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Nunavut youth see the world to prepare for university

The latest program aimed at preparing Inuit youth for life in southern Canada, Nunavut Youth Abroad, exposes Inuit youth to new countries, cultures and climates.


Special to Nunatsiaq News

IQALUIT — Fourteen young people have just returned to their Nunavut communities after what one of them, 17-year old Adriana Clark of Rankin Inlet, describes as “the time of our lives.”

Five of them, including Adriana, have been doing volunteer work at a mission for the disabled in Swaziland.

The other nine have been on work placements in Nova Scotia and Ontario. All were with Nunavut Youth Abroad, a program launched last year to give students aged 16- 21 an orientation to life outside their culture and prepare them for post-secondary studies in southern cities.

The program resulted from a study carried out several years ago to find out why some Nunavut students were successful when so many others weren’t. One of the keys seemed to be the opportunity to travel outside Nunavut, whether it was for a family vacation or a sporting trip.

“The track record of kids going south to study is abysmal,” says Chris DaSilva, assistant director for programs and development with the Kivalliq Divisional Education Council in Baker Lake, who co-authored the study and helped set up Nunavut Youth Abroad.

Youth bailing out early

“Many of them bail out in three weeks or a month. The need to be with their family and extended family is remarkable. We are trying to give them skills to cope with being away from home, to deal with buses and cities and with budgeting. In the North, shopping and services are not as available as they are in the south. If you give the kids $40 it is gone in four hours on pop and friends. They need to learn how to make $40 last a week instead of just a day. This is a unique, profound and very real obstacle for youth from small, isolated northern communities.”

Housing conditions also require adjustment. In most northern communities, homes are quite crowded. The kids aren’t used to having their own room, and when they go south and find themselves in the “guest room” in their host’s home, they feel lonely.

“Acculturation” is a serious issue for the new Nunavut government, says DaSilva. “To run a government, you need certain standards and it will take people who are university-trained and going to come back with a professional approach to work.”

Nunavut Youth Abroad has a two-phase program. The first year, students spend six weeks in southern Canadian cities. The second year, a number of them are chosen to travel abroad.

Last year, in the pilot phase, 10 high schoolers were billeted across Canada — in pairs so that they would feel less isolated — and provided with volunteer work placements reflecting their career interests.

They worked as tour guides, in a media centre, at a radio station, a nursing home, a college registration department, parks and day-camps.

This year, five of them were picked for the program’s second phase: volunteer work at a mission for the disabled in Swaziland, southern Africa, stopping off en route in London, England for a few days.

Heat and humidity

Why Swaziland? “We were also looking for a country that was easily accessible and one that was cool and dry,” says DaSilva. “Nunavut kids are not accustomed to hot, humid climates.”

During a stop-over in Ottawa on her way home to Arctic Bay, 19-year-old Priscilla Allarut pointed out that July is winter time in Swaziland. She added: “I never thought I’d say this, but it’s cold in Africa. I was actually shivering some nights.”

Priscilla spent her time in Africa working with severely-disabled children and with a computer training class. Others on the trip were Roxanne Baker, 20, from Arviat, who did secretarial work in the mission’s office; Jean Kigutikakjuk, 18, from Arctic Bay, who worked in vision centre, helping people choose eyewear; and Abbygail Noah, 19, >from Baker Lake, who helped make materials and diagrams in Braille for blind students.

Adriana Clark, the only non-Inuit participant, worked in the physiotherapy and first-aid department.

While in Swaziland, the group gave numerous presentations to Rotary clubs, community and school groups. “It was kind of embarrassing explaining to the Swazi people that Inuit eat raw caribou meat (frozen), knowing that they don’t understand that tuktu is very healthy for us,” says Abbygail. “They looked at us as if we were savages.”

But the girls felt better when they found out that grasshoppers are on the menu in Swaziland.

All of them also received marriage proposals, with one prospective bridegroom offering 50 cows in bride-price. The girls explained that their fathers wouldn’t be able to keep cows alive in the Arctic.

Severe homesickness

Last year all five girls were really homesick and in tears for the first week down south. At one point organizers thought about sending them home.

But this year there were no tears. They missed their families but had outgrown the homesickness. Two chaperones, Steve Metzger and teacher Grace Okada, from Pelly Bay, who had worked in Africa some years ago, helped them adjust to the very different lifestyle.

Meanwhile the nine young people who came south for the first time this year did shed some tears. But Clifford Talotak, from Kuglugtuk, who was working as a tour guide in Fort William in Thunder Bay, had some advice at a group get-together in Ottawa at the weekend. “Don’t call home too much — then you don’t get so homesick.”

He said the program had given him a chance not only to experience a new culture, but also to meet other Nunavut youth. For many of the participants, this was their first time outside their communities.

Partners in Nunavut Youth Abroad include Nunavut’s three divisional education councils, Canadian Crossroads International which has helped with logistics, and the regional Inuit associations.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and the Nunavut territorial government are major funders of the program, which is costing $150,000 per year. Support has also come from Canadian North Airlines, some northern communities, and the Federation of Nunavut Teachers.

Keith Irving, of Iqaluit, a member of the volunteer group organizing the program, was in Ottawa at a re-orientation session for the 14 young people prior to their return home.

More money please

“Funding is one of our biggest problems,” Irving pointed out. “We got word that we had funding for the placements in Canada just a few days before the young people were due to go south. We would like to expand the program — we had 80 applications this year — but we must have secure funding first.”

Students wishing to participate must do a number of preliminary assignments and raise $700 from their communities. They receive high school credits for participating.

Adriana says that the people in Swaziland were fascinated with Nunavut, especially the snow. One evening local high school students sang traditional songs for Nunavut group.

“It was breathtaking,” says Adriana. “They are all amazing singers?they taught us to dance and to the songs they sing. It was really neat and we all had a blast. That is the reason we came on this trip — to learn a different lifestyle and try a different culture while teaching them ours. This is a summer we’ll never forget!”

The visit to Africa has helped several of the five decide on career goals. Adriana is considering physiotherapy, Abbygail thinks art or business management might be her career, while all the girls agree that Priscilla should become a politician. She’s considering enrolling at Trent University. “One day she’ll be our premier,” the girls predict.

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