Written By: Andrea V. Breen
This October I spent a week in Arviat, Nunavut with TakingITGlobal (TIG). TIG’s co-founder, Jennifer Corriero, had been to Arviat the year before and her stories about the youth she met inspired me to join her in Arviat for this year’s Global Dignity Day celebrations. This trip was a learning mission: I was eager to learn about cultivating resilience with Inuit youth in a Northern community. As a non-Indigenous outsider from the “south” who had never been north of the tree line, I knew I had a lot to learn.
The Inuit hamlet of Arviat lies on the coast of Hudson Bay and has a population of roughly 3000 people. There are no roads connecting Arviat to other communities; boat and plane are the means of transportation in and out. It is a place where people hunt on the land for sustenance and survival, but the land is changing. In recent years, increasing numbers of polar bears have come into Arviat searching for food as thinning ice bars their access to seals and beluga. One morning we saw a mother bear and her cubs searching for food at the town dump, a sight equally beautiful and heart-breaking.
When we arrived in the Hamlet the internet had been down for four days because of a blizzard, adding technological isolation to the geographic barriers. There is no bank in Arviat, no permanent dentist or resident physician. The Health Centre handles minor emergencies but for bigger medical issues people are flown south to Winnipeg. One young woman I met will be travelling soon to give birth, as is the norm for expectant mothers in Arviat. It will be her first trip away from her community, her first time on a plane, her first time seeing trees. She will travel alone to give birth hundreds of kilometers away in the care of strangers.
We celebrated Globlal Dignity Day with Grade 11 and 12 students from John Arnalukjuak High school, an extraordinary group of students with strong leadership potential. The telepresence system installed through Cisco’s Connected North program virtually erased the vast geographical distance separating Arviat’s students from students in other parts of Canada. Arviat opened the celebrations with throat singing and we worked together to paint a beautiful canvas to illustrate the concept of tunnganarniq, which means being open, welcoming and inclusive in Inuktitut. The students seemed riveted as they listened to the Global Dignity Day speakers. Emery Rutagonya recounted his experiences as a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide and declared that “Dignity is the sister of freedom”. Ashley Callingbull, the first Canadian and first Indigenous person to hold the title of Mrs. Universe, recalled her own struggles for dignity and urged the youth to “always be proud of who we are”. The event was an inspiring example of music, art, storytelling and technology working together to foster a meaningful sense of connection.
The next day TakingITGlobal and Nunavut Arctic College hosted a community feast with the theme “Food is Belonging”. A group of youth helped us cook and Jennifer and I taught them our favorite family recipes. Some families brought fresh caribou meat. Jennifer set up art stations, including another collaborative canvas, a colouring table for younger children, and a beading table where elders and children worked together to make bracelets. People of all ages came from across the community to share in the meal, make art, and spend time together. It was a great party.
These kinds of events—where people come together to build community, play, create, and experience joy together are much more than entertainment in places like Arviat. I’m convinced they can save lives.
One of the most challenging barriers to connection in Arviat is trauma. Psychologists refer to a “cascade effect”, in which negative experiences lead to more negative experiences. Trauma impacts all areas of human development and functioning—cognition, emotions, the ability to engage in the moment and learn, the ability to have dreams and plans for the future, and physical health. Trauma is a powerful force of disconnection and it is palpable in Arviat.
There are historical traumas. One elder told us over lunch about the scars he has on his body from being whipped in residential school. We were told about mass slaughter of sled dogs in the 1950’s through 1970’s, which some believe was done intentionally to force settlement.
There is no denying the brutality of colonization, which disconnected Indigenous people from their heritage, language, and families, and the trauma of colonization lives on. Research on epigenetics is illuminating the ways that trauma shapes the genetic inheritance we pass on to our children and grandchildren. Our experiences are also transmitted through the stories that are told across generations and in the heavy silences that linger when a peoples’ stories are suppressed.
Past and present traumas swirl together in an insidious cycle that is claiming young people’s lives. Jennifer and I spent a lot of our time with a group of youth who were struggling with profound grief over a much-loved friend’s recent suicide. At the time that the Territorial Government in Nunavut declared suicide a crisis I was sitting with a boy and comforting him while he cried and shook over his friend’s death. There have been many losses in Arviat, and this most recent tragedy adds another terrible challenge for the kids of that community, who are left with grief and fear over who will be next. Right now, the main priority for many Arviarmiut is keeping the kids alive.
There are many factors to consider as we try to understand these tragedies. Loss of traditional ways, loss of identity, family violence, abuse, incest, drug abuse, inadequate housing, mental illness, rampant unemployment, climate change, and food insecurity are all critical problems. So is poverty—the living conditions I saw in some homes reminded me of what I’ve seen in the slums of Karachi. With a very large and growing youth population, all of these problems need urgent attention.
The celebrated filmmaker and Order of Canada recipient Zacharias Kunuk, told me of a very different explanation for the suicides, one which underscores how culture and narrative shape understanding. Some Elders still speak of traditional stories of shamans battling invisible evil spirits. Although many of these stories have been lost to time, some say the evil spirits are still there to claim their people.
This narrative resonates and haunts on an emotional level. It feels very much like something terrible is stalking the kids.
It is hard to imagine a more resilient people than the Inuit – they have survived for millennia in the harshest of conditions – and we saw lots of signs of hope for the future. The bright spots include the Friday night teen dances, Arviat’s incredible artists, the Arviat Film Society activities, the Leadership and Resilience Program, the Nunavut Arctic College Teacher Education program, the school classrooms, the new summer sports complex, TakingITGlobal’s ongoing connection with Arviat’s youth through the Cisco Connected North Program, and, especially, in the strong bonds of friendship among the youth who let us into their lives. Everywhere we went we found people who are striving to build on the strengths they already hold.
Many of the tools for building resilience in Arviat are in place. Technology is bringing new opportunities and possibilities for social connection alongside ancient methods for connecting people and fostering dignity that have been proven across time and cultures. Art, music, dance, sharing food and playing together are all important for healing and connecting. Perhaps most powerful of all is our ability to create and tell stories. Sharing stories helps us to understand and connect to ourselves, strengthen families, build community, and share and create culture.
The problems facing Arviat are enormous, but we cannot be paralyzed by their weight or complexity. I have been fighting off intrusive feelings of being overwhelmed by recalling the advice that one young woman gave me at Arviat’s Friday night dance when I was skeptical about joining an unofficial dance competition: “Just get in there and dance with your whole heart”. It was great advice for the dance and it’s great advice for life. Since returning from Arviat I have been energized by planning tangible ways I can work in support of and alongside Arviat’s youth to help strengthen dignity and belonging and cultivate their resilience. I also realize that my role is to share the stories of what I saw, heard and felt in Arviat so that others can better understand the crises facing this community and others in the north.
I am thankful to the youth of Arviat for letting me into their lives and their friendships and to Jamie Bell of Nunvaut Arctic College and Arviat Film Society for his genius at connecting people, his guidance and for his inspiring commitment to the youth of Arviat. I am also deeply grateful to Jennifer Corriero for taking me with her, for her extraordinary positivity, and for reminding me how much of a difference one person can make.
Andrea Breen is an Assistant Professor of Family Relations and Human Development at the University of Guelph. Her research focuses on story-telling and implications for well-being, resilience and social change; and the use of technology to enhance well-being in children, youth and families. Dr. Breen has extensive experience developing innovative educational programs in school, mental health and detention settings and she served as Chief Scientist for the parenting app, kidü. Dr. Breen completed her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology and Education at OISE/UT. She also holds a Masters degree in Risk and Prevention from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Bachelor of Education from McGill University.