'It's opened up their mind to the idea that they live in a wonderful place.'
Mississauga meets Kugaaruk
Sampling spicy Jamaican chicken curry is nothing new for 15 students from Kugaaruk, whose gusto for international cuisine grew out of a recent exchange trip to the Toronto
suburb of Mississauga.
These students, 12 to 16 years old, toured the sights of Toronto and southern Ontario as the guests of the Hillside senior public school and Clarkson senior secondary school.
Both schools have large student bodies made of people with many different cultures, languages and backgrounds.
Big Macs and shopping malls were the highlights of the trip, along with visits to the CN Tower, an indoor water park and Niagara Falls.
Jamie Ihakkaq has a Niagara Falls token as a souvenir of his tour to the falls.
Was he homesick while dealing with strange foods, heavy traffic, and, as he says, "really big, huge houses"? Not at all.
"The first night I had five phone calls saying "I want to go home,'" says Sarah Walker, one of three teachers from Kugaaruk who accompanied the group. "But by the third day you didn't hear anything, no complaints at all."
The students from Kugaaruk quickly forgot their homesickness, adapting to the urban environment and bonding with their host families.
"Our students met or exceeded our expectations in their behaviour and willingness to try new things," Walker says.
Back in Kugaaruk, teachers noticed the students now have a new perspective on life.
"They're saying, ‘Now we'd like to go and live somewhere else.' In our community, people don't leave. They don't go away to post-secondary studies. So, it's opened up their mind to the idea that they live in a wonderful place, but there are also other opportunities out there for them," Walker says.
For the Mississauga students, Kugaaruk was equally an eye-opener. Their initiation to Inuit culture started immediately on their arrival to the community. At the airport a parade of qamutiks took them to the school, where they would be billeted during the exchange.
"For me the best part was when we were all together with the Kugaaruk community and we were getting to know each other," says Sugie Suvakunar.
Suvakunar and the other Mississauga students who visited Kugaaruk earlier this month acquired a taste for Arctic char, caribou and mataaq. Along with that came an appreciation for Inuit culture.
"The whole culture is really different, how Inuit hunt for their food, and they depend on that for survival," says Tamara Kucera.
During their stay, the Mississauga students went out on the land, hiked and learned how to drum-dance in three igloos built out on the ice. Freezing at first, by the end of their one-week stay, they were shedding their parkas and feeling warm outside in a sweatshirt.
To burn off energy, the two groups of students played a mock Stanley Cup floor hockey tournament and other sports.
And the students from Mississauga went to visit the families of the students who had stayed with them back home.
The YMCA and Heritage Canada paired the schools up, covered nearly all the travel expenses involved in the exchange – about $3,000 per person – and helped pay for some of the food bought for the Kugaaruk portion of the exchange.
Three Kugaaruk teachers organized the exchange – Walker, Mike MacIntyre and Katherine Barch – but the entire community ended up helping out with the exchange.
Before being selected to go to Mississauga, Kugaaruk students had to submit an application on why they wanted to go, why they deserved to be chosen, and what they wanted to show the Toronto students about their culture.
Teachers also looked at their motivation, attendance and behaviour before selecting the final 15 who would take the trip.
The teachers who organized the exchange say the project took much more work than expected. But they say it was worth it.
The bonds formed between the students from Mississauga and Kugaaruk may last years. At the end of the visit to Kugaaruk, no one wanted to leave.
Students clung to each other at the airport, wiping away tears while swapping email addresses.
The Mississauga students want to return to Kugaaruk again, hopefully for a reunion next year.