Coming North

Taissumani: 2008-05-09

By Kenn Harper

In my last year of high school, I decided that I would go to teachers' college and become an elementary school teacher. I couldn't afford university without borrowing, and I didn't relish the thought of graduating with a pile of debt.

In those days, the early 1960s, there were too many students and not enough teachers, so teachers were trained quickly. Ontario had Grade 13 in those days, and after that it took only one year of training to be a teacher. No university degree required. So at the age of 18, I started teaching Grade 5 in Toronto.

While still in teachers' college I had applied for a job in the Arctic, but, having no experience I wasn't accepted. I settled down in Toronto, got married, and we had a son.

Three years later I tried again. The federal government's annual advertisement appeared in the Toronto newspapers – ï¾’Teach in Canada's Northland.モ I spruced up my meagre resume and sent it off to Ottawa. In due course I got a call to schedule an interview when a team of recruiters would be in Toronto. I had no idea at the end of that day whether I would be considered or not.

We were asked to list, in order of preference, the three communities we would like to teach in. Of course I knew nothing about any northern communities, but I had to list something, so I chose Spence Bay (now Taloyoak), Gjoa Haven and Pelly Bay (now Kugaaruk.) I'd seen their names in books and they seemed as good a choice as any.

Weeks went by and I began to think that I'd been passed over again. Then one day there was a call over the school intercom for me to come down to the principal's office – there was an important call for me from Ottawa. As I walked down to the office, I knew that this would either be a life-changing conversation or a terrible let-down.

I took the phone. Wilf Booth was on the line. He was a District Superintendent in Ottawa, a gruff-speaking man with a game leg, straight-forward to the point of bluntness. A hard case, I thought when I had met him at the interview. I later came to know him as a man whose rough exterior camouflaged a warm heart and a genuine interest in his staff and their students.モ

ï¾’"We've got a position for you in the North if you're still interested in going," he said, getting right to the point. "It's teaching beginners, and Grades 1 and 2, in a two-room school."

I told him I was still interested and asked him where the job was.

"It's on Broughton Island," he replied. "Do you know where that is, and do you want the job?"

I assured him that I knew a great deal about Broughton Island, and that it was right near the top of the list of places where I wanted to live. I accepted the offer on the spot.

"Good," he responded. "You're on. We'll send you a contract in the mail, but you can consider yourself hired on the basis of this phone call, so you'll have time to resign from your present job. There will be an orientation course in Ottawa in mid-August. You'll need to be there."

And that was it. My life-changing phone call was brief and to the point.

I spent the rest of the morning trying to find Broughton Island on a map for, in fact, I hadn't the slightest idea where it was. I searched the Keewatin coast. I searched the Arctic coast of what is now the Kitikmeot Region. I searched the Mackenzie Delta.

On maps of the time, there wasn't much detail and on most maps of Canada that showed Baffin Island at all, there were usually only two places shown. And they weren't Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit) or Pangnirtung, the largest communities. They were Kivitoo and Padloping. Kivitoo, north of Broughton Island, was a DEW-line site, and Padloping had been a U. S. Navy radio site during the war.

I spent well over an hour searching for Broughton Island on the school maps. All the while the principal from whose school I was resigning was trying to talk me out of going to a place so small it wasn't even on a map!

Eventually I found it, nowhere near where I expected, a tiny speck of humanity off the east coast of Baffin. In a few months it would be home.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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