Umiujaq hosts deaf students from South

The sounds of silence


The feel of a bumpy komatik ride over the sea ice and the taste of raw goose – these are among the distinctly northern sensations that a group of deaf students from Belleville, Ontario, experienced during a recent exchange trip to Umiujaq.

Hands-on activities, ranging from bannock-making to Inuit sports, allowed 10 students and four teachers from Sir James Whitney School for the deaf to learn about Inuit culture.

And, at the same time, the deaf exchange students also shared their special culture and sign language with this Hudson Bay community of 315.

During a trip out on the land, the students helped set up a tent, watched a demonstration of how to butcher a Canada goose and then sampled tender, raw goose meat from the wings.

A scavenger hunt saw them combing the land to find 10 different items, such as a flat rock, a red rock, three branches, 10 rabbit feces, a bug and 10 red berries.

The students' initiation to seal hunting didn't produce a catch. But the day spent at the camp, warmed by fresh warm bannock and storytelling, left a powerful impression on the group, said Linda Ritchey, principal of Sir James Whitney School.

Ritchey, who worked with the Kativik School Board until 2006, accompanied her students to Umiujaq.

The exchange students also attended classes at Kiluutaq School, where there are two deaf students.

Learning Inuit sports was a hit, said Jonathan Nicoll, a Sir James Whitney teacher.

"They really loved leg-wrestling, arm-wrestling and the one-leg high kick. The students learned and played with local teens who were teaching us these games," he said.

The exchange students also shared their own deaf culture at a community gathering, telling deaf jokes through American Sign Language, translated into English and Inuttitut.

"They have a fight and she goes into their hotel and she drives away," goes one joke about a deaf couple on their honeymoon.

"Much later, after he cools off, he comes back and asks himself ‘how am I going to know what room she's in?' He honks the horn and lights go on all over the hotel except in one room. So he knows she's there."

The students also taught younger kids in Umijuaq how to make some signs. Afterwards, they signed at their "teachers" when they saw them around town.

To thank their hosts, Sir James Whitney School presented a large blue clock to the community. Used by the deaf, the clock features bright yellow sign language symbols instead of numerals to mark the hours.

People in Umiujaq went out its way to welcome the exchange, say organizers, taking care to look out for two of the students. These two also had low vision and used white canes to find their way around town.

Several Umiujaq residents, such as Paul Anawok, an ALS interpreter, tutor and deaf student coordinator with the KSB, are already proficient in sign language, which uses hand signs for concepts or words.

But Nunavik's version of ASL has about 100 special signs, which were developed by deaf adults in the region.

These signs are for things you see in Nunavik – a co-op store, kamiks or water trucks – which the deaf exchange students also picked up during their stay.

By far, the most challenging aspect of the exchange resulted from changes to plans due to poor weather, hunting or flight schedules.

The 30 boxes of food ordered for the group didn't show up until the day before they left for home. Then, their departing flight was delayed.

So teachers divided the students into two teams to make inuksuit. Local police constables then evaluated the appearance of the inuksuit and threw stones at them to test the stability.

The inuksuk that remained intact won.

Exchanges Canada and the YMCA Youth Exchanges Canada, which promotes "cross-cultural awareness and a sense of belonging" among youth 12 to 17, is paying for the exchanges between the deaf Belleville and Umiujaq students.

In October, the exchange will bring the deaf students from Nunavik to Belleville, from where they may travel to see a Shaw Festival play accompanied by ASL interpretation, visit an adventure training centre and see a movie with rear-window captioning.

This system allows the deaf to follow a movie through captions that aren't visible to the rest of the audience – something that's unheard of in the North.

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