An exchange of ideas

Ontario students get a taste of traditional Inuit food, history and survival skills during 10-day exchange with Pond Inlet students



Carmen Evans puckers her lips and wonders aloud about the fate of her unfinished igloo.

Undeterred by the dome’s asymmetry, the 17-year-old exchange student from Guelph, Ont. returns to trimming the waist-high snow wall with a knife. While other Canadian teens were reaching for remote controls that sunny Sunday, Evans and 19 classmates were reaching for saws and knives to cut blocks of snow.

Akoela Kautainuk, a respected hunter and school teacher in Pond Inlet, led the igloo-building workshop April 14 — one of a dozen Arctic activities organized during the April 10-20 exchange at Nasivvik High School.

“The igloo didn’t turn out the way I thought,” Evans said, dropping herself on a parked snowmobile at the end of the day. The hillside before her looked like a battlefield of snow-slabs. In some cases, the blocks formed recognizable winter homes. Other structures looked like smashed wedding cakes.

“It was hard work, really hard,” Evans said of the exercise.

Hard, but inspiring, lessons are what the 20 Grade 10 and 11 students and three supervisors from Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute experienced while living with Pond Inlet students and families. The northern teens reunite with their southern chums in Guelph on May 10.

Organizers hope the two groups learn more about Canada and one another through the cross-cultural exchange — the first of its kind ever to come to Pond Inlet.

Mike Griffioen knew more about common denominators than qamutiks when he arrived. Three days into the exchange, the tall, lanky teen not only knew what the wooden sleds looked like. He knew he’d rather pull one with a snowmobile than sit on the back of one — as was the case during a six-hour trip to the Ikpiarjuk snow caves.

“This is like a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Griffioen said during a game of outdoor soccer on a field of snow. “The best thing so far? Climbing an iceberg and a mountain.”

The highlight, if not the greatest hardship, was a two-night camp out on the land in -40 C temperatures. Almost all the Guelph students had undertaken some form of fair-weather camping in Ontario. Pitching a tent on sea ice, hours from a phone, toilet or light switch was a first.

“I just hope I don’t freeze my toes off. I’ve got good boots, I should be OK,” Griffioen said the day before the trip.

In the days leading up to the camp out, the two groups skied to a nearby iceberg, slid down a mountain, nibbled on fish eyeballs, listened to elders tell stories, and participated in a mini Arctic Winter Games.

On the third day, the Guelph students and their 20 Pond Inlet counterpart huddled onto qamutiks and jostled toward the underground ice caves, first stopping at an old grave site.

That day, the same southern students who take Big Macs and bowling alleys for granted, were dressed in caribou skins and seal-skin kamiks. After spending an hour exploring the caves with their billets, participants dove into steaming bowls of char soup and caribou stew. The ride home was peppered with numerous stops.

“One girl asked me ‘how do you pee on the land,’” said a smiling Pond Inlet student, Namie Komangapik.

Eighteen-year-old Komangapik, and her friend, Phyllis Kanayuk, were thrilled to be hosting the visiting students. The girls said their counterparts were always wanting to help with dishes and were very polite.

When asked about the biggest differences between the two groups, the two Pond Inlet teens listed three main distinctions: the southern teens don’t smoke, have never been pregnant, and have much to say.

“They talk a lot. They never stop talking,” said a bemused Kanayuk.

The two Pond Inlet girls said they’re looking forward to shopping and sightseeing while in the south next month.

The idea of an exchange surfaced when Guelph teachers Brian Cluff and Lloyd Lewis were driving through Ontario’s rural Haliburton region in May last year.

A couple of phone calls and a lengthy application process later, Exchanges Canada approved the $100,000 required to fly both groups to and from their respective communities. Each group undertook creative fundraising campaigns to generate an additional $20,000 for activities such as feasts, snowmobile trips, baseball games and a trip to Much Music.

Nasivvik teacher Pat McDermott was already thinking about a student trip when Cluff called.

“We wanted to make it a learning experience for the students. Something they can use later in life,” McDermott said. “This has been excellent. Everything went really well.”

As the trip rolled to a close, the Guelph students were shaking their heads at their good fortune. The Guelph teens said anyone considering a similar exchange should borrow the Nike motto and “Just do it.”

“You’ll have a blast,” said Heather Patterson who was gearing up for a game of indoor soccer.

“It’s funner than I thought, and not as cold,” said Genevieve Millar.

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