years.
During an afternoon chat at the May Hakongak cultural centre and library, some of these women reach for tissue paper to dab the tears away.
Not that they wish to return to the early days.
The chores required for life in the first matchbox houses of the 1950s, such as cooking on wood or gas stoves and emptying honeybucket toilets, would be impossible today with so many children around, they said.
Although they love their families, those elders who learned English later in life can’t communicate now with their grandchildren, who come home speaking nothing but English.
Survival remains an issue, as well. The old lifestyle of trading what took from the land and for what you need is gone. Money now rules.
You have to pay now for your electricity, your fuel and your food. These elders say sometimes they have no money left at the end of the month to make ends meet.
“It’s a big change,” says Mary Kilaodluk, as she adds stitches to a mitten.
Elders in their 70s and 80s, who speak only broken English, can’t pass along their knowledge. Although they receive respect in Cambridge Bay, they it’s hard to make themselves understood.
Their own children understand Inuinnaqtun and talk to them, but usually in English. But their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, if they understand Inuinnaqtun at all, respond only in English.
Annie Atighioyak says her grandchildren are “consumed” with English.
And the lack of standardization in the Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun taught in school has just confused younger people who want to learn Inuinnaqtun, Eva Otokiak said.
When Mary Kilaodluk, who is much more fluent in Inuinnaqtun than in English, tries to talk to her grandchildren, the television set competes with her.
Lena Kamoayok, originally from Bay Chimo, finds life in Cambridge Bay hard.
“Cambridge Bay is lonely,” she says.
Kamoayok left Bay Chimo in 2005 because, due to health issues, she “had no choice” to leave, but she hasn’t seen the place she still holds close to her heart since then.
“I will always miss it,” she said, and she prays for “a miracle” that could let her visit Bay Chimo again.
Kamoayok spends as much time as she can with her fellow elders, speaking Inuinnaqtun, the tie that keeps these elders going.
They get together at events, such as their monthly get-togethers with Kiilinik High School students at Cambridge Bay’s Elders Palace, which draw up to 25 men and women elders, or sewing sessions with pregnant women and young mothers.
And they come several times a week at the cultural centre to talk and sew, thanks to a program with the Kitikmeot Heritage Society, which provides elders with a place, and pays them to create materials for its cultural displays and for an annual sale.
The younger women among this group of elders recall what happened when they attended school in Cambridge Bay in the late 1950s, where they were told they couldn’t speak English.
That’s how Otokiak’s English became so good that today she often interprets for the elders who don’t speak English well.
If her teacher were alive today, Otokiak said she would tell her how unjust that “English only” rule was.
“It was very rude. That was our language. That’s why we’re all mixed up in Cambridge Bay. If it wasn’t like that, we would all be speaking Inuinnaqtun,” says Mary Avalak, who attended school for only a year.
Avalak, who spent her early childhood living on the land near Wellington Bay with her parents and grandparents, living in a snowhouse in the winter, learning how to sew, how to butcher meat and later how to trap, only went to Grade One, but she still remembers being told not to speak Inuinnaqtun anymore.
During a discussion that leads to talk about how Otokiak often writes in Inuinnaqtun on Facebook, the two women say they’re still hoping that it’s not too late, that something will “click,” and Inuinnaqtun will somehow regain its strength.
with thanks to Eva Otokiak for her assistance as an interpreter