Storyteller shares Nunavut stories with Asian children

“I think they really liked us”


Storyteller and author Michael Kusugak stands in front of a statue of King Sejong in the centre square of Seoul, the capital of South Korea. (PHOTO COURTESY MICHAEL KUSUGAK)

Storyteller and author Michael Kusugak stands in front of a statue of King Sejong in the centre square of Seoul, the capital of South Korea. (PHOTO COURTESY MICHAEL KUSUGAK)

Traffic in India.

Sure the people and the sights were amazing, and so was the spicy food, but when author and storyteller Michael Kusugak thinks back on a recent three-week tour of Asia, it’s the traffic in Mumbai and Delhi that still leaves him reeling.

“It was the most incredible thing,” says Kusugak on May 12, recovering from jet lag at his home in Bowser, on Vancouver Island. “You get a sense that they have a completely different sense of the road.”

That’s an understatement: bicycles piled high with bags of goods and propane tanks; animals wandering the streets; pedestrians, bicycles and motorized rickshaws vying for space; trucks with “please honk” written on the back, beckoning motorists to honk and make themselves known.

“At first it seems crazy, but then you learn to understand the symbols,” he said. “After a while, you begin to feel comfortable in the traffic.”

From April 21 to May 11, Kusugak, with his wife Gerry Pflueger, toured India, Singapore, Macau, Shanghai and South Korea as a kind of Inuk ambassador and storyteller.

It was a great opportunity to promote his books as well. Kusugak brought hundreds of storybooks with him on the tour and sold every one.

As guests of various embassies and consulates, Kusugak visited schools, libraries and other public institutions reading from his books and telling stories about the North to wide-eyed children.

“I kept telling the kids, I come from a big place, Rankin Inlet, with 3,000 people!” he laughs. “They couldn’t get their head around that.”

He also told them how the two homelands are linked geographically: the Bay of Bengal, on the eastern coast of India, is the world’s largest bay, he said, and the second largest — Hudson Bay — is on the other side of the world, in Nunavut.

Kusugak said everywhere he went, people were mesmerized by his stories of the North and so gracious and appreciative of his knowledge.

Most of the questions from children and other audience members focused on climate change, he said. Many of the officials he spoke to were also curious about global warming, wondering when the Northwest Passage might be navigable by ship in summer.

Travelling in a country such as India teaches you about real poverty, Kusugak added.

Growing up with 11 siblings in Repulse Bay, his family had very few possessions, but didn’t consider themselves poor, he said.

But poverty and homelessness in Mumbai and Delhi was everywhere, and hard to ignore.

“You have to look away. It’s really sad. You get the idea that if you help one person, a whole group will line up behind her,” he said.

From India, Kusugak travelled to Singapore, which he said “seemed very tame” compared to the bustle and mayhem of India.

He and Pflueger spent three days touring schools and other venues there, showing off traditional items of clothing and Inuit toys, singing and drumming.

After the beauty and tranquility of Singapore, they travelled to Macau where they visited Pflueger’s niece, who teaches at an international school there along with many other Canadian teachers, Kusugak said.

From there, they went to Shanghai, China, and finally Seoul, South Korea, where Kusugak finally got a break from the equatorial heat. It was a comfortable 18-20 degrees Celsius there as opposed to 33 degrees C with high humidity in India.

His Korean handlers were especially polite, he said, and he received a lot of broadcast and print media coverage in Seoul. He said when he dressed the Korean children in Inuit clothing, their facial features and hair made them look just like Inuit.

Kusugak has travelled to Europe and Mexico before but never Asia. It’s a trip he hopes to do again one day.

“I think they really liked us,” he said. “I think we’ll go back.”

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