Creating community amid the isolation of COVID-19
Stories of connection during the lockdown
While COVID-19 isn’t present in Nunavut, the possibility of the pandemic has changed the way people live, as it has everywhere.
It started in mid-March. Everything, it seemed, closed. From libraries, schools and daycares to restaurants and bars to gyms, swimming pools and ski huts. People had to learn to work from home and create and teach lessons to their children.
At first, people stood awkwardly and giggled while standing two metres apart in the lineup at the grocery store. Now it is second nature.
Cancellations rolled in, starting with the Arctic Winter Games, then the Nunavut Quest, the Alianait Arts Festival, Toonik Tyme and the Terence Tootoo memorial tournament.
Fishing derbies are still allowed but the winners’ names are to be announced over the radio. There’s no congregating to see who caught the biggest fish, and no community feast.
People are encouraged to stay away from each other. The anxiety over the loss of income for some and general uncertainty about the future, coupled with loneliness, can be crippling.
But people gravitate towards togetherness for survival. Despite the isolation and cancellations, we’ve found ways to connect, create community and share skills and messages of love and hope.
The pandemic has stopped many people in their tracks and forced them to reevaluate their values, plans and priorities.
What follows is a tiny sliver of that, showing what a few people are doing to stay connected and positive in their outlook.
The path to Sijjakkut
Sheila Flaherty is a chef who makes dishes like Arctic char sushi rolls; maktaaq (whale skin and blubber) marinated in lemon, pepper and olive oil, then skewered and barbecued; Peking duck made with locally harvested ducks; pasta infused with kuannik (seaweed); and aqpik gelato, which she is still perfecting.
Aqpik, or cloudberry, is her favourite berry. She made a batch of the gelato, but it was too sweet. She is trying to figure out how to capture the flavour of the berry without overpowering it with sugar.
Ultimately she wants to sell the perfected aqpik gelato out of a professional home kitchen in Iqaluit, under the business name Sijjakkut.
Flaherty has been following a path that her passion for food has laid out for her. Her initial idea was to be Chef Sheila, a caterer who would offer food delivery.
In the time before COVID-19, a series of events—creating the menu for A Taste of the Arctic in 2019; flying to Nuuk to share ways to cook country food with other chefs; providing and cooking country food for events hosted by Canada Goose in Toronto and New York City; and becoming a member of a cohort of northern entrepreneurs with EntrepreNorth—led Flaherty to think big.
“This catapulted me to a new focus, beyond local food delivery,” she said.
“I want to attract people to come to the Arctic to get a taste of the Arctic here.”
In 2020, the goal was to consciously shift from Chef Sheila to Sijjakkut, which means “by the seashore.”
Lately, the path to this transformation has petered out in some spots, and led to dead ends in others.
Before COVID-19 hit, Flaherty was working to create her brand and business plan.
“We were going to morph to focus on tourism and tasting menus,” she said.
Then COVID-19 hit.
“It led me from feeling ecstatic about the process to letting the air out of my sails overnight,” she said.
The near future doesn’t bode well for a business that will depend on visitors.
“It seems like the tourism industry is shot right now,” Flaherty said.
But, there is a local demand for food.
“We’re all self-isolating,” Flaherty said. “We want variety.”
A Government of Nunavut food inspector told her that as an Inuk she doesn’t need an inspection or licence to sell country food from her home.
But Flaherty doesn’t want to be limited to selling country food.
“There’s other food I make that people really like,” she said. “Like cinnamon buns and lasagna.”
Flaherty wants to retrofit her porch into a kitchen that will be GN-approved, so she can sell legally sell any food from her home business.
But she recently found out that she isn’t eligible for CanNor business grants, because Sijjakkut isn’t yet operational.
“That was such a frigging bummer. Now what?”
That has led her back to the original plan of selling country food from her kitchen. Because Flaherty’s a city councillor, she wants to lead by example and operate as Sijjakkut. It’s an incorporated business with a food safety certificate, and is certified as a safe workplace.
She’s emailing the GN again to get a definition of country food. If she makes cinnamon buns with aqpik, is that country food? If she makes lasagna with ground caribou, is that country food?
Flaherty is also looking for money elsewhere. She submitted an expression of interest for funding for projects that are spearheaded by Indigenous women.
“I don’t give up easily,” Flaherty said. “If I have a vision, I will do everything in my power to make it happen.”
Right now, things are on hold.
She spent Wednesday smoking Arctic char, taking a “thinking break.” She’s still on the path to Sijjakkut, but COVID-19 has made it complicated.
Flaherty’s had to dig down to the bare bones of her intentions: what does it mean to be offering her versions of country food? She’s realizing it’s her way to create community and connect with people. Under the confines of the pandemic, that’s for Iqaluit only. But eventually, she hopes it will be for anyone who wants to come to the Arctic.
Sharing Inuit language and culture online
Becky Han isn’t a teacher, but she’s trying to figure out how to keep her children engaged with learning while they’re stuck at home.
“I think a lot of parents are in the same boat, you’re just trying your best and navigating this unknown territory,” Han said.
Han was born in Iqaluit and raised in Arctic Bay. Now the musician lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, with her two children, who are eight and 12.
To face the fear of the unknown brought up by the pandemic—“you don’t know how much effect it’s going to keep creating, or how long it’s going to be”—Han threw her energy into creating a structured, safe household.
She also wanted to find a way to reach out to the many other households in the same situation. She did that by recording herself reading a story in Inuktitut and in English.
“I was like, this could be a good experiment, testing the waters to see if there’s even interest for this kind of thing,” she said.
Her friends on social media were excited to have the audio story available, and it’s important for her to share Inuktitut stories. Han already has a presence on Twitter, sharing an Inuktitut word of the day.
“I want to practise, I want to share, I want to create,” she said.
The pandemic has forced her to come up with ways to teach her children, and her pride in her language and culture led her to share.
“It feels fantastic,” she said. “It’s a sense of community, and when I see people commenting or saying it made their day … it feels really, really good.”
Han is used to accessing her community through social media, and the pandemic has driven home the value of this platform for her. She imagines what it would be like without social media.
“You’d have your landline, sure, or your shoddy dial-up internet,” she said.
“But now you get to FaceTime or watch videos or listen to audio books, and I’m thankful for that.”
Emily Stockley was on her last day of 14 days of mandatory self-isolation in her Iqaluit home back in March, before the isolation hubs were set up in the south.
“It’s really up and down,” she said of her mental state.
Things that didn’t directly affect her would mess with her mind, like when the GN put restrictions on who could enter Nunavut.
“That was a bad day for me, for whatever reason, I was like, ‘this is just so serious.’”
As a single person, apart from going for walks with friends and having people bring her groceries, she was totally by herself.
In order to create a community, offer something to other people experiencing the ups and downs of isolation, and empower herself, Stockley started to livestream herself doing yoga classes from her living room.
Yoga was the perfect activity to turn to, from her perspective. It offers physical movement, meditation, as well as something intrinsic to the practice called “sangha” in Sanskrit, which translates to “community.”
“I try to embody this when I teach on a regular basis, no matter where I’m teaching, that it’s community as well,” Stockley said.
In the past, Stockley has taught yoga classes for Atii Fitness at the racquet club in Iqaluit. Since people already know her in the context of yoga, she thought that offering the classes would create a sense of normalcy, for the community and for herself.
She is a lawyer and has very few files right now. “So my day has lost total structure,” she said.
Assuming other people are in the same situation—“and that’s the nature of humanity, that we are more similar than we are different”—Stockley thinks that offering a schedule and a familiar face doing a familiar activity is beneficial during the pandemic.
“There is a little bit of a sense that I am desperate to find a way to be useful in this time,” she said.
Stockley had been livestreaming classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at noon. The videos stay up after the classes are over and can be found on Facebook on the page “Iqaluit yoga while classes are canceled.”
She’s been running into some trouble with the internet and wasn’t able to keep offering classes as regularly as she would have liked, but everything she’s done remains online.
Re-discovering Iqaluit through the lens of the pandemic
Lisa Milosavljevic is a photographer in Iqaluit who wanted to find a way to mark this moment in time. The pandemic.
Her freelance projects were halted. She had a bit of work through her job with the Nunavut Film Development Corp. She was about to travel through the territory facilitating training workshops, but that was cancelled. In March she was “pretty much homebound, and still trying to find ways to be creative.”
She tried to figure out how she could keep photographing people, while honouring the distancing measures that are meant to keep the community safe.
“Maybe I could do a portrait either outside at a distance, or through a window at their home,” she said.
Many photographers, including some in Whitehorse, Inuvik and Yellowknife, came up with the same idea, seemingly simultaneously. Porch portraits really took off at the start of the pandemic.
“The message behind it is really nice, I think it creates this sense of solidarity between neighbours in our town.”
Milosavljevic posted a message to Facebook, on the Iqaluit public service announcement site.
That got deleted so she posted to the sell/swap page. The post was really popular and she photographed four families on the first day.
“I am actually meeting more people now than I would have before this whole self-isolation,” she said.
It’s also caused her to see Iqaluit differently.
“Now I’m walking around the neighbourhood and see a four-coloured house, and I’m like, ‘Oh! I really hope I get to do that portrait.’”
People have made changes to their daily lives to follow the Government of Nunavut’s restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Milosavljevic sees encouraging unity in this.
“The power comes from the fact that we’re doing this all together,” she said.
Milosavljevic wants to exhibit the pandemic portraits that she has permission to share in a public space when this is all over.
“When it’s in our past we’ll have something to reflect on and have a moment of time that’s been recorded.”
For now, the photographs are displayed online.
In early April, the Professional Photographers of Canada recommended a halt to porch and window portraits during the pandemic. Milosavljevic said the group of northern photographers she was in communication with had “mixed feelings” about continuing, but they all recognized that the logistics of the project were taking a personal toll on them. They all stopped or slowed down the taking of portraits, which is why Milosavljevic has taken fewer portraits than her original goal of at least 100.
‘Life is too short for frostbite on your face’
Lori Tagoona is spending her time in isolation with her five-year old panik (daughter). She’s sewing so much that she has to remember to go outside when it’s nice out.
Tagoona lives in Iqaluit and works for Tides Canada, and she’s one of four people behind the apparel company Hinaani Design.
When the pandemic hit, the Hinaani team was on working on fulfilling a contract for Adventure Canada, and another for a British museum, their first international order.
Now the contracts are cancelled and their website is temporarily closed, because their Montreal manufacturer is shut down.
Tagoona said this has forced the company “back to the drawing board” to think about new designs, to apply for grant money, and to even consider things like, “How do we start taking on more of the manufacturing in-house? Doing it ourselves?”
Tagoona has been meditating on self-reliance during the pandemic.
In mid-March, “I was totally consumed by fear,” she said.
Her limbic system kicked into gear.
“I was feeling pressure to stock up on dry goods, make sure I have enough fuel for my Ski-Doo, make sure I have enough clothing for me and my panik if we have to go to the cabin.”
Paired with not being able to physically connect with other people, Tagoona was lost in her thoughts. “And if you’re not careful, your mind can be a super scary place to be.”
Tagoona focused on sewing and reflected on food sovereignty.
“Inuit have the know-how to harvest our own food,” she said.
The first thing the GN did when the lockdown became a reality was allocate money to the hunter and trappers associations around the territory, so they could provide food to communities. “That’s a great response,” Tagoona said.
Just as the pandemic is forcing Tagoona and her partners to think about Hinaani’s purpose, and re-evaluate the values behind the company, Tagoona is doing the same for herself.
“Right now, in today’s society, having an intimate relationship with the environment, it’s not crucial to your survival.”
But if the pandemic reaches the Arctic, “the people who have that are going to be fine.”
If governments want to support northerners, they should invest in our continued relationship with the land, Tagoona said.
The pandemic “sheds a light on the fact that the solutions are here.”
Tagoona is envisioning an ideal future in other ways, combining the goals of intimacy with the land with her visions for the future of Hinaani Designs.
“I’ve always thought about how awesome it would be if Hinaani can start making products that are super helpful for our land-based lifestyle.”
She wants to make clothes that are functional for outdoor activity in the Arctic that look good, such as a mask that she designed to protect her face from the cold while she’s snowmobiling.
“I got wicked frostbite three weeks ago, and life’s too short to have frostbite on your face,” she said.
She used layers of leather, fleece and a Hinaani scarf.
It could double as a facemask to protect other people from germs she may be spreading.
Despite the deep fear she felt at the beginning of the lockdown, Tagoona jokes that she’s more afraid of frostbite than she is of getting COVID-19, and that the face mask is a form of satire, critical of the fear that’s gripping society.
The performance clothing line is something she’s only dreamed about, maybe vocalized to two other people. “Then with this slowdown, the ski mask, in my head as I’m making it, I’m like, I feel like people would buy this.”
She’s also working on hats, using a pattern from her grandmother, mitts that are super warm and good for long hunting trips, and she’s taking apart snow pants to try to figure out the best way to reconstruct them—some her mom made, a sealskin pair, and a pair of store-bought snowmobiling pants.
As she sews, she daydreams about production, about hiring people to make copies of the prototypes she develops, and about making a living from the skills passed down through her family of seamstresses.
“I want to reach their level of proficiency or excellence. I’m not there yet. I want to get there.”