Learning off the land

Pangnirtung’s camp school marked its 10th anniversary this year — but with ice and funding drying up, many wonder how much longer it will last



A line of snow machines dragging qamutiit winds its way across the sea ice from Pangnirtung’s breakwater to the edge of the fiord and hugs the land until it reaches the site of this year’s spring camp.

Each spring for the past 10 years school children in Pangnirtung have spent varying lengths of time out on the land with elders to learn cultural and land skills first-hand.

May 10 is a special day, as the community has been invited out to the camp for a celebration of its success.

The weather is mild and snow is sporadically falling. About 25 minutes from town, the snow machines pull up on land where much of the snow has melted. Hunks of meat hang to dry from wooden frames, and canvas tents dot the area. A group of children climb a nearby hill and slide down what little snow is left. Giggles and shouts fill the air.

The camp has seen a number of changes in the past decade, from climate to student behaviour.

Siloa Metuq has been living at the campsite for the past two weeks. With her daughter Jeannie Metuq interpreting, she explains she teaches sewing to the children who don’t go out hunting and helps cook and clean up in the kitchen tent. She has also gone fishing with the students.

Siloa (who giggles when she admits her age — 76) helped at the first camp 10 years ago and says the students have become lazier and less interested in learning to sew. Nonetheless, she says the camp is just as important as when it first began because some children don’t have the opportunity to go hunting or camping anymore.

Her daughter Jeannie has also been involved with the camp and says she took time off work to go out for three days and two nights with her own 11-year-old daughter, Paulette, last year.

“It’s a relaxing break from work and town,” she says. “I want my daughter to do this because I grew up this way, camping.”

Her family wouldn’t necessarily go out camping longer than for a day trip, she says, so the spring camp is a way for Paulette to connect to the land.

Donald Mearns, the vice-principal of Attagoyuk High School and a camp organizer, says along with learning to hunt, fish and sew, the students are also collecting fish samples, which are wrapped and sent to Norway. PCBs, a chemical component of some industrial materials, have been found in the fish, Mearns explains, and scientists are now checking to see if PDBEs, a chemical flame retardant, are present in the fish as well.

In what seems a short time — 10 years — climate change has had a noticeable effect on the camp. Siloa says the spring this year is not as windy and the ice is breaking up earlier.

Mearns also says the winters haven’t been as long or as cold as they used to be. The camp used to be located about 70 miles from the end of the fiord and now it’s only about 15 or 20 miles away.

“The floe edge used to be a lot farther out,” he says, and students would have to overnight.

Because of climate change, the sea ice isn’t as thick and therefore not as safe later in the spring.

Mearns says the timing of the camp is now coming into question, as is its funding. He says it’s ironic that after 10 years and a government touting the importance of culture, language elders and youth, the school has to depend again on donations and contributions from the community.

The camp, which will see about 400 students over the span of three weeks, received $2,500 from the department of fisheries and oceans, $5,000 from the Qikiqtani Inuit Association and $17,500 from the Kakivak Association.

That money helps pay the cost of food and pays the four elders, two guides and two cooks who work for the duration of the camp. There is some money from the department of education in the school’s budget, but Mearns says it isn’t enough.

“The bottom line is I keep hearing they are worried about culture, language and heritage, but I don’t see them putting their money where their mouth is,” he says. “It’s through things like spring camp that give us an identity of what education is in Nunavut. We’re not the same as the rest of Canada, it’s a different culture.”

Mearns becomes emotional when he speaks of the difference this camp makes in students’ lives. He tells the story of a father in the community who approached him to ask if he could get some of the meat from the first caribou his daughter ever shot during camp.

“It makes parents proud of their kids,” he says.

Thirteen-year-old Karen Nashalik has been attending spring camp since she started going to school. She says learning the traditional Inuit way to do things is good.

“I love it all,” she says, explaining she has just finished four days and three nights at the camp.

“I didn’t know how to clean the caribou skin before,” she says, smiling. “Now I do.”

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